Manufacturing Decline: How racism and the conservative movement crush the American Rust Belt

Manufacturing Decline: How racism and the conservative movement crush the American Rust Belt, Jason Hackworth (2019)

Reviewed by Dan Immergluck, Kimberley Kinder & Elvin Wyly

Why did so many central cities in the American Rust Belt undergo so much decline and continue to struggle? Why did cities in Ontario that had similar industrial compositions not experience the level of decline that cities like Detroit, Gary, and Cleveland did? And how have “rightsizing” strategies in some of these “legacy” cities fared? Jason Hackworth offers answers to these and many related questions in his latest book. This is a critical contribution to the literature on urban decline. Hackworth persuasively argues that organized racism – specifically anti-Black racism – has played a central role in urban decline in this region of the country. I would argue that many of the book’s lessons are also largely, though not completely, transferrable to other parts of the country, especially southern cities with large Black populations.

Hackworth’s central thesis is that urban decline, racial threat and an organized conservative movement combined and interacted to lead to a policy regime of “organized deprivation,” which in turn consists not just of the all-too-familiar urban austerity but also one of limiting local autonomy, disembedding the market (à la Polanyi), and punishing “unruly people.” The organization of deprivation is orchestrated by, and benefits, interest groups that benefit from anti-Black reaction. Moreover, it is reproduced by a continual “othering of a highly racialized inner-city.”

The description of operationalized anti-Black racial threat is a highlight of the book. Hackworth draws together an interdisciplinary literature to describe five “modalities” here: (1) legacy effects of legal, anti-Black discrimination, which are strongest in cities with large Black populations; (2) ongoing white flight and avoidance of Blacks continues to weaken housing demand and commercial development in Black neighborhoods; (3) Black municipal power has been met with racial hostility at the suburban and state levels; (4) targeted policing and revenue collection has been aimed at Black households; and (5) the ongoing discrimination by private firms that hurts the economic lives of black families.

Hackworth attributes the organized deprivation in the Rust Belt to the fact that these cities have large Black populations, while their states have small rural Black populations. This is contrasted to southern cities with large Black populations, but are also accompanied by larger rural Black populations. One of the book’s strengths is that it places the political economy of central cities not just within a federal context, but also within state and metropolitan contexts, with anti-Black racism operating across all these governmental levels.

Another contribution of the book is that the image of racialized urban decline and the “pathological inner city” have provided the conservative movement a dog whistle that has given conservatives a palatable form of bonding capital. Hackworth’s chapter on the “Conservative Myth of Detroit” and the villainization of Mayor Coleman Young by neoliberal and conservative voices such as the economist Ed Glaeser, the Cato Institute, and others is a must read all by itself. The “profligate city,” as Detroit is portrayed by these voices, provided a cloak of respectability for anti-Black, anti-urban racism. In his introduction, Hackworth pulls this startling comparison from Glaeser and his coauthor Andrei Shleifer:

Coleman Young drove white residents and businesses out of the city, [similar to how] Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe abused white farmers after the country’s independence, openly encouraging their emigration even at a huge cost to the economy. (Glaeser and Shleifer quoted on p. 44 in Hackworth)


Later in the book, Hackworth reviews some of his earlier work looking at responses to severe decline. He reviews the “rightsizing” planning processes of several cities and wisely recalls the earlier era of “triage” planned shrinkage employed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Hackworth’s criticisms of rightsizing move beyond those of some other scholars, which typically focus on the lack of meaningful grassroots citizen participation. Hackworth argues that the plans are often painted with a patina of “green infrastructure” while being vague on the details of such plans. He also argues against the large-scale demolition plans that have been adopted in several cities, suggesting that without concrete, realized redevelopment following such demolition, such programs promise few benefits to residents in the way of affordable housing or community development.

The treatment of demolition is perhaps the only area where I find the book to be just a bit less than satisfying. As Hackworth acknowledges, targeted demolition can be a necessary component of addressing very high levels of persistent vacancy. After long periods of vacancy and abandonment, many homes are not salvageable and demolition is required. Hackworth calls for redevelopment to follow demolition on such sites. This, however, can be easier said than done. In weaker market cities, especially, there may not be the funds (including necessary public or philanthropic dollars) or development capacity for the sorts of redevelopment that would be welcomed (e.g., affordable housing, needed commercial services). In such cases, community members may be faced with a dilemma; either leave vacant, abandoned and possibly dangerous buildings stand on their block, or push local government to demolish such structures and leave some vacant lots (perhaps available for community use such as a community garden).

