Thursday, March 18, 2010

Detroit: Taking charge of our story


New Detroit (link) and Wayne State University are putting on a major and significant conference on how the story of Detroit is being told today. Detroit is getting a lot of press these days --and it's mostly about crisis, decline, and despair. It is hard for a city to move forward in the context of such a negative picture. And many in Detroit find this national story to be superficial and misleading. So how can we do a better job of understanding and presenting our story? (Here is a link: Ourdetroitstory.)

There is a persistent feeling in the region that the national press is writing the story of Detroit in ways that retell the myths about the past and sensationalize the present. And it makes a difference. We need more nuanced stories, and today's conference is an important effort in that direction.

The lead speaker was Tom Sugrue, author of the 1997 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Sugrue made several key points. Most importantly, he points out that the received wisdom about Detroit is wrong. It's not mostly about the 1967 uprising, the white flight of the 1960s, or the racialized politics of Mayor Coleman Young. Instead, our current situation is the result of racial discrimination in employment in the 1940s through 1960s, the flight of industry from the city that began following World War II, and the patterned and systematic racial segregation that followed from Federal home loan policies, real estate steering, and violent and harrassing homeowner associations aimed at intimidating black home buyers.

So Sugrue argues that telling today's story requires an honest understanding of 70 years of our past. The past has created a set of social forces and patterns of economic and political inequality that profoundly affect the present and future. And he argues that the boundaries that divide our region have become a deep barrier to our progress.

The next panel involved lively presentations and discussions by distinguished observers: Robin Boyle (Wayne State University), Malcolm Dade (former political strategist for Coleman Young), David Freund (University of Maryland and author of Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America), and Marcella Wilson (Matrix Human Services). There is a strong theme of needing to achieve a greater reality of racial justice to our city -- and that so many other forms of progress won't be achieved without this important dimension of change.

The discussions today are an important part of Detroit's efforts to reinvent itself in a more equitable and affluent way. And this means understanding our history and our patterns of systemic racial disadvantage more fully.

2 comments:

minka said...

I was born in 1955 and grew up in the Chicago's South Side, as the area was experiencing intense white flight and overall economic abandonment and decline. I 'hear' your points but have no idea what you are talking about. If you are really to argue that white flight was not seminal, you need to present a basis. From my view, what I saw and experienced, it was pivotal.

Daniel Little said...

Minka, Thanks for your comment. I think that Sugrue's point (about Detroit) is that the racial patterns in residence and employment were established in the 1940s and 1950s, and that the extensive degree of racial separation in housing accelerated in the 1950s. So "white flight" is one description; discrimination in housing opportunities is another. And in either case, the timing is important, since part of the legend about Detroit is the idea that "white flight" occurred primarily after 1967. This isn't the case. In other words: it's a more complicated story, and one whose roots go back to the 1940s; and it is a story that involves very specific mechanisms of residential and employment segregation.