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WHEN DEMOCRACY DISAPPEARS: Emergency Management in Benton Harbor

  • Louise Seamster (a1)


In this case study, I look at Benton Harbor, Michigan’s tenure under a state-appointed “emergency manager,” with extensive local powers replacing all local elected government, and a single imperative to balance the city’s budget. The law, ostensibly race-neutral, wound up targeting almost all of Michigan’s cities with significant Black population. The law ultimately disenfranchised half the state’s Black population but only two percent of Whites. This law invalidates a basic civil right and prerequisite for urban political theory: electoral democracy. Who holds power in the urban regime when the state takes over? Drawing on forty-four interviews, observations and archival research, I argue a White urban regime governs without elected representation in this majority-Black city. The ideological framing of emergency management as “neutral,” and Black politics as “corrupt” or “self-interested,” provides the logic to blame Black governance for structural disinvestment and White-led extraction.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Louise Seamster, Department of Sociology, University of Tennessee, 913 McClung Tower, Knoxville, TN 37996. E-mail:


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