Progressive Urbanism and its Discontents in Oakland

This post first appeared on Project Oakland on September 5, 2012.

From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive
Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011
by Robert Stanley Oden
Cognella Academic, June 2012, 352 pages

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Oakland’s recent history is rich in contradictions. When voters elected Lionel Wilson—the city’s first Black and Democratic mayor—in 1977, they took a decisive step in the ouster of the white, Republican, pro-business regime that had run Oakland as an exemplar of American municipal apartheid for decades. Wilson’s ascendency was part of a vast transformation in the composition of local political elites, who now largely reflect the political and racial background of the population that they govern. Indeed, since then, most of Oakland’s mayors have been “minorities,” all have been Democrats, and several have had roots in social movements. Similar claims can be made about those who have occupied the posts of City Manager, Chief of Police, Economic Development Director, and Port Director, to cite only the most significant positions. In many respects, there was a revolution in city affairs, one that we can analogize, with some justice, to the 1994 defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

And yet, despite these momentous changes, the city has been and remains a site of profound inequality, bitter racial hierarchies, state violence, and environmental breakdown. Although people of color and Democrats sit in every level of local government, Oakland is a profoundly brutal, unfair, unjust, and crisis-ridden place.

How is this possible? To answer this question, and work our way toward a more comprehensive emancipatory politics, we must explore how such apparently antithetical processes could unfold simultaneously in the course of the city’s history. And this is why the recent publication of Robert Oden’s Blacks to Brown and Beyond is an event to celebrate. Despite some weakness, it has much to offer this inquiry and will hopefully become a point of reference for Oakland activists.

Framed between the Black Panthers’ heyday in the 1960s and the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, Oden’s work examines the trajectory of the liberal, democratic administrations that have governed the city from Lionel Wilson to Jean Quan, Oakland’s current (and first female, first Asian) mayor. His primary goal is to analyze the incorporation of people of color into Oakland’s political institutions and to “assess whether or not there had been [merely] symbolic or substantive changes for people of color” in the city generally.(1) To put it differently, he seeks to explore the relationship between changes among the city’s political elite and in the city’s social structure as whole. For him, progressive politics are “needed in order to make the incorporation meaningful”—they are the mechanism that links the democratization of elites to a democratization of society broadly.(2)

His study breaks new ground as the first detailed account of Oakland’s contemporary history. Robert Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, Chris Rhomberg’s No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland, and Beth Bagwell’s Oakland: The Story of a City all end, for the most part, with Wilson’s election.(3) Oden’s book is also the first to systematically bring race into the discussion of progressive urbanism—this topic is mostly absent from the literature on progressive innovations in municipal governance that took place in the 1970s and 1980s in San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and elsewhere.(4)

Drawing primarily upon newspaper archives but also interviews, government reports, and personal experience, Oden tells the story of Oakland’s incomplete revolution. The initial and largest section of the book focuses on the city’s first twenty years under black mayors (1977 to 1999), which encompass Mayor Wilson’s three terms and the two that Elihu Harris served. It is these two mayors, particularly Wilson, who defined the contours of the new era in Oakland politics and set the template for subsequent administrations. Oden shows how Wilson and Harris executed a pro-business, status-quo program while making local government moderately more responsive to citizen needs. He chronicles their (unsuccessful) attempts to enhance their grip on city affairs by pushing for a “strong mayor” amendment, which would have greatly increased mayoral power vis-a-vis the City Council and the City Manager. He also looks at their efforts to entice business into the cash-strapped city: he examines Wilson’s involvement in the construction of the Grove-Shafter Freeway; an ill-fated, 100-million-dollar proposal to develop Chinatown known as “Hong Kong USA;” and various big-ticket downtown projects. He puts Wilson’s moderate politics into relief by documenting his battles against more left-leaning City Council members and candidacies. Oden also sketches the city’s conflicted relationship to the Port of Oakland, which became a subject of contention under Harris. He shows that these mayors were incapable of carrying out polices that might redistribute wealth due to structural limitations on their authority and their principled opposition to policies designed to compel more equitable forms of development (such as the “First Source” plan, which would have obliged developers working in Oakland to hire locals). Although Wilson and Harris fought to change the racial composition of elites, they “were unable to redirect the city’s resources [in such a way] that would benefit the low-income residents.”(5) For Oden, the “incorporation of people of color into the political culture of Oakland . . . has been symbolic” in most instances, not substantive.(6)

The second, smaller portion of the book begins with the 1999 election of Jerry Brown, during a period of declining black hegemony but one in which the “color line” had been broken at all the highest levels of city’s government. Oden explores Brown’s successful effort to institute a “strong mayor” system; his controversial “10K Campaign,” in which he sought to convince 10,000 new residents to move downtown, and his cavalier attitude toward the city’s established black leadership. He argues that Brown won office by presenting himself as a progressive alternative to the Wilson and Harris administrations, but sowed discontent by dismissing issues of racial and social justice and governing in a highhanded style. Oden moves on to explain the large numbers of Oaklanders who embraced Ron Dellums, an avowed socialist, as a progressive correction to Brown. He describes how activists enthusiastically convinced Dellums to run for mayor—famously chanting “Run, Ron, run” at a public meeting—and Dellums’s attempt to democratize municipal governance by convening forty-one citizen task forces, whose purpose was to issue policy recommendations. However, he also says that Dellums was a “huge disappointment” due primarily to his apparent unwillingness to lead—his physical absence from the city—and failure to implement his task forces’ recommendations.(7) Oden concludes with a brief discussion of Mayor Jean Quan’s administration, specifically the complex “ranked-choice” voting mechanism that facilitated her election and her militarized assault on Occupy Wall Street protestors in October 2011.

