Who Said Detroit Died?

— Eddie Hejka

I LIVE IN a racially-mixed, predominantly African American, community-oriented safe neighborhood. We know all our neighbors. Our children attend good public schools. They participate in neighborhood little league, soccer, art classes and various other activities.

Our oldest child has autism and is looked after, not only by family but also by caring children and adults throughout our community. We couldn’t imagine a nicer place to live and raise a family.

Where is this place, you ask? It’s in Detroit. Despite Heather Thompson’s declaration of Detroit’s death (in ATC 72, January-February 1998, 39-41, reviewing Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit), the city continues on with dozens of thriving communities, rising property values, declining unemployment, lower crime and a sense of optimism that she and others who "romanticize" oppression fail to share.

Aside from differing with her pessimistic perspective on Detroit, I disagree with her recounting of the facts. The nearly quarter million white residents of Detroit (1990 census) would be surprised to learn from her that "virtually all whites had fled Detroit" by 1980.

Her quote of Professor Sugrue saying Detroit was "dominated by rotting hulks of factory buildings closed and abandoned" by 1960 is equally ridiculous. Likewise her own statement, that "whites experienced...[a] devastating and irrevocable loss" when Mayor Coleman Young was elected in 1973, overlooks the significant percentage of white voters who supported him in that first election.

None of this takes away from the factual recounting of the resistance of many white homeowners to integration, or the pervasiveness of racism then and now. Thompson’s choice to group all white residents into stereotypical homogeneous groups, however, contributes to the racism we’d all like to see erased.

White residents are described by Thompson in militaristic terms throughout: They waged "block by block trench warfare battles" over neighborhoods and "finally withdrew their troops from the battlefield for good" with the election of Mayor Young.

African Americans are equally stereotyped. Black residents of Detroit are referred to either as members of the "underclass" (a term I despise as inaccurate and demeaning) or underestimated "challengers" of the status quo whose "power, activism and resilience" and militancy are de-personified and admired.

These stereotypes are bolstered by Thompson’s use of "whites" and "Blacks" as nouns. None of us are simply "a white" or "a Black." Undoubtedly in this racist society our color affects nearly everything. But is not all that we are: men, women, husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, neighbors, family, friends, enemies and all the other roles that all people play.

Sadly it seems that even with all our good intentions, "progressive" folks are just as likely to believe racial stereotypes as conservatives.

I think that if we want to fight racism, as Heather Thompson surely does, we should begin by looking in our address books. If nearly everyone in there is the same race as ourselves, then it is we who are contributing to racism’s continued strength (not some evil person or persons "out there).

We each have the power to make our communities stronger, and racism weaker, by reaching out and seeing one another as people. Though it seems simple and naive, we’ll find that the next time we look our circle of friends, our communities, our unions, our employees, our churches and our coalitions are more racially-mixed and thereby stronger.

I feel, in my heart, that the racist stereotypes that hurt Detroit and the rest of our communities have to first be addressed personally, because if individuals change then institutions will follow.

ATC 74, May-June 1998


Submitted by J. HEJKA (not verified) on February 21, 2009 - 10:49pm.