must finally . . . deal with the ugliness of poverty and discrimination in the city." (U-M photo)
Despite five decades separating today from the events of the summer of 1967, Detroit is making the same mistakes all over again, says Heather Ann Thompson, a native Detroiter and professor at the University of Michigan.
Thompson, whose book, "Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy" won a Pulitzer Prize this year, writes a powerful commentary in The Washington Post 50 years after Detroit erupted into flames. The historian writes about the causes of the riots:
On that day, black city residents took to the streets — sick to the bone of the housing and job discrimination that contradicted promises of real reform, tired of the poverty that persisted despite overall prosperity in the city, angry that schools remained sub-par for black children, and utterly done with the police brutality that seemed never to be censured or stopped.
She summarizes how officials saw the city prospering in the decades leading up to 1967, but almost entirely ignored the black population in judging that progress.
Starkly racialized poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal educational opportunities certainly wore down the optimism of the city’s black citizens. But it was the over-criminalization and brutal policing of black Detroiters that finally brought the city to its knees.
Indeed, by 1967, as city boosters were touting Detroit’s modern new buildings, freeways and entertainment options, and while local financiers and developers felt the future was rosy beyond their expectations, black city residents felt under siege by the Detroit Police Department. Since the earliest days of black migration to Detroit, police had used arrests and intimidation to reinforce the city’s racial boundaries and hierarchies.
She then traces the history of Detroit from then to now, noting how the massive white flight that followed the riots decimated its tax base and left the city searching for money wherever it could find it. Priorities for the city went to the wrong places, Thompson writes, and problems grew.
Today, the white population of Detroit is growing once again, but Thompson says things are dangerously similar to before, when the powers that be thought white prosperity meant Detroit's prosperity and ignored the rest:
For Detroit to finally become the Model City that the liberal politicians of long ago hoped it would be, and that corporate investors profess it currently is, its boosters must finally confront its history and deal with the ugliness of poverty and discrimination in the city. Will they finally address the glaring lack of equal opportunity? Will they finally take seriously the principle of equal justice under the law and protect the citizenry from abuses of law enforcement?
Thompson writes that black Detroiters again are largely an afterthought as greater prosperity emerges:
Just like 50 years ago, it is very difficult for black Detroiters to be homeowners as whites have been snapping up properties — first for a song, and now for upward of a half-a-million dollars — in neighborhoods like Palmer Woods, Indian Village, Boston Edison and on the Detroit River. Longtime black Detroiters are notably not enjoying the new housing construction boom that is sweeping the city.
More significantly, an overwhelming number of them can’t even afford to keep the homes they live in or pay their water bills and heating bills. The resulting shut-offs have led to serious problems for children and the elderly alike.