Discussion topics from last week’s readings

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Lecture 9 Outline

Race, Racism and Race Riots in American Cities: Detroit as a Case Study

Discussion topics from last week’s readings:
The Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon

Race, Racism and Race Riots in American Cities: Detroit as a case study

Detroit in 1910 – 1% black, 1970 – 45%, 1990 – 88%, 2010 – 83%. But additionally, 90% segregated throughout city’s history.
Notable: race riots in 1943 and 1967.

By 1940s, with fading of European immigration, Detroit no longer has ethnic neighborhoods (“Little Italy” etc.), except black communities. WWII brings opportunities to black migrants, defense industry jobs. Migration creates tension-filled situation in the city: in booming wartime economy, everybody has money but nothing to spend it on (rationing, extreme shortage of housing). Within housing market, blacks discriminated against, hemmed into oldest, poorest neighborhoods. Housing situation deteriorates further in Depression–WWII era, blacks bear the brunt of this phenomenon. Despite federal efforts to privilege blacks to defense jobs (Executive Order 8802), widespread discrimination in workplace and society prevalent. Racial tensions high on both sides. In this context the 1943 riot begins.

1943 Race Riot – June 20, 1943 tensions erupt when fight between blacks and whites breaks out on Belle Isle park. Rumors quickly spread by both sides, and three days of interracial violence results in 34 dead, predominately blacks. In aftermath, black political agents and foreign antagonists viewed as instigators. Housing issues and employment problems recognized after the riot, but largely remain unaddressed. Important factor: race issue is downplayed for fear that addressing racism and racial issues would inflame violence – a longstanding hallmark of race relations in America.

In Depression–post-war era, many federal and local actors (black and white) attempted to address issues of housing and employment integration/segregation. However, the New Deal programs actually implemented tend to favor segregation and white homeownership. Public housing widely viewed as handouts to undeserving feckless, and, importantly, white communities politick strongly against plans for black housing projects in their communities. Real estate covenants and similar practices also used as tools to keep neighborhoods segregated. Federal and local laws de facto stacked against blacks: black neighborhoods often viewed as too risky to benefit from federal improvement loans. Why such strict segregation? Beneath surface, racism a factor but unfulfilled Depression-era promises important issues as well: U.S. had underwent nearly a generation of belt-tightening and deferred gratification, for many Americans achieving home ownership had been a long struggle – housing privileges for blacks viewed as threats (decreasing home values) and essentially unfair. Many considered blacks as hangers-on of the Greatest Generation (or even antithical to its ideals) – notions deeply informed by racism. End result was a firm, semi-legal barrier between black and white neighborhoods, effectively keeping blacks out of mainstream America.

Issue of equality in the jobs market initially addressed but ultimately has similar end results. Throughout era, much pressure from the elite (unions/federal government/black political advocacy groups) has been exerted to foster equality in employment. Despite gains, most jobs opened to blacks were lowly jobs with little opportunity for advancement. These jobs were initially embraced by poor black migrants from South, particularly in the 1940s–1950s, but few actually rise out of poverty. While on paper, unions and employers did fairly good job of combatting employment discrimination, actual hiring practices changed little. Fear of breaking color line, or breaking prevailing hiring practices (often hard-fought gains for unions) a factor, but also simple prejudice of black workers as lazy or insolent and uneducated – ideation easy to reinforce given the context. City of Detroit, too, does fair job, but quality jobs generally privileged to whites. Often blacks relegated to casual labor market (seasonal work/sub-contracted work. End result was that majority of blacks could not secure quality jobs or housing, could not attain middle class status – the fundamental carrot of the American dream. This issue festers and situation deteriorates further, in tandem with economic downturn of Detroit.

Postwar Deindustrialization of Detroit – After wartime boom and Detroit as the “arsenal of democracy,” city goes into prolonged economic decline. The automotive industry begins to leave city for greener fields, to lesser power of unions and escape leverage of city (taxes), but also a move to physically larger areas – era of “runaway shops.” Part of larger nation-wide move of industry into new area (the South, the Southwest, and smaller towns). By 1968, 130,000 manufacturing jobs had left city. Jobs primarily migrated to areas completely inaccessible to blacks. Black youths hardest hit by phenomenon and confirms blacks’ suspicions that they are destined to be second-class citizens: the gains of Depression and WWII largely erased for post-war generation. Fundamental reasons for deindustrialization of city lost on those who try to aid blacks – urban renewal plans fail. Era too saw a weakening of traditional allies of black causes (unions, black political groups, New Deal liberals). Black civil rights gains move at glacial pace. Also, little attention paid to employment issues during phenomenal economic growth of 1950s U.S. But, critically, one large victory was desegregated housing – Sipes vs McGee 1948. Blacks begin to move into white neighborhoods more actively, and with more rights.

