Detroit Once Again Needs to be the Land of Opportunity

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Longtime journalist Cliff Russell turned a scrutinizing eye to race and Detroit this week with an excellent piece that goes a long way toward distinguishing racist mythology from the actual role that African-Americans residents and black leadership have played in Detroit's rise and fall.

Suggestions that Detroit’s current problems are due to 40 years of black political control are shallow, incorrect, diversionary and ultimately racist.  Any reasonable and honest explanation for Detroit’s current predicament will conclude that the city’s problems have much more to do with its lack of money and jobs than its lack of management.  It is, at least, wrong and, at worst, sinister, to specifically blame black folks for Detroit’s maladies.  Beware of people who do so.

But also beware of those who say black Detroiters are just hapless victims caught up in the ongoing machinations of powerful, moneyed racists.  We have played a role in the decline of Detroit, too.

White Disdain

Cliff's points are great ones, of course, as racial enmity -- specifically white disdain for African-Americans -- continues to be one of the most fractious and intractable obstacles to the region's development and progress.

But race alone didn't do this. 

While white flight (initiated by racist federal housing and lending policies in the 1950s and '60s and accelerated by civil unrest and resentment at the rise of the city's black political class in the 1970s) is often rightly cited as one key to the city misfortunes, it was the flight of hundreds of thousands of black working- and middle-class families — and the city's inability to replace them — that also put Detroit on the fast track to ruin.

For decades, these African American stalwarts  — from the professional families that dominated swanky neighborhoods like Sherwood Forest to the working folk central to communities such as Connor Creek and Brightmoor — kept this city intact despite the racist animosity that flowed back and forth across 8 Mile Road.

But then came increased de-industrialization, the Reagan-led divestment from American cities, the decline of American car makers, the crack cocaine epidemic and the wholesale retreat of Detroit's retail sector to suburban malls. The repeal of residency laws for city workers -- pushed largely by cops and firefighters desperate to move out without losing their jobs -- removed one of the last hurdles blocking those who could afford to leave the city from doing so.

Beacon of Prosperity

Once a beacon of prosperity for black Southerners, the Detroit that in the '40s and '50s lured droves of African-American workers to its bosom with promises of good wages, a decent standard of living and an escape from Jim Crow — the Motown that was once a metaphor for black-middle class hope — began its transformation in the 1980s and '90s into a poster child for federal neglect and divestment and corporate failure.

Still, working-class and professional blacks tried to stay true to the city, despite the gnawing unease at the realization that much of what drew them to Detroit was starting to vanish. Even as recently as the 1990s, median household income in Detroit grew by 17 percent. 

By 1999, though, the die was cast for many blacks. The 2000 Census marked the first time Detroit's population was officially less than 1 million, this after boasting nearly 2 million residents in the 1950s. From 1999 to 2008, median household income in the city dropped by almost 25 percent. Owner-occupied homes fell from nearly 50 percent to 39 percent, and the number of vacant homes tripled. Meanwhile, in 2008 alone, the number of single-race African Americans living in Detroit fell by an estimated 3.8 percent.

Although black Detroiters had been moving to suburbs like Southfield since the 1970s, the trickle of blacks "jumping the fence" (once a derisive term for blacks who moved north of 8 Mile) swelled to a deluge. Today, even Macomb County boasts a growing black population, despite its ignominious history of racial hostility.

Folks Left Behind

And Detroit? Detroit has become a city filled with those left behind -- that is to say, the poor. 

Don't misread me here. Nobody can blame blacks who've left the city for their choices. Their decisions weren't driven by race hatred, but rather class aspirations. (And to be fair, not all whites who fled the city limits left because of racism either.)

No one should have to sacrifice their children to bad schools or their safety to spotty police protection. No one should have to pile bulk trash in their basements or garages because their city can't afford to pick it up except twice a year. No one should have to walk down darkened streets surrounded by abandoned houses or shop where they're disrespected and sold overpriced, bad food.

While it's tough to say precisely how this phenomenon has affected black leadership, there's no question that it has  contributed to the rise of the kleptocratic political class that has cannibalized this city.

The city that gave us Coleman A. Young and Ken Cockrel Sr. still produces pols with integrity and abiding love for this city — but more than at any point in its history, Detroit politics is also overrun with callous crooks and imperious bureaucrats who believe that its their divine right to embezzle from, bilk and otherwise cheat the largely indigent and undereducated residents they're supposed to serve.

When Cliff talks about the failures of black leadership, there's no doubt in my mind that at least some of that failure is tied to a bourgeois arrogance and disdain for the very people these guys are supposed to care for and govern. (Remember Ayanna Kilpatrick's infamously suggesting, not unlike Kevyn Orr, that Detroiters are stupid?) 

Now, the anger that many of these failed professionals has engendered is coming home to roost. Grassroots frustration with the black political class has morphed into some of the support that we're now seeing for white mayoral candidate Mike Duggan

Right Wingers

Right wingers love to lie on black voters by accusing them of caring only about race. The truth is, black people have always voted for the candidates they felt best represented their interests, their hopes, irrespective of skin color. Unsurprisingly, many of those figures have been black — but they've also been the right people to pick. 

Now, though, that hope has been replaced by anger and suspicion, by a slow realization that many of these politicians are more than willing to use the plight of the black poor to get votes but won't use their office to actually make things better. Although Cliff is dead on when he says that Detroit's problems aren't the result of black political control, the reality is that many blacks on the ground feel betrayed by a long line of black political figures who've been much more interested in getting paid than in serving the best interests of the people. 

Whether its nepotism at the library, human-resources directors using money earmarked for poor folks to buy office furniture or Kwame Kilpatrick cutting out other minority vendors just to hook up his boy Bobby Ferguson, bureaucratic corruption and dysfunction in Detroit has cost many blacks their faith in this generation of African-American politicians. 

In many instances, these voters aren't the people who can simply pack up and move. They aren't the defense lawyers or the architects or the advertising executives who used to occupy the ranks of "average Detroiters" right along with the factory workers. They aren't even the handful of blue-collar union loyalists still fortunate enough to have kept that good-paying job on the assembly line. 

Upwardly Mobile People

Yes, Detroit still has black professionals, still boasts upwardly mobile working folks, still turns out college graduates (although estimates are that only about 8 percent of Detroiters have degrees). But more than at any time in the city's history, their ranks are thinning and fewer among the younger generations of Detroiters are rising up to take their places. 

Once upon a time, Detroit was a place where the poor could become prosperous, where hard work and labor unions enabled men and women who'd been minimum-wage sharecroppers to earn enough to buy nice homes and nifty cars, where a step up in class could do a little at least to offset the debilitating implications of race.

If Detroit is going to ever truly recover, it needs to be that place again, a place that's not riven by infighting among the have-littles and have-nots, a place where people — no matter how deprived, no matter how downtrodden— can still find hope for a better tomorrow.

A place where those who want a little more out of life (and really, isn't that most of us to some degree?) don't have to jump the fence to find it.

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