Thursday, March 29, 2012

Detroit's Deferred Dream

Hudson's Department Store

"A Dream Still Deferred," by Thomas J. Sugrue

AT first glance, the numbers released by the Census Bureau last week showing a precipitous drop in Detroit’s population — 25 percent over the last decade — seem to bear a silver lining: most of those leaving the city are blacks headed to the suburbs, once the refuge of mid-century white flight.

But a closer analysis of the data suggests that the story of housing discrimination that has dominated American urban life since the early 20th century is far from over. In the Detroit metropolitan area, blacks are moving into so-called secondhand suburbs: established communities with deteriorating housing stock that are falling out of favor with younger white homebuyers. If historical trends hold, these suburbs will likely shift from white to black — and soon look much like Detroit itself, with resegregated schools, dwindling tax bases and decaying public services.

National Bank of Detroit

Detroit is not the only American city to face persistent residential segregation, but it is among the worst: it has ranked among the 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States since the mid-20th century (though the rate of black-white segregation there has fallen markedly in the last decade, as blacks have moved into once-exclusive white neighborhoods).

As Detroit’s black population skyrocketed during the Great Migration from the South, the city’s whites fought what they called the “Negro invasion” with every tool at their disposal. From 1945 to 1965 whites attacked at least 250 black families — usually the first or second to move into all-white neighborhoods — breaking windows, burning crosses and vandalizing homes.

Hudson's Department Store

When white Detroiters could not win by fighting, they fled to the suburbs. Indeed, for a half-century beginning in the 1950s, Detroit lost nearly half of its population, almost all whites.

Those who left the city cited various reasons: desire for a little green space, new housing, better schools, freedom from crime. Few of them acknowledged the racial motive behind white flight, that words like “freedom from crime” were code for moving away from blacks.

Thanksgiving Parade, Downtown Detroit

In fact, many believed that Detroit’s pattern of racial segregation was simply a matter of market forces. Or they attributed the whiteness of the suburbs to black racial inferiority: blacks, they said, did not have the discipline to own homes. Still others assumed that blacks didn’t move to the suburbs because they couldn’t afford it.

But those explanations were just convenient myths. Blacks and whites alike wanted to own their own homes and gardens, find better schools for their children and live on safe streets. But unlike whites, blacks did not have the freedom to move where they pleased. Detroit had many all-white suburbs with affordable housing, but qualified black homeowners could not get mortgages to move there.

Hudson's Department Store, 1976

Whites, meanwhile, benefited from enormous homeownership subsidies through the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration; blacks did not, at least until the late 1960s, when local, state and federal laws that forbade housing discrimination were passed.

The private sector played its part, too: loans and mortgages to minorities or for houses in racially mixed or black neighborhoods were deemed “actuarially unsound,” too risky an investment for lenders and builders. Even after the antidiscrimination laws of the late 1960s, real estate brokers surreptitiously maintained the color line in housing through “steering,” in which they directed whites to “white neighborhoods” and blacks to minority communities or places undergoing racial transition.

Santa waves to the children of Detroit from a platform in front of Hudson's

Nevertheless, by the 1970s the suburban dream had become a reality for a lucky few middle-class blacks from Detroit. In the post-civil rights era, their new white neighbors might greet them with cold shoulders rather than violence or vandalism. Still, when blacks moved in, whites soon moved out. Racially mixed towns stopped attracting white newcomers, especially those with school-aged children. Much to their chagrin, many new black suburbanites found that integration was just a phase between when the first blacks moved in and the last whites took their children out of the public schools.

Children's Barber Shop, Hudson's Department Store

What, then, accounts for blacks’ move to the suburbs in the last decade? Like whites, blacks have long looked for alternatives to Detroit, with its high crime, poor services and scarce job opportunities. But it was not until the economy of the entire metropolitan area slumped, thanks to the faltering auto industry and the foreclosure crisis, that black buyers finally found whites willing — desperate, in fact — to sell their suburban houses, especially in the working-class and lower-middle-class towns bordering the city.

So far, Detroit’s black suburbanization has followed a well-trodden path. Those blacks heading outward from Detroit aren’t moving to all suburbs equally. Rather, they move into places with older houses, rundown shopping districts and declining tax revenues. Such towns also typically have poorer services and fewer job opportunities than wealthier suburbs — where, despite strong antidiscrimination laws, it is still harder for blacks to find housing.

J.L. Hudson's Department Store, 1998

It’s not clear that this new migration is a positive step, even if it allows blacks to escape the city and its troubles. For whites, suburbs have often been a big step up — but as long as most blacks find themselves in secondhand suburbia, the American dream of security, prosperity and opportunity will remain harder to achieve. (

Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.”

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