Blockbusting and Defending Neighborhoods in 1950s and ‘60s – Blacks who moved into white neighborhoods were generally unwelcome, although some benefitted (“block busting” real estate practices). Once one black family moved into a block, within 3–4 years the block would be 90% black. Fear mongering and other practices gave white homeowners two choices: flee or fight. Only the well-off could exercise the former option and move to the suburbs; most whites, especially those who had only the most tenuous foothold in middle class America, chose to fight housing integration. Why? Racism only one factor of many – religion, economics, community issues too played a role. Catholic churches, for example, are institutions that cannot be moved, cp synagogues and protestant congregations. In effect, integration meant “white flight” and a move to somewhere unknown, effectively a destruction of one’s community. Also, many simply did not have the money to move and were fearful of the very real prospect of criminality associated with blacks. In addition, blacks were viewed as the very anti-thesis of (white) America, centered on family, home and firm economic standing. Racism was undeniable factor and it’s clear that Detroit’s racism was homegrown. Neighborhood homeowners associations use threats and intimidation to defend color line. Initially quite effective, but never in the long run: block by block the city went black. Interestingly, affluent black communities used similar tactics – evidence of the growing gap between poor and middle class blacks and the racism and economics/status go hand-in-hand. Though complicit on occasion, the city, local and federal government battled against much of the grassroots ugliness. However, anti-integration becomes major issue amongst new “white” Americans, who feel that they are bearing the brunt of integration (busing, tax dollars earmarked for blacks etc.) – many, paradoxically, start to feel that their needs are being ignored by their leaders.

In black neighborhoods things begin to destabilize in the 1950s. Lack of opportunity and soaring crime rates create a thoroughly dystopian society. Slow pace of civil rights gains together with few tangible benefits from federal programs give rise to a populace that is thoroughly disenchanted. A competing narrative centered on black militancy too gains credence in black intercity. By late 1950s young black males no longer can see a future in mainstream society. Hemmed into ghetto and with little opportunity to migrate elsewhere, many turn to crime as a profession –“The Man” seen as the oppressor, crime the remedy. In just this context began the race riot of 1967.

The 1967 Race Riot – On July 23, 1967 police raid a “blind pig” (illegal bar) in black section of town. Arrests provoke crowds which start to harass police, within hours crowds are rioting and looting businesses and setting fires. After five days of rioting, 43 are dead, 7200 arrested and 2500 building burned or looted, some $30 million in damages. In retrospect, perhaps not a race riot at all: nearly all violence was black on black (excepting violence against police which was 93% white). Some have seen riot as a “poverty rebellion.” For most of white America, however, the rioting was incredibly incomprehensible: rioters shot indiscriminately at police, but also at firefighters trying to put out blazes; businesses looted where primarily black owned (although Jewish businesses too were targeted). In aftermath, black America, paradoxically, gains a victory: government pays even more attention to black America – and even includes black militants in talks – more federal funding pours into intercity communities – largely without any real effects: underlying causes never addressed.

The Aftermath – Though the fallout after the ’67 riot did bring some positive changes to Detroit (rational integration of police), the riot’s most lasting effect was “white flight” which quickly became exodus-like: in the 6 months after the riots 67,000 whites leave city, 80,000 in 1968, 46,000 in 1969, etc. Effect is to make Detroit increasingly poor with a debilitated tax base and a huge area to govern. The city becomes marginalized as suburbs become bases of power in state of Michigan, which cuts off funds for city. A Suburbs vs. Detroit culture takes hold with both sides blackmailing the other over tax dollars (Detroit Zoo, Mayor Young’s vitriol). To date, essential challenge facing Detroit is its weak tax base coupled with its poverty stricken populace, i.e. fighting for more equitable distribution of government funding.

Selected Reading:
“Detroit Race Riot of 1943” in Toward Freedom Land; The Long Struggle for Racial Equality in America, by Harvard Sitkoff, pp. 43–64
“Detroit Riots” in Revolts, protests, demonstrations, and rebellions in American history, (ed.) Steven Danver AND
“Two Tragedies, 1967–1968” in Race and Remembrance, by Arthur Johnson, pp. 102–112

Suggested Musical Interlude:

Ode to a Black Man by Phil Lynott (or the Detroit-flavored cover by the Dirtbombs)
Search and Destroy by The Stooges

(Completely) Optional Reading:

Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, by Rebecca Burns
American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riots and Black Politics, by Charles Lumpkins
Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, by Alfred Brophy
Andrew Pattison Oulu University Focus Areas in North American History 682373A

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