Overall, however, this book is a critically important one for urban geographers, planners, and urbanists more generally. It will likely be widely referenced in discussions of urban decline, both in the Rust Belt and more broadly.

Dan Immergluck Georgia State University


The burgeoning literature on white privilege has taken a new turn in recent years, most notably by highlighting how conservative politicians operationalize the coded language of racial supremacy to consolidate political power. It is within this cauldron of anxious electoral politics that Jason Hackworth situates the causes of urban decline. The decline of once-powerful cities, Hackworth writes, is not the inevitable result of deindustrialization or the natural consequence of neoliberalization. After all, many post-industrial cities have rebounded, and the dismantling of the welfare state is not evenly applied everywhere. Instead, according to Hackworth’s trenchant analysis, the cause of urban decline in America’s Rust Belt is racially motivated deprivation. In response to African Americans gaining civil rights and socio-economic opportunities, conservative politicians stoked a white backlash, including by cultivating the racist stereotype of poor, dangerous, culturally inferior African American communities. Conservative politicians used this bogeyman to unite white voters around an imagined common enemy and to consolidate political support for withholding resources from majority-black cities. This racially motivated withholding generated urban decline.

Hackworth offers this analysis as an important corrective to existing political economic theories regarding the causes of decline. The literature, Hackworth asserts, has a lot to say about globalization and neoliberalism but little to say about racism. As an antidote to this silence, one key theme in Manufacturing Decline is the uneven rollout of neoliberalism along racial lines. According to Hackworth, neoliberal policies are deeply unpopular among voters, at least when the people directly affected are the ones casting the votes. However, the situation changes when voters are asked to impose neoliberalization on others, especially when those Others are framed as a threat. Alongside longer histories of redlining and white flight, Hackworth presents several emerging examples of the uneven imposition of austerity. One example includes the imposition of work requirements as a condition of receiving welfare support, but only for urban blacks, not for rural whites. Another example involves white suburban voters supporting state takeovers of adjacent black cities. These examples also bring to mind white support for cutting government subsidies for (majority black) public housing while retaining subsidies for (majority white) homeowners. These are just some of the many ways that conservative voters – through the uneven unrolling of neoliberal austerity – impose deprivation on majority black cities.

Then, once racially motivated deprivation produces decline, conservative politicians at state and federal levels operationalize white resentment yet again, this time by preventing locally elected African Americans from pursuing alternatives to deprivation or from implementing solutions to disinvestment. Again, Hackworth uses several examples to support this analysis. Alongside the most extreme examples – including state takeovers of public institutions in majority-black spaces – Manufacturing Decline also cites the federal government’s unwillingness to enforce fair housing laws, the state-level restrictions on municipal land acquisitions and municipal infrastructure bonds, and the over-representation of white suburban interests on regional infrastructure boards. According to Hackworth, the imposition of policies like these on majority-black cities hamstrings local efforts to reverse deprivation and intensifies decay.

Importantly, the racial undercurrents organizing deprivation are neither natural nor spontaneous. Instead, as Hackworth explains, conservative politicians operationalize racialized tropes of urban decline to unite white voters in a shared political front. In political speeches, the word “urban” is used as a stand-in for poor, dangerous, and most of all black. Conservative candidates running for state and federal office invoke this dog-whistle rhetoric – including while standing next to decaying buildings – while blaming black victims for the plight. In these nationally televised campaigns, the careful staging of urban decline is not mere “ruin porn” nor is this staging a call for empathic support. Instead, for Hackworth, these tactics mobilize deprivation in racially coded, blame-the-victim narratives to consolidate conservative voters around a platform of white privilege.

Alongside these many laudable interventions into theories of urban disinvestment, Manufacturing Decline leaves some questions unanswered. For one thing, the tight racial focus at the start of the book fades toward the end. For another thing, chronicling (and lambasting) the story of white privilege so wholly from the conservative movement’s perspective leaves the voices of black voters eerily absent. In Hackworth’s defense, an in-depth, critical excavation of the conservative movement’s racist history is urgently needed. Furthermore, because no one book can be all things to all people, I make these observations less as a criticism of Manufacturing Decline and more as a suggestion to read it alongside other studies chronicling similar phenomena from African American perspectives.

