Detroit's journey from urban heyday to urban crisis has been mirrored in other cities across the nation. Scenes of devastation and poverty are disturbingly familiar to anyone who has traveled through the streets of America's Rust Belt, the northeastern and midwestern cities that formed the backbone of American industrial might a half-century ago. The urban crisis is jarringly visible in the the shattered storefronts and fire-scarred apartments of Chicago's South and West Sides; the rubble-strewn lots of New York's Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and South Bronx; the surreal vistas of abandoned factories along the waterfronts and railways of Cleveland, Gary, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Saint Louis; the boarded-up and graffiti-covered houses of Camden, Baltimore, and Newark. Rates of poverty among black residents of these cities all range from 25 to 40 percent. With a few exceptions, all have witnessed a tremendous loss in manufacturing jobs and the emergence of a low-wage service sector. Almost all of these cities, as Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton have argued, "have large ghettos characterized by extreme segregation and spatial isolation." The faces that appear in the rundown houses, homeless shelters, and social agencies in these urban wastelands are predictably familiar. Almost all are people of color.2 ("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
Central-city residence, race, joblessness, and poverty have become inextricably intertwined in postindustrial urban America. In the post-World War II period, patterns of class and racial segregation in large northern cities have persisted and hardened. Poor people have become increasingly isolated in neighborhoods with large numbers of other poor people. A growing number of urban residents, especially young African Americans, find themselves detached from the mainstream economy, often outside the labor market altogether. Unemployment and poverty are certainly not new features of American urban life.
The bleak depictions of life in turn-of-the-century America offered by observers such as Jacob Riis and Robert Hunter offer powerful reminders of a troubled past. But the forms and distribution of postindustrial urban poverty are novel. In previous periods of American history, poverty and unemployment were endemic, but poor people did not experience the same degree of segregation and isolation as exists today. And in the past, most poor people were active, if irregular, participants in the labor market.3 ("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
Why the transformation of Detroit and other major Northern cities from magnets of opportunity to reservations for the poor? What was it that turned America's former industrial centers into economic backwaters, abandoned by manufacturers? What explains the high rates of joblessness among the urban poor? Why has discrimination by race persisted in both urban neighborhoods and workplaces? What explains the emergence of persistent, concentrated, racialized poverty in Rust Belt cities? Explanations abound for these questions, particularly in the large literature on the urban "under-class," the most influential body of scholarship to emerge on urban problems in twenty-five years. The "underclass" debate has moved in three--sometimes overlapping--directions. The first, and most influential, focuses on the behavior and values of the poor, and the role of federal social programs in fostering a culture of joblessness and dependency in inner cities.
A variant, going back to the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and E. Franklin Frazier, emphasizes the role of family structure and unwed pregnancy in perpetuating inequality.4 A second offers structural explanations for inequality and urban poverty. Proponents of structural explanations tend to divide among those who point to the effects of economic restructuring (following William Julius Wilson) and those who emphasize the continuing significance of racial discrimination (following Gary Orfield and Douglas Massey).5 A third explanation focuses on politics, emphasizing the marginalization of cities in American social policy, particularly in the aftermath of the urban unrest and racial conflict of the 1960s. The "excesses" of Black Power and the rise of affirmative action fueled white suburbanization and justified a newfound white backlash against the urban poor. Implicit in this analysis is a contrast between the booming postwar years and the troubled post-1960s years, urban heyday versus urban crisis.6 ("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
Recent scholarship has identified important elements of the contemporary urban crisis. But what is largely missing from the "underclass" debate is the perspective of history. My examination of Detroit in the quarter-century after World War II suggests that the origins of the urban crisis are much earlier than social scientists have recognized, its roots deeper, more tangled, and perhaps more intractable.
No one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven Detroit and other cities like it from their positions of economic and political dominance; there is no simple explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor. It is only through the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the postwar era that the state of today's cities and their impoverished residents can be fully understood and confronted.7 ("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
In the midst of these wrenching changes, economic inequality remained largely off the agenda of politicians and scholars. A few astute policymakers, like Senators Paul Douglas of Illinois and Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, recognized the corrosion beneath the facade of postwar prosperity. In the 1950s, they proposed legislation to shore up "depressed areas" of the nation. But their agenda remained on the fringes of postwar economic policy. Critics on the left, like Harvey Swados and C. L. R. James, recorded the travails of industrial workers for the few who cared to listen. The invisibility of economic hardship in the affluent age became visible in the shock that greeted the depictions of skid rows, black inner cities, and poverty-ridden Appalachian hollows in Michael Harrington's 1962 book, The Other America. Harrington and others identified a world that countless Americans already knew, but whose harsh realities barely penetrated the postwar veneer of consensus and civility.10("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
Setting the boundaries of debates over the economic changes that beset Detroit and the Rust Belt were several currents in national politics. First, and most important, was antiradicalism. Anticommunists silenced some of the most powerful critics of the postwar economic and social order. Red-baiting discredited and weakened progressive reform efforts. By the 1950s, unions had purged their leftist members and marginalized a powerful critique of postwar capitalism. McCarthyism also put constraints on liberal critics of capitalism. In the enforced consensus of the postwar era, it became "un-American" to criticize business decisions or to interfere with managerial prerogative or to focus on lingering class inequalities in the United States.11("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
Further limiting the political vision of policymakers and reformers in the postwar era were the conceptual tools that they used to grapple with questions of political economy. Three interrelated assumptions shaped economic and labor policy after World War II. First was the orthodoxy of neoclassical economics that interpreted the structural changes of the postwar era as temporary dislocations, and looked to national aggregate indicators of economic prosperity rather than to regional variations. Second was the emerging labor relations "manpower" theory that explained unemployment as the result of individual educational or behavioral deficiencies, and deemphasized the structural causes of joblessness. Third was a fundamental optimism about the capacity of the private sector to absorb surplus labor. The reality of rusting cities in the Northeast and Midwest challenged these orthodoxies, but those who bucked mainstream economic and labor market theory, or spoke pessimistically about the economy, remained on the political margins. The result is that urban economic decline in the postwar years has remained largely absent from historical accounts of the 1940s and 1950s.12("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
The problems that beset Detroit were not solely economic. The fate of Northern industrial cities was fundamentally entangled with the troubled history of race in twentieth-century America. By 1960, a majority of America's African American population lived in cities, most of them north of the Mason-Dixon line. The steady loss of manufacturing jobs in northeastern and midwestern cities occurred at the same time that millions of African Americans migrated to the urban North, driven from the rural South by disruptions in the agricultural economy and lured by the promise of freedom and opportunity denied to them in Jim Crow's last, desperate days. The complex and pervasive racial discrimination that greeted black laborers in the "land of hope" ensured that they would suffer disproportionately the effects of deindustrialization and urban decline. For a large number of African Americans, the promise of steady, secure, and relatively well-paid employment in the North proved illusory.13("The Origins of the Urban Crisis," Thomas J. Sugrue, 2005)
"Cityscapes" Lecture Series: Thomas Sugrue