Over the past few months or so I've had to correct the record on Detroit. About what it is, about what it was, about what it can be. I expected to have to correct the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Detroit News even.
But I didn't think I'd have to correct Colorlines.
In The Old Lessons of Detroit, Imara Jones appears to understand at least some of what's going on now in Detroit. Jones understands that Detroit is only 1/3 its 1950 population size. By name checking Steve Rattner Jones appears to support Rattner's idea of a government sponsored bailout. And Jones gets the human costs of Detroit's failure.
But Jones' totally ignores the role of white flight and structural racism in detailing the reasons for Detroit's failure, placing most of the burden in the city's "decision" to hitch its sails to the auto industry.
Through a combination of an over-reliance on a single, formerly all-powerful industry and two generations of unsteady political leadership, Detroit remained stuck and resistant to change. The Washington Post’s Keith Richburg, a Detroit-native, said that the city was “kept alive by pride, a nostalgia for its former glory, and an illusion that revival was just around the corner.”
The essential problem is that Detroit has remained the capital of an industry which built America but is now a shadow of its former self: the car industry. And nothing in the city has shown up to replace it. That’s because automobiles were so dominant for so long that they crowded out the city’s economic imagination.
Jones' choice of Detroit expats is peculiar, given that Richburg's written that slavery was the best thing to happen to him and other African Americans.
The passage below is the most important passage of the article.
The U.S. economy decoupled from Detroit, and the world based on the churning out of goods along an assembly line went away. Manufacturing as a portion of the U.S. economy is now two-thirds smaller than when Detroit was at its height. Outpaced by global competition, the Big Three car makers’ percentage of even the U.S. market has fallen by 50 percent since 1950. And Detroit has slid down in the ranking of American cities to be 18th in size.
Yet even with global economic realignment, Detroit’s longterm collapse was not preordained.
With better leadership the city could have made the painful transition that so many other cities have made during the global economy’s transformation from one based on manufacturing to one based on services and technology. Pittsburgh moved from a one-industry steel town to one now dominated by medical and education services. Minneapolis is now home to leading brands like 3M, Target, and Best Buy. Even hard-hit Indianapolis is making a go at reworking itself from a rustbelt town into a distribution and pharmaceutical hub.
Between 1940 and 1970 Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its time, by 1980 or so this changed, "due in part to policy changes in Washington."
I've already focused on three important dynamics one has to consider when studying Detroit's condition: racial exclusion in Detroit metropolitan development, the increased reliance on bond-rating agencies, and decreased revenue sharing as a result of federal policy.
I want to further unpack the first dynamic a bit.
The form US metropolitan development takes is due to the GI Bill, the federal highway system, and federal subsidies to manufacturers. The GI Bill gave veterans the ability to buy cheap (new) housing. The federal highways system connected urban cores to suburban and rural areas (as well as to other cores). Subsidies to corporations gave manufacturers like Ford and GM the wherewithal to modernize and relocate plants.
What role does race play here?
The homes vets bought had to be new housing. And by federal dictate, the new housing had to be in the suburbs. The money could neither be used to rebuild homes in cities, nor be used to build NEW homes in cities.
This policy exacerbated racial inequality in Detroit by allowing white vets to build racially exclusive suburbs and to gradually accumulate (and hoard) wealth in them–wealth generated by their distance from African Americans. The newly created highways gave them the ability to locate these suburbs further and further away, increasingly reducing their connections to the city. Finally these highways, gave whites more access to the fleeing manufacturers. Blacks ARE able to accumulate more political and social power as a result–as whites move from Detroit black political and social power within the city increases. Given the wealth whites hold however, the political and social power they acquire becomes weaker and weaker. Black empowerment was in effect a hollow prize.
Now according to Jones, if Detroit would've have less corrupt leadership and followed the lead of Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis, Detroit could've conceivably been in a far better situation than it is now. Each of these cities experienced population loss as a result of corporate and middle class flight. And each of these cities has indeed made a resurgence of sorts.
But none of these cities have a black population percentage higher than 27. These cities are and always have been majority white. In fact, when it even looked like Indianapolis would tip, political officials merged it with its surrounding suburbs in 1970.
Detroit could have conceivably followed the path of Pittsburgh and Minneapolis only if it somehow maintained its status as a predominantly white city. And the only way it could have conceivably followed the path of Indianapolis would be to have merged with its suburbs…around the time it elected its first black mayor.
Neither of these scenarios are plausible.
I expect this type of coverage from a range of publications. I'd expect it from the Wall Street Journal. I'd expect it from Forbes. I'd expect it from the National Review. I'd expect it from The Detroit News given its conservative editorial slant.
I do NOT expect a color-blind article about Detroit's past, present, and future from Colorlines.