In summary, Hackworth’s new book is a compelling read. It is thorough, provocative, and well written. Manufacturing Decline provides an important corrective to political economic accounts of globalization and neoliberalism that downplay the racialized dynamics of imposed disinvestment. This book is a must-read, not only for political economists working in the Rust Belt but also for scholars of globalization, austerity, and justice.

Kimberley Kinder University of Michigan


Manufacturing consent, manufacturing decline

Do we have a “Classics in Urban Geography” series in Urban Geography? I can’t remember. Can I nominate Jason Hackworth’s book, Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt? This is a truly remarkable book. In a crisp, gripping, concise narrative packed with fresh insights on every page, Hackworth distills multiple, vast literatures on urban geography, political economy, policy analysis, and critical race theory to show how racist ideologies and practices produce a particular kind of urban system that has become central to American memory and politics. The places that were, not so long ago, the leading urban edges of positivist settler-colonial capitalist modernity – the “Fordist” cities of the Manufacturing Belt around the Great Lakes – have been deindustrialized, dismantled, and de-urbanized. These processes are neither natural nor inevitable; they are fundamentally racialized. Black spaces have been systematically rendered “pathological,” and then devalorized by the withdrawal of capital, people, and political autonomy. Urban decline was planned, Hackworth demonstrates in a brilliant spatialization of Polanyi’s maxim that “lassez-faire was planned.” Decades of comprehensive public subsidies and aggressive state interventions were designed to build and protect free-market utopias for white people. As American urban decline has become more severely racialized and spatially refined, it has been politically weaponized. From George Wallace and Barry Goldwater through Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Ronald Reagan’s treasonous appeals to “states’ rights” to Donald Trump’s “American carnage,” conservatives have refined a powerful electoral strategy of deploying manufactured mythologies of black neighborhoods as the pathological cause of an urban decline that is always at risk of spreading everywhere: “We don’t want to become Detroit!” is a polyvalent policy mantra uttered in cities across the U.S. and around the world. The agnotological, twisted logic of blackness→inner city→decline reproduces a dog-whistle urban decline discourse that speaks directly to hardcore “racially resentful” whites while providing a veneer of benevolent social concern appealing to “racially anxious” whites.

To call Manufacturing Decline a classic, however, is dangerous, perhaps offensive. The term implies the ultimate kind of conservatism. On today’s cutting edges of urban theory, “classic” is an epithet. The word doesn’t just mean what I intend (“a work of enduring excellence”); it also carries the linguistic stratigraphy of Eurocentric Western elitism: “a literary work of ancient Greece or Rome,” from classicus, Latin for “the highest class of Roman citizens,” “of the first rank,” and even, in the context of something “typical,” an “example of guilt by association” (Woolf, 1977, p. 206). Hackworth’s achievement is a dialectically revolutionary assault on classical assumptions, logics, and hierarchies. It’s an urban-theory counterpart to Martin Bernal’s (1987) linguistic and archeological reconstruction of the Afro-Asiatic histories of Western civilization in Black Athena, and a forensic empirical analysis of the racialized spaces produced by Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) political economy of mass media in Manufacturing Consent. At first glance, Hackworth’s fusion of critical race theory and fine-grained spatial analysis renders a distinctive twentieth-century American story; but it also allows us to see the wider vistas of past and future in globalizing racial formations. Manufacturing Decline enters the literature at the precise moment of departure of Immanuel Wallerstein (1930–2019), whose travels in Africa in the 1950s helped correct what he called “the most stultifying” parts of his American educational heritage; Africa taught him the lesson of the century, “the struggle to overcome the control by the Western world of the rest of the world” (Genzlinger, 2019). To be sure, Wallerstein’s admonition that his world-systems analysis is not a theory, but rather “a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies,” is attuned to contemporary currents in urban theory emphasizing the provincialization of the West, the Global North, America, and the whiteness of centuries of knowledge production (Roy, 2016; Sheppard et al., 2013). This is urgent and long overdue. And yet even as rich historical literatures excavate deeper in the political and legal infrastructures that have manufactured American whiteness (Guglielmo & Salerno, 2012; Maghbouleh, 2017), we see new kinds of Wallersteinian world systems of cosmopolitan, post (and neo) colonial hierarchies and hybrid identities in today’s re-ascendant planetary racial formations (Robinson, 1989/2019, p. 189ff).

