Why We Need to Pay Attention to Detroit

The cost-cutting measures under discussion may have ramifications for blacks around the country.

Detroit (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Detroit (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

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City government and control remained all-white into the 1970s, Gaines said. There was little interest in distributing the spoils of public power — or the resources that keep cities clean, safe and generally livable — to overwhelmingly black sections of Detroit. The situation stoked racial tension and nurtured the seeds of massive white flight to nearby suburbs when the city elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974. As Detroit’s city government and population became overwhelmingly black and affiliated with the Democratic Party, both the population and politics of surrounding suburbs, the state government and Congress moved in the opposite direction.

Around the same time, Motown Records decamped to Los Angeles. The city’s suburbs (pdf) grew far more populous than Detroit itself, and auto-manufacturing job losses and growing commercial and residential vacancies became increasingly common, reaching what seemed to be a series of crisis points.

What’s happened in Detroit is widely understood as a function of mismanagement, incompetence, corruption and excessively generous wages and benefits demanded by greedy unions, said Thomas Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 1996 book The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. But Detroit is also the nation’s largest majority-black city, and one where city government has, since 1974, been dominated by African Americans. So the popular understanding of what went wrong and is wrong in Detroit has also been shaped and understood through the lens of race, said Sugrue.

“Is Detroit really any worse than Chicago in terms of municipal corruption? No,” said Sugrue. “In fact, there are lots of other cities that have similar, even deeper, histories of mismanagement and corruption than Detroit. But if you were to just go to a shopping mall in one of Detroit’s northern suburbs, just right outside of town, and ask about Detroit’s decline, you would get corruption and mismanagement or, ‘It was great until Coleman Young became mayor.’ “

Detroit’s downfall began at least 60 years ago with deindustrialization, the decline of the auto industry and depopulation, which destroyed Detroit’s tax base, said Andrew Reschovsky, a public affairs and applied-economics professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty.

Other cities have already come very close to the financial edge, including Philadelphia, Cleveland and, perhaps most spectacularly, New York, said Sugrue. But each time, some combination of state, federal and regional financial bailouts made a critical difference. In most cases, the kind of racialized tension that exists between Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, Michigan and Congress wasn’t there. That tension and the prevailing political climate that opposes public spending and advocates for government workforce to be slashed make any kind of sharing of the burden anathema.

No Help From the White House

On Wednesday, when President Barack Obama made what the White House billed as a major speech outlining his ideas on ways to jump-start the economy to benefit the middle class, Obama did not mention Detroit’s woes.