The relationship between change among political elites and change in society generally—between political change and social change—has long been a subject of debate among scholars and activists. Oden’s work has the virtue of clarifying that, in Oakland, changes in the grassroots have not followed the transformation of elite institutions. He reveals this clearly, and places his assertion in a highly developed historical context, thereby providing an important point of departure for future discussions about what the city can and should be. This is an achievement of note.

However, three shortcomings blunt the power of his narrative. First, Oden never defines what he means by “progressive” and does not identify any criteria with which we can distinguish a progressive from a non-progressive urban politics. Is it a series of policies, an ideological orientation, or just a sensibility? Oden does not address this. He cites Pierre Clavel, author of The Progressive City, but for Clavel the goal of the “progressive” vision is primarily to facilitate citizen participation in government, whereas Oden seems to embrace some form of economic democratization.(8) He compounds this ambiguity by using the terms “progressive,” “liberal,” “neo-liberal,” and even the hybrid “liberal/progressive” somewhat indiscriminately throughout the text, without defining them and often to designate apparently contrary political approaches. For instance, Oden identifies Jerry Brown as both a “progressive” and “neo-liberal,” characterizes Obama’s administration as “progressive,” and calls State Senator Don Perata “liberal,” even though Perata, in the 2010 mayoral race, was the main opponent of Jean Quan—whom he deems “progressive.”

Secondly, this imprecision is most important in an economic context. It is unclear whether Oden believes that the progressive vision demands the abolition of class exploitation or merely the mitigation of its impact. He faults the new black political elite for acting in a “class-interested manner” and distinguishes between “economic growth” and “human development,” but does not expand upon these seemingly anti-capitalist sentiments.(9) He also does not provide much hard data on Oakland’s economy—e.g., who works for whom, poverty rates, etc—that would allow us to analyze its class structure and situate it in the global economic order. His tendency to speak euphemistically about economic activity in the city magnifies the problem. For instance, he describes Oakland as “capitalistic” (but not simply capitalist), says it contains “economic communities” (which is not the same thing as classes), and refers to “business” activists (as opposed to representatives of the capitalist class).(10)

Finally, these issues become crucial when we try to explain why Oakland politicians have repeatedly campaigned with a rhetoric of social justice but favored elite interests when in power. One could argue that the city’s politicians are uniquely cunning, or that its voters are uniquely gullible, but neither claim would be plausible for obvious reasons. Oden, for his part, does not weigh in on this issue, but surely part of the answer lay in the city’s relationship to capitalism, the Achilles Heel of those who use municipal governments for the purposes of reparative social change. I refer specifically to the paradoxical need to attract capital to the city in order to generate revenue while simultaneously trying to execute policies that alleviate the consequences of capitalism. Oden does not touch on this quandary, and does not really provide terms with which to formulate it, but it may be that there is simply no alternative for those who accept capitalism as the natural and only means through which to organize the city’s economy.

Oden was active for many years in Oakland’s liberal democratic circles and it is hard not to read his work as an attempt to wrestle with his own political history. As such, his honesty and willingness to raise uncomfortable truths is exemplary. And he has accomplished an important deed by detailing the incompleteness of the transition launched with the expulsion of the white, Republican machine from the city. But a new politics will require a more exacting approach and, above all, a greater willingness to face challenging questions about Oakland’s relation to capitalism. The Black Panthers raised such issues many years ago and the Occupy Wall Street movement did so again more recently, but there is much more to do. Despite some limitations, From Blacks to Brown and Beyond has a lot to offer those who would undertake this task and untangle the city’s riddles.(11)

~ Chuck Morse


1. Robert Stanley Oden, From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011 (San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic, 2012), 17.

2. Ibid.

3. Strangely, Oden does not mention or cite Robert O. Self’s pioneering book, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

4. Evelio Grillo et al, Experiment and change in Berkeley: Essays on City Politics, 1950–1975 (Berkeley, CA: Institute of Governmental Studies, 1978); Richard DeLeon, Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975–1991 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992); Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff, The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz (Boulder, CO. : Westview Press, 2009.); Mark. E Kann, Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986.). For an east coast city, see: WJ Conroy, Challenging the Boundaries of Reform: Socialism in Burlington (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990).

5. Oden, From Blacks to Brown, 8.

6. Ibid., 205.

7. Ibid., 296. Oden states that “Dellums’s Task Force reports were essentially shelved and never executed.”(Ibid., 303). For a much more sanguine assessment, see Kitty Kelly Epstein (et al), Organizing to Change a City (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2012).

8. Clavel describes participation as the “basis of progressive coalitions.” Pierre Clavel, The Progressive City: Planning and Participation, 1969–1984 (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 210–234.

9. Ibid., 143 and 97.

10. Ibid., 295, 286, and 281.

11. Unfortunately, the book’s $59.95 cover price will limit its audience.