At the same time that America’s collapsing global imperial position now holds on by intensifying the militant mobilization of desperate white rage filtered through the disproportionate eighteenth-century colonial calculus of the Electoral College in the suburban and rural spaces of American whiteness, we see the future in the vast, complex new urban hierarchies of India, China, and so many other epicenters of today’s multipolar, transnational world system. Inequalities between and within these urban hierarchies are rationalized by variegated and distinctive ideologies and material practices, each with its own indigenous ancestry. The concept of “urban renewal” and “improvement” devised and imposed throughout the colonial world urban system has been subjected to generations of “indigenous calibrations” that “are as important to the genealogy … as its original European form” (Ranganathan, 2018, p. 1386). And yet, from Buffalo to Bangalore, from Lord of the Flies land-market fundamentalism (Hackworth, 2019, p. 138) to the “marketized improvement of the world-class city” by mobilizing “corrective behaviors related to property and propriety” to escalate the economic valorization of urban space (Ranganathan, 2018, p. 1386), the essential logic is the same. The racist “conservative bonding capital” of self-reproducing stereotypes of people and place that Hackworth diagnoses in America’s rust belt is one set of mutations in a fractal planetary circuitry of competition, capitalization, and coercion: spatial inequalities are reproduced and legitimated through the cultural and political construction of mythologies of hierarchical human difference.

When we read Manufacturing Decline alongside current debates over planetary urbanization versus postcolonial urbanism and “ordinary” cities, Hackworth’s achievement in the American rust belt helps us discern the dangerous essence of the nexus of conservatism and race in all its varied manifestations. We see one form of spatiality in the squalid work camps for immigrant Asian construction workers on the outskirts of the neoliberal urban hallucination called Dubai – which is either “a sequel to Blade Runner” or “Donald Trump on acid” (Davis, 2006, p. 49). We see another spatiality in the Indian far-right’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which stigmatizes a population equivalent to the world’s eighth largest country – the same population as Nigeria. “There’s no way to put 200 million people into a concentration camp,” Vijay Prashad (2020) reports from Kolkata during what may be the largest general strike in world history; but the “social toxicity” of the BJP’s “firm anti-Muslim agenda” certainly is able to create coercive hierarchies of civil rights. While Smith’s (1996) New Urban Frontier in America etches a racialized electoral binary in a network of rust belt cities where the precision of Hackworth’s (p. 89) analysis of correlations from 1932 to 2016 documents how “Voting Republican has become increasingly associated with whiteness,” in the P.R.C.’s western province – Xinxiang is Mandarin for “new frontier” – the largest internment of humans since the Holocaust (Kristof, 2019) is managed through the technology of “DNA phenotyping” connecting biometrics with facial recognition systems to distinguish ethnic Uyghur from ethnic Han in the CCP’s attack on what it defines as “poverty, backwardness, and radical Islam” (Wee, 2019). Another post-Cartesian spatiality appears in the luxury gated communities near Johur Bahru on the islands between Singapore and Malaysia, where the very first “public” service is a private U.S. Christian boarding school, while security is provided by a private police force employing only Chinese officers in order to reassure anxious Chinese buyers fearful of the Malay Muslims nearby (Mahrotri & Choong, 2016; Moser, 2018; Qin, 2018).

The inventory of Western racism is being embellished, and so is that of non-Western racisms. Eurocentric white supremacy is being challenged, but the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd at the September 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” rally with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in Houston, Texas narrate the emergence of ever more adaptive and resilient hierarchies. If George Wallace had lived as long as Kirk Douglas he would have invited Dinesh D’Souza and they would have sat in the front row to hear Modi declare, “Howdy, Texas!” 1 When Modi assured the crowd of 50,000 that “Everything is fine in India!”, he embodied the latest refinement of a cosmopolitan supremacy of planetary intersectional diversity that manufactures its own distinctive forms inequality, segmentation, and hierarchy. Hackworth’s brilliant Manufacturing Decline is the revolutionary classic that we must use to destroy all ideological infrastructures of inequality – the “classical” Western ideological naturalization of economic market freedoms and racist divisions of humanity as well as the multitude of reascendant non-Western cosmopolitan post- and neo-colonial urbanizations of hierarchical social difference.

