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The Real Story Behind the Decline of Detroit … And Yes, Great Things Are Happening There Too

The media is in a frenzy about Detroit's finances—but there's a lot more going on than just bad news.

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By 1980,  African Americans out numbered whites within the city limits of Detroit.  Yes,  capital started leaving Detroit in the 1940’s. But the population disinvestment is just as important.  Make no mistake about it.  The extreme segregation that has long characterized Southeast Michigan was anything but accidental. 

For decades,  it was the policy of the Federal Housing Administration to deny loans to African Americans trying to buy houses in the suburbs.  To this day,  if you buy a suburban house that hasn’t changed hands in a long time,  the deed may well contain a “restrictive covenant” that explicitly prohibits the sale of the house to Negroes. 

That’s not all.  Twenty-three out of twenty-three attempts to create a tri-county transportation authority to improve region-wide public transit went down to defeat in the white controlled state legislature.  So,  not only was it impossible for African Americans to buy homes near where the jobs were moving,  it was difficult to get to suburban jobs that came along with suburban growth.

And just to add insult to injury,  the financial institutions that wouldn’t lend money to African Americans to move out of the city wouldn’t lend it for home improvement in the city either.  But they would charge more,  far more,  for home and car insurance.  For those too young to remember,  that practice was called redlining.  It’s still prevalent today. 

One dramatic example of the cost of racism born by Detroit is this:  Detroit has an income tax on those who work within the city limits.  The two-tier tax is lower for those who work in the city but live in the suburbs.  In enacting the tax,  the state legislature required employers based in the city to collect the tax via payroll deduction as they do with federal and other taxes.  Suburban based employers are not required by the law to collect the tax.  Most of them don’t.  The revenue lost to Detroit per year is estimated to be as much as $142 million.   

Zooming out our historical lens even further,  we see the unbroken pattern of white supremacy even more clearly.  The counterrevolution to the civil war was the Jim Crow system.  The counterrevolution to the end of Jim Crow is mass incarceration and other components of the institutionalized racism that perpetuate and in some ways intensify white privilege today.  Detroit’s history as the national leader in residential segregation and all that flows from it definitely underpins today’s Detroit crisis and that of Flint,  Pontiac,  Benton Harbor and Muskegon as well. 

While observers sometimes notice that a majority of predominately African American cities in Michigan are under some form of emergency management.  The question they don’t ask is,  why are there predominately African American cities in the first place? 

The beauty of this “willful ignorance” for many whites is that as the quality of life declined in Detroit,  the decline itself became the moral justification for whites for the inequality itself.  It’s an old story.  Slave society did the very same thing.  Slaves were routinely portrayed as lazy and shiftless.  To put the meme in contemporary terms,  the slaves were demonized as the takers and the slave owners were the makers. 

If you want to see how this dynamic plays out today,  just read the abusive and sickening comments following any news story local, or national, about Detroit’s troubles.  For that matter just read the Detroit News—the “official” newspaper of white flight.  Back in the day it was editorial policy of the News to publish a front page story every day about a crime committed by an African-American. 

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