A historian dissects Detroit's trouble
Thomas Sugrue, native Detroiter, historian and author of "The Origins of the Urban Crisis," has spent 20 years in major cities in the United Sates and in London. He came to the Free Press in the summer of 1998 to talk about the conditions that created present-day Detroit, and the implications for journalists. These are excerpts from his talk.
Anyone who has spent time in cities like Detroit in America's former industrial heartland can't help but be struck by the eerily apocalyptic landscapes that are so common as one passes through these places.
I asked a simple, but very difficult question: "Why?"
After digging around in the papers of unions and business, civil rights organizations, census data, city records and countless newspaper articles, I arrived at the conclusion that follows: Detroit's woes began, not in the 1960s with the riot, not with the election of Coleman Young as mayor, not with the rise of international competition and the auto industry's globalization, they began amid the steaming prosperity and consensus of the 1950s, and in an era about which we have very little to go on apart from hoary shibboleths and cliches.
A THREE-PART STORYThree sweeping changes transformed the city. These three things, occurring simultaneously and interacting, dramatically reshaped the metropolis of Detroit and other metropolises like it. First was deindustrialization, the flight of jobs away from the city, something that began unnoticed and unheralded in the 1950s.
Next was persistent racial discrimination in labor markets. Racial discrimination remained a very persistent problem despite decades of civil rights activism and some improvement in attitudes and beliefs.
Finally was intense residential segregation, a division of the metropolitan area into two metropolitan areas: one black and one white.
Any one of these forces would have been devastating, but the fact that all three of them occurred simultaneously and interacted with each other proved to have devastating consequences.
WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATIONWorld War II was a great moment of opportunity for working-class Detroiters, black and white alike. The city was a magnet for workers coming from other parts of the country. African-Americans had been pretty much closed out of the industries that provided skilled jobs, but that pretty much ended during World War II.
Only 3 percent of auto workers in Detroit were black in 1940. By 1945, 15 percent of the city's auto workers were African American. Detroit, then, became a magnet for black migrants who heard about these great opportunities. But the reality for black workers, even in this window of opportunities, was a great deal more complicated and harsher and more frustrating than those statistics would lead us to believe.
One of the supreme ironies of post-war Detroit is that, just as discrimination was under siege, just as blacks found a small window of opportunity in the city's labor market, that job base began to fall away.
First, beginning in the late '40, and especially in the 1950s, began a process that has continued right up to the present. Jobs began to move out of places like Detroit to low-wage regions in other parts of the United States and the world. Companies in Detroit began picking up and moving their production to rural Indiana and Ohio, increasingly to the South and, by the 1970s and beyond, increasingly to the Third World -- places where wages and other standards were lower than they were in Detroit.
At the same time, industry in Detroit was changing from within. There was introduction of automation, of new, labor-saving technology within the factories. The consequence was a dramatic decline in the number of manufacturing jobs, solid, blue-collar jobs, the jobs that made Detroit the city that it was.
Between 1947 and 1963, a period of unprecedented national economic prosperity, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs. This is not the '70s. This is not when there is any competition from Germany and Japan and Korea for automobiles. These are jobs that were picking up and moving to other parts of the country, or these were jobs that were being replaced by machines.
Workers who had come to Detroit during World War II, seeking opportunities, found their choices seriously constrained. The workers who suffered the worst were African Americans, and they suffered because of seniority. African Americans, because they didn't get their foot into the door until the 1940s, were the first to be fired. So, when companies began moving out of Detroit, the burden was borne disproportionately by black Detroiters.
So, in the midst of the 1950s, 15.9 percent of blacks were unemployed, but only 6 percent of whites were unemployed, so we're talking about black unemployment two and a half times the rate of white unemployment.
The third and, indeed, probably the most pernicious force was residential discrimination by race. The city was divided into districts by race, divided by invisible lines.
These invisible lines were drawn in a whole bunch of different ways by different groups. The federal government subsidized housing development for whites through the Federal Housing Administration and Home Owners Loan Corporation. But federal policies prohibited making loans to risky properties, and risky properties, according to federal standards, meant homes in old or homes in racially or ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods. It meant that, if you were a black trying to build your own home or trying to get a loan to purchase a home, you had many obstacles to face, whereas if you were a white it was really quite easy.
Real estate investors reinforced these invisible racial lines by steering black home buyers to certain neighborhoods and white home buyers to certain other neighborhoods, and stirring up racial anxiety when neighborhoods were along that invisible boundary.
In one west-side neighborhood, in the late 1950s, there were more than 50 real estate agents working a several-block area trying to persuade panicked whites to sell now and sell fast because "they're moving in." Real estate agents even went so far as to pay African-American women to walk their children through all-white streets to encourage panic among white home owners.
Also reinforcing these invisible boundaries were the actions of ordinary people. There were more than 200 violent racial incidents that accompanied the first blacks who moved into formerly white neighborhoods in Detroit.
If you were the first black to move into a formerly all-white block, you could expect, certainly, for your house to be pelted with rocks and stones. In one case, a tree stump went through a window.
Regularly, vandals would break 20, 30 -- every window in a house. Arson was another popular tactic.
As newspaper reporters, if such an incident were happening today, you can be sure that you would be covering it, but until 1956, there was not a mention of any of these incidents in Detroit's daily newspapers. They were off the radar of the major dailies.
This process of housing discrimination set into motion a chain reaction.
Blacks were poorer than whites and they had to pay more for housing. They had a harder time getting loans. Hence, they spent more of their income on the purchase of real estate. They were, by and large, confined to the oldest houses in the city, houses that needed lots of repair work. Many of their houses deteriorated as a consequence of them being older, not being able to get loans and folks not having all that much money in their pockets. City officials looked out onto the poor housing stock in poor neighborhoods and said, "we should tear this down."
Moreover, the fact that housing stock was old and in many cases deteriorating in black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable evidence to whites that blacks were irresponsible. "We kept up our property, why aren't they keeping up their property?
Finally, this neighborhood deterioration seemed to lenders definitive proof that blacks were a poor credit risk and justified disinvestment.
To talk about Detroit's problems beginning in 1967, or beginning with the election of Coleman Young, or beginning with the globalization of the 1970s is to miss the boat.
The pattern of workplace discrimination, of the massive loss of jobs, of the residential balkanization of the city into black and white -- this was already well established by 1967. It wasn't Coleman Young that led to the harsh racial divisions between blacks and whites in metropolitan Detroit. It was there, and had been festering for a long time.
It wasn't the riot that led to disinvestment from the city of Detroit. Disinvestment had been going on very significantly for years.
And it wasn't globalization that led to the loss of jobs. That loss of jobs was going on when the auto industry was at its very peak.
We focus on changing the attitudes and motivations of individual workers, rather than challenging larger discriminatory practices.
We have a policy mismatch, a gap between the reality that I have described and the policy recommendations to try to address those problems.
The premise of welfare reform is to put welfare recipients to work. The problem is that the areas with the greatest job growth in the metropolitan area tend to be the farthest away from where the poorest folk live, in the outer suburbs largely inaccessible by public transportation. So there's a gap between the reality of jobs and job loss and a policy solution.
Another major one,is downtown revitalization and tourism: "Build casinos and they will come. You need to deal with the deeply rooted problems I've described: job flight, racial segregation, discrimination.
We need to think about providing poor people with access to secure, well-paying jobs, wherever those jobs might be.
We need to begin thinking more creatively than we have with the real problem of racial division in our city and in our nation. Conversations on race are not enough. We need to deal with the reality of economic and residential division.