When I visited Detroit in October for the first time since 2009, I saw neighborhoods full of dilapidated homes and the economic devastation that has been widely discussed in documentaries and mainstream media reports over the past five-plus years. But what overwhelmed me was the black pride and black resiliency of Detroiters—the pride that comes from growing up in a city that has had an overwhelmingly majority-black population for more than 50 years and black political leadership for nearly 40 of them.
This black renaissance in the Midwest reached its political zenith in 1974 when Coleman A. Young became the first African-American mayor of Detroit. Like many other first-time black mayors of large and midsized cities at the time, Young took over a city on the brink of economic collapse: Property values were on the decline; the city was still wounded from the 1967 riots; its Police Department was mostly white and arguably as brutal toward black people as some of the recent incidents of police brutality—like the killing of Eric Garner—that have grabbed national attention; and the population was decreasing. Fast.
Under Mission: Impossible-like conditions, Young—a Democrat—not only became the first mayor since 1950 to run a city with more income than debt, but he also downsized the city bureaucracy; forged a number of key corporate deals that generated millions of dollars for Detroit; and pursued other fiscally conservative, economically stimulating measures for which Republicans are more often celebrated. He is widely considered to have saved the city from bankruptcy during his first year as mayor, according to an in-depth investigation by the Detroit Free Press.
He also reformed the Police Department—getting rid of STRESS, an undercover unit that was responsible for the deaths of 17 black men. Young also had no problem confronting white racism, one of the reasons his legacy of fiscal excellence is frequently overshadowed by what many suburban politicians characterize as his hate for white folks. During the end of his tenure, in 1994, the city was nearly 90 percent black, and most municipal departments were led by black managers. Although the city had financial issues, its debt was manageable, and more than 1 million people still lived in Detroit at the time.
A black mayor—with a black-pride platform and a black population—achieved that. And black Detroit, despite electing a white mayor in 2014, will be responsible for its eventual comeback. Not a white savior.
Detroit is now emerging out of bankruptcy, and its economic recovery will take years, as the Detroit Free Press recently reported. But even with its bleak economic outlook, some headlines suggest that the city is making a “comeback” because of growing interest in the city—particularly from businesses and newcomers looking to take advantage of dirt cheap housing. Calling it a comeback, however, is, in a way, suspicious, given that the city now has a white mayor and much of the recovery narrative is dominated by gentrifiers moving into midtown and downtown Detroit.
Living in New York City and working as a reporter, I get to hear a lot of off-the-record conversations about Detroit that tend to be less guarded in their political correctness. The consensus I hear, though it is never explicitly articulated, is that poor black people who aren’t paying their water bills and black leadership that was raiding the city’s coffers are the reasons Detroit fell on hard times.
And, of course, the city has had its share of poor leaders—what city hasn’t? But I remind critics that Detroit has spent decades fighting racist federal policies and regional politicians who wanted Detroit to fail.
During the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration instructed mortgage lenders to respect racial covenants, and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board sponsored mapping that made most black neighborhoods off-limits for spending, according to Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute. And while African Americans risked their lives fighting for their country during World War II, black veterans were essentially cut off from lending because of federal mortgaging restrictions. All of those nice homes in white suburban Detroit? Many were built with federal money, a resource often denied to black people.
Black Detroiters, though, were able to buy homes on their own, in spite of racial disparities. And yes, the riots that led hundreds of thousands of white tax-paying residents to leave the city played a role in Detroit’s current fiscal issues. But black Detroiters who have been around long enough will tell you that many white people would have left the city anyway because they were always uncomfortable with any black economic prosperity that could challenge white political rule in City Hall.
To borrow a line from Drake, white people “never loved us.”
Detroiters can be protective, if not defensive, about their hometown because they’ve been able to develop a thriving culture that has withstood federal, state and city-level oppression that critics never seem to acknowledge. Indeed, midtown Detroit is booming with new investment and a growing number of white residents. But any “comeback” they take part in will be because of the cultural legacy of Motown, the working-class neighborhoods full of brick homes bought by autoworkers, and the true grit of its black citizens, who refused to leave Detroit when the tough got even tougher. Detroit is more than 80 percent black, and unlike those white citizens who started leaving in the ’60s, many of the city’s current residents don’t have the same economic mobility to leave. Any economic recovery that Detroit undergoes will be led by its black residents.
Just as black Detroit rose from the flames of ’67 and fought its way through tough economic times during the ’70s, black Detroit will find a way to create its own renaissance. So when the narratives of Detroit’s eventual comeback dominate the headlines years from now, the story of black Detroit—and all of the political, social and economic trauma it endured to realize its days of economic stability—won’t be able to be ignored.
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter.