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Book Tells Story of Cities Through the Work of the First African-American to Serve in the Cabinet of a U.S. President

November 11, 2008

PHILADELPHIA (Nov. 11, 2008) - Wendell Pritchett set out to write a book about cities in the mid-20th century. During his research, he kept running into Robert Clifton Weaver, the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the first African-American to serve in a U.S.president's cabinet.

"I was shocked that there was no biography of Weaver," Pritchett says, explaining why he decided to chronicle the history of modern American cities through Weaver's story. "Weaver was deeply involved in the initiation, creation and implementation of policies that would define the modern city, including rent control, civil rights, urban renewal, and affirmative action, among others."

Wendell Pritchett

The result is Pritchett's second book, "Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer," published by the University of Chicago Press.

In this compelling historical biography, Pritchett, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, illuminates Weaver's role with the Johnson administration in creating almost every urban initiative of the period, from public housing and urban renewal to affirmative action and rent control.

Beyond these policy achievements, Weaver was also a founder of racial liberalism, a new approach to race relations that sought to eliminate racism through education.

"Weaver thought that if you engaged with people on an intellectual level, showing them how racism was not in their self-interest, the environment would change," Pritchett says.

Weaver's views and successes propelled him through a series of high-level positions in public and private agencies, working to promote racial cooperation in American cities. In this biography, Weaver emerges as a complex, talented man caught in the contradiction between seeking a race-blind world and serving his race.

"We still have a straightjacket when it comes to thinking about race today," Pritchett says.  "Once we know if a person is black or white, we categorize them, thinking we know how they will act and think."

While there has been positive change in race relations since Weaver's time, Pritchett holds that racial categories still frame debates about race, with a notable exception.

"Barak Obama has figured out a different framework, a different way to talk about race," Pritchett says. "Obama is focused on issues that transcend race ---like healthcare and the economy --- that, if they can be solved, will go a long way to changing American attitudes about race. Of course, he is able to talk about race differently because he is standing on the shoulders of the civil rights movement."

Despite his efforts to make race irrelevant, Weaver was continually called on to mediate between the races--a position that grew increasingly untenable as he remained caught between the white power structure to which he pledged his allegiance and the African-Americans whose lives he devoted his career to improving.

Pritchett, an African-American legal scholar who just returned to Penn Law after a stint as the deputy chief of staff and director of policy for the new mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, readily acknowledges that he shares many similarities with his subject.

"Weaver was interested in two worlds sometimes at odds: government and academia," Pritchett says. "He moved between them throughout his career despite the tensions between academic objectivity and politics."

His year with Mayor Nutter's administration confirmed for Pritchett that policy making is difficult work. He trumpets the importance of putting policy work in historical context.

"We often think that policies failed because they were bad policies without taking into consideration the limitations that policy makers were facing at the time," he says.

Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer

Pritchett hopes this biography will show the love/hate relationship Americans have with cities as well.

"Cities are exciting; we're drawn to them, but we think of them as problems," he explains. "It's understandable, but it's not productive. A lot of policies were created to solve problems rather than exploit the advantages of cities." He cites the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as an example. "HUD was created to develop regional regulatory policies, but the focus shifted early on to how to 'stop blacks from rioting.'"

"Cities are a solution if you care about diversity and sustainability, among other issues," Pritchett says.

In the end, Pritchett believes that almost all of the urban problems Weaver sought to address are still unresolved. 

"Tensions between civil rights and the marketplace continue. It's the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, but you don't hear much about that," he says.  The foreclosure crisis is the latest development in a longstanding housing debate about how actively government should promote and facilitate home ownership.

"We operate under the ideal that everybody should own their own home, and government programs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac effectively achieved just that until the recent economic meltdown," he says.  "But other policies, like public housing, Section 8, and laws requiring the market to refrain from discriminating, have helped improve life for urbanites, even if they cannot afford to buy a house."

"Despite challenges, it is possible to make change if we act in public spirited ways. The good news is that Weaver did make progress did during his career." Pritchett agrees with Weaver that his biggest success is the Fair Housing Act. "It was a difficult fight, and was contested because people's feelings about their neighborhoods and homes run high. FHA is his longest lasting legacy--you see it listed in real estate ads every day."

See related story: Pritchett Serves a New Mayor and a New President