Review: The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City

May 31, 2021

On September 27, 1966, a Black teenager named Matthew Johnson was murdered by a police officer in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood. The police department claimed that Johnson was fleeing from a stolen car and that the officer had first fired warning shots into the air, but Johnson’s neighbors—with good reason—weren’t inclined to believe them. By the early evening, the crowd that had gathered around the scene had erupted into an uprising. Windows were broken; a curfew was imposed. The National Guard arrived.

But while Johnson’s murder triggered the event, it does not explain the full breadth of its context. Since Watts rebellion in Los Angeles the year before, city officials had warned that Hunters Point could be next—a specter journalists were quick to raise the following day, pointing to longtime infrastructural neglect and poverty in the area. Black leaders agreed, calling for jobs programs.

If the neglect caught the paternalistic attention of the liberal-minded, though, it didn’t create enough of an incentive to fix it. “For many, the presence of a public-housing project defined [Hunters Point]; everything else faded into insignificance,” writes historian Destin Jenkins in The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City. The city focused on protecting its more lucrative assets instead. “By October 1, half of the remaining National Guardsmen were reassigned to Candlestick Park, the city’s prized and costly debt-financed sports arena,” Jenkins explains.

The basic contours of this story are familiar today. With a single spark, the tension of decades of racist, classist urban disinvestment explodes, and the resulting fear among the well-to-do only deepens inequality. But that plot is so familiar that important details are glossed over: Who made the investment decisions in the first place? Why did the uprisings fail? And how did these conflicts fade into the neoliberal era we’re still reckoning with today?

It’s just those questions that Jenkins begins to answer in The Bonds of Inequality. To do so, he turns to a space mostly hidden from public view: the municipal bond market, using San Francisco as a primary case study. “The history of inequality in twentieth-century America is, in part, the history of municipal debt,” he writes. Understood through the politics of debt financing, the urban uprisings of the 1960s are no longer just a historical comparison to be trotted out at each new sign of tension. Instead, they can be seen as a turning point in a longer history that can help today’s activists see hidden relationships of power—and just maybe write a new story for the future.

Read the rest at Protean Magazine.