Last week Detroit Emergency Financial Manager Kevin Orr filed bankruptcy papers, and was later sent back to the drawing board. 

When I heard the news, I felt as if I'd been simultaneously punched in the gut and then had a two hundred pound weight strapped on my back. Similar to the Trayvon Martin verdict i'd kept my distance because I knew I'd get too immersed in it, but in the back of my mind I was hoping for something else. Similar to the Trayvon Martin verdict, that hope was fool's gold.

I've seen a lot of commentary on Detroit, some decent, some awful. When Lane wrote his piece for the Washington Post, I wanted to email him and ask him one simple question: What's the counterfactual? That is to say, if the problem really is corrupt Detroit politicians rather than something more systemic, then where's the example of the city that's faced everything Detroit has…and come out ok?  

There isn't one. 

The reality is that what happened to Detroit is the consequence of a series of contemporary and historic political decisions made decades ago at the federal, state, and local levels. Among these decisions the following loom large:

  • The decision to racially segregate Detroit suburbs. 

People point to the 1967 rebellions as the moment white flight began. But as Tom Surgrue notes white flight began as early as the mid-fifties. I say "white flight" specifically because blacks weren't allowed to live in many of the suburbs surrounding the Detroit area. The ones blacks were allowed to live in, like Inkster [foot]I lived in Inkster from 1972-1984.[/foot] were working class and almost created for the purpose of housing African Americans.[foot]When Detroit was predominantly white they engaged in a number of institutional tactics to prevent black encroachment. Suburbs like Inkster were created in part to give blacks working at the automotive plants a place to live as their population grew.[/foot] As late as 1980 many of the metropolitan area's suburbs were off-limits to African Americans, not because of reasons related to class, but because of racism. This made a variety of metropolitan solutions to Detroit's problems unworkable–including a solution proposed by Governor William Miliken to tax the Detroit region in order to generate funds for it. 

(editor note: Scott Kurashige suggested I make a technical point to note that Detroit was already deeply segregated before white flight began. White flight represented a counter-revolutionary social movement to reproduce the racial segregation that existed in Detroit before the civil rights/black power revolutions.)   

  • The decision to end revenue sharing.

This is actually two decisions in one. The idea of revenue sharing was proposed by Lyndon Johnson as a way to give resources directly to cities, who could then use the money they received to deal with the increasing problem of poverty. Although Nixon wasn't an urban president by any stretch of the imagination, to the extent he made changes to the program those changes were introduced for the purpose of streamlining them rather than gutting them. Ronald Reagan on the other hand wanted to reduce the ability of the federal government to collect and disburse revenue. So he both gutted the federal revenue sharing program and made it increasingly difficult for states and local governments to raise taxes themselves. Many states had their own revenue sharing programs. Michigan has such a program, but decided recently to stop paying Detroit the funds they are owed. Reagan's decision forced cities to become even more entrepreneurial, relying heavily on a mixture of downtown development programs and on municipal bonds to raise revenue–mentioned below. By the time the state of Michigan decided not to pay Detroit their share the damage was already done, but was exacerbated.

  • The increasing reliance on municipal bonds.

Cities have raised revenue by floating bonds for decades. But after around 1970, cities and local governments have been forced to rely even more on them, as federal support not just for cities but for welfare provision in general began to diminish. Because one's rating determined the ability to raise revenue, political officials were constrained, forced in many instances to take steps needed to ensure positive ratings rather than steps needed to ensure quality of life for all residents. And in as much as bond rating agencies were more concerned about profit-loss, they often looked down upon attempts to spend city revenue on social service provision, and looked favorably on downtown development plans. 

The latter two decisions are part and parcel of the neoliberal turn. The decision to end revenue sharing is a vital part of the attempt to force cities to become more entrepreneurial and more business friendly. The increased reliance on municipal bonds creates an external force that can keep cities on this program even if individuals within the city want to take another angle. The first decision occurs long before the turn begins but makes the turn easier to make. 

What happens now? New York City actually faced the same problem Detroit did in the seventies, but was bailed out by the federal government and the banking sector.[foot]In fact I’m not sure financial capital becomes as dominant as it is without NYC’s fiscal crisis.[/foot] What will likely happen is that a number of creditors will lineup to get pennies on the dollar, with some getting more than others. Bank of America for example will likely get far more of any deal cut, than the various pension boards. The cost of Detroit's bankruptcy in human life terms, will likely be staggering. As it'll likely take several years to sort out, I'm not sure Detroit will be self-governing in the traditional sense for years.

Other rustbelt cities will likely fall, and then soon non-rustbelt cities will fall as well. Detroit isn't the only city surrounded by hostile white suburbs. It's not the only city to suffer from the lack of revenue sharing. It's not the only city to be disciplined by bond rating agencies. Detroit's the canary in the coal mine. But the miners will fall soon. 


A friend of mine suggested everyone putting $1 or $2 grand in a pot to stave off the land grab occurring in the city. In the spirit of proliferation I won't shoot down this idea offhand, even though it smacks a bit of the type of "put a dollar in a put and pass the hat around" approach that ignores the complexity of what's happening in Detroit right now. But I will suggest that this is a political project best solved by political activity centered on the ideas of institutional design, institutional accountability, and resource redistribution. Although the winners of next year's mayoral and City Council elections will likely have about as much power as Detroit's locally elected officials do now–that is to say, not much–for the first time in a long while the City Council members will be elected by ward/districts rather than at large. What this means is that it may be possible to run a slate of candidates on a progressive platform that reimagines the types of activities a city like Detroit should engage in. And perhaps more importantly reimagines what the region should look like. As long as Detroit sits on the largest body of fresh water on the face of the planet, it isn't going anywhere. And its prospects are intimately wed to the prospects of the metropolitan region as a whole. What type of political ideas should we think about?

A number of cities throughout the world have introduced participatory budgeting–a means by which individuals can democratically decide where the city spends all or part of their money. Such an approach opens up the problematic possibility that people better educated and informed will game the system but it could also open up the possibility that resources may be allocated more fairly. 

A number of cities have become havens for undocumented men, women, and children. If Detroit has to be repopulated it is possible that the best way to do this would be to make Detroit a literal global city by opening its doors to migrant populations. These populations could potentially generate a partial replacement for the top-down market most cities now have. 

Regional cooperation. Whatever happens to Detroit, the region is going to take a hit bond-rating wise. This may force the region to take a clear look at regional governance. Which could potentially increase the city's resources. 

But alongside these ideas we have to start thinking carefully about creating ways for Detroit's population to govern and sustain itself. I recently had the pleasure of watching American Revolutionary, a documentary about Grace Lee Boggs. Grace and her husband James were two of the first people to recognize how the manufacturing industry rendered an entire swath of the population superfluous, and that there was no industry that could possibly give jobs to the large population left out when that sector automated itself and then fled. We–and I write "we" intentionally with the twofold understanding that Detroit will always be a part of me, and that whatever happens in Detroit people living in AND outside of the city have to be involved –are going to have to come to grips with the fact that large numbers of men, women, and children in Detroit have been left behind because of the processes of large scale capitalism and deep racism. I don't agree with everything Grace writes–her ideas about black youth are on the conservative side as are her ideas about what I think is a common sense fight to make government responsive. But the political tendency she represents is probably the strongest or at the very least most visible progressive political tendency in the city. 

More later. I'm hard at work on book #3, and have pretty much decided that the book after this one will be about Detroit. But another Detroit expatriate–Chokwe Lumumba, might have just the right template for Detroiters to think about.