News and Blogs

Race, class and lessons from Detroit


Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing led me to re-read a fine award-winning book by Thomas J. Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.” The basic argument of the book is that the crisis of that city  – now a mainly black, overwhelmingly poor city, a fraction of its former size and a shadow of its former magnificence  – is deeply rooted in persistent discrimination against blacks at the workplace and in housing.

This is a deeply depressing narrative. Detroit, an industrial power house in the 1940s and the very epitome of modernity as the home of the auto industry and the industrial union movement, failed to reverse its declining economic fortunes in large part because blacks and whites were incapable of achieving political unity around a progressive agenda which might have made a difference.  

Despite being a highly unionized city which was at the heart of New Deal Democratic politics at the national level, labour and progressives were very weak at the local level until the 1970s when it was too late.

The manufacturing crisis came to Detroit very early, in the heyday of the Golden Age of post War affluence, long before anyone had heard of “globalization.” From the early 1950s, the auto companies and their suppliers began to shift production in a major way from the massive Detroit industrial complexes such as Ford's River Rouge plant (which had employed some 85,000 workers at its peak in 1945) to newer suburban, often non-unionized, plants in the suburbs and smaller cities in the Mid West.  Manufacturing employment in the city was cut in half or by almost 200,000 jobs over the 1950s and 1960s. 

While there was some local union and community resistance, the UAW failed to challenge geographical relocation and job-shedding automation so long as its members (mainly white workers with seniority) could move to the new plants and other new opportunities outside the inner city. 

Moving was not an option for the tens of thousands of black industrial workers who had moved to Detroit from the South to “the meanest and dirtiest” mainly unskilled industrial jobs since housing in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs was intensely segregated. Sugrue recounts at length  the extent to which local politics through the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by largely successful efforts by white communities to keep out blacks through overtly racist means such as restrictive covenants on housing sales, and more subtle methods such as zoning to ban rentals and “red lining” restrictions on mortgage credit.

To provide a bit more nuance, the UAW championed civil liberties and an end to racial discrimination at work and in the community. But unions and the civil rights movement largely failed to effectively challenge the segregation of blacks in residential terms, and their exclusion from many of the best industrial jobs. While blacks and whites worked side by side in many plants and while progressives in the union worked with black community organizations, much of the white industrial working class sided with housing segregationists at the local political level, and fought to hold on to the most desirable jobs, including by supporting sporadic hate strikes when blacks breached the colour line and were accepted into apprenticeships or hired into skilled jobs. Many of them supported Republicans in local elections, and were iconic supporters of the George Wallace's Democratic insurgency in the 1960s. 

Race relations were further poisoned by the massive riots of July, 1967, eventually suppressed at the cost of 43 lives by 17,000 troops and police, by which time there was already a huge unemployed black underclass. From that point, white and middle-class flight to the suburbs intensified and the city economy went into a death spiral. The Detroit experience was shared, to a less extreme degree, by other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Buffalo which also saw the inner city collapse almost entirely into highly concentrated racialized poverty as the “post industrial economy” located in the suburbs and the sunbelt. 

The story in Canada has been quite different. De-industrialization of the inner city has taken place on almost the same scale in Toronto and Montreal, but the inner city has led the transition to the post industrial economy. Big cities are the home of most good jobs in corporate offices, financial and other services, health and education ,and culture and the arts. While there are more people living in low income racialized neighbourhoods in our largest cities, and, increasingly, in the older suburbs, they are still far less racially segregated by neighbourhood than are most big cities in the United States. The history of race relations in Canada, shaped mainly by patterns of immigration from the 1970s,  is, of course, fundamentally different than in the United States with its poisonous legacy of slavery. 

Moreover, the affluent have not fled the urban core in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, and indeed they dominate large parts of it. Progressive politics in our cities continues to be based on broad cross-class coalitions to promote a stronger urban economy and community. The experience of living side by side in diverse cities in terms of the income and racial background of residents seems to foster some shared concern for the common good on the part of  those who are doing relatively well. 

This is reflected, for example, in the fact that higher income voters in inner-city constituencies in Toronto and Vancouver tilt more to the NDP and the Liberals than to the Harper Conservatives in federal elections, while the affluent in higher income suburbs tend to vote for the right. 

Detroit is a powerful example of how racism can undermine the solidarity and sense of community purpose needed to deal with challenging economic and social realities.  Our big cities very much need to deal with the fact that poverty is a highly racialized experience and that the inner city is increasingly divided into rich and poor neighbourhoods. But it is not too late to do something about it.

Photo: Siegel, Arthur. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.