Elvin Wyly University of British Columbia


Urban decline, expanding the bounds of policy, and an appeal to bring black political economy to urban geography: a reply to Immergluck, Kinder, and Wyly

Let me begin by thanking my friends Dan, Elvin and Kim for participating in this book review forum, and Mark for organizing it. Elvin, in particular, has been there with me from graduate school onward, and is as responsible for who I am as a scholar as any other person. In such an abbreviated format, it is difficult to respond fully to all issues raised, but there were two comments raised by Dan and Kim, respectively, that tap into much wider issues that have been weighing on me in the months since I finished Manufacturing Decline, so I thought I might elaborate on them here. The two issues involve the bounds of policy and the dearth of Black political economy in urban geography.

Dan’s comment about the necessity of demolition in certain neighborhoods taps into something I have been thinking about for a while – the dissonance between conventional policy analysis, and the possibility of widening the bounds of what is considered policy. It is, of course, true that as a particular matter, most disinvested neighborhoods are left with few options other than demolition. Vacant houses are dangerous – they attract vermin, scrappers, and arson. They are unsafe for kids to play in and around. They reduce the value of nearby properties even more than vacant lots do. Demolition is also the only form of money that governments are willing to spend in such spaces. As a defensive, almost tragic matter, there is almost nothing other to be done than demolish abandoned houses. The same can be said of other policy “innovations” – austerity (because the city has no money), and right-sizing (because the city is losing population anyway). A common course for policy-focused academics is to perform a cost-benefit analysis of these practices within their stated framework. When, for example, is demolition needed? Under what terms do we need to cut funding? I would like to suggest that we can do this, but also critique the wider set of planned practices that affect such spaces. To me, demolition is not “necessary” because it is the only thing that can or should be done. It is necessary because of the organized limitations placed on more productive, humane outcomes. Taxation policy, the way that schools are funded, the limitations on municipal annexation, eminent domain guidelines, and rules about tax foreclosure are almost always crafted outside of the declining city but they have enormous impact on what happens there. These acts are every bit as planned as a zoning ordinance, or demolition policy. They are policy as much as the narrow question of which houses to demolish. I think that when we discuss the limits of policy and planning we ought to include the very organized effort to stymie progressive or imaginative alternatives.

I begin Manufacturing Decline with a retrospective vignette about the Kerner Commission Report in part to provide a historical benchmark for how much things have changed in 50 years. Kerner and his commission studied many of the neighborhoods that I write about in this book and what they recommended was a virtual Marshall Plan for cities: massive sustained investment, fair housing enforcement, school desegregation – not for a few years but for a generation. It is almost quaint to think about such policy ambition today – nothing of that magnitude is on the table and that does not appear to be changing any time soon. But I do think that there is a role for academics – precisely because they are not constrained by the same forces that actual policy-makers are – to expose the very organized attempt to limit what is currently possible.

Kim’s comment about the asymmetry of racial analysis in the book also tapped into a wider set of ideas I have been thinking about recently. The first three chapters explain why racism, at a variety of scales, both generates and exacerbates decline. The next few chapters illustrate the forms of deprivation that are more common in, but not unique to, black spaces in the American Midwest. In the latter, “anti-blackness”, “race”, and “racism”, are virtually absent. My argument is that racism generates forms of economic deprivation that we often reduce to deindustrialization and other “purely” economic processes. In this way, it is drawn theoretically from my favorite political economist W.E.B. Du Bois. Among Du Bois’ many insights is the notion that the construction of class and race are co-constituted and intertwined in the United States. Racism is in the DNA of the country and among other outcomes, it functions to restrict and deny access to capital for nonwhite people. But Kim is right to point this out. This approach is only one of the several that could have been chosen. There are other ways of analyzing how racism is present in the more quotidian aspects of policy implementation that are not found in my approach. To me, this highlights the need for urban geographers, particularly urban political economists, to engage more deeply in the black political economy tradition where the variety of angles on this issue can be explored and theorized. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson, Ida B. Wells, and Richard Wright are at least as important for understanding American urbanization as Marx, Foucault, and Gramsci, yet our field is dominated by the latter rather than the former. Many urban geographers now emphasize that “race matters” or invoke “racialization”, or add a “percent Black” variable to their models but return to Harvey, or Marx, or Foucault to theorize the pattern. These are brilliant scholars – don’t get me wrong – but their understanding of how anti-blackness has been integral for the formation of American capitalism is not their strength. There is a considerable body of black political economy literature upon which to expand “conventional” political economic analysis. It is my hope that more urban geographers invest in this literature in the future.

Jason Hackworth University of Toronto



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