In the years after World War II, the Arsenal of Democracy became the crucible of racial animosity and the poster child for urban decay. Detroit - at once like and unlike other Rust Belt American cities - provides a compelling case study for how economics and politics can fuel sociological phenomena on the macro- and microcosmic levels…
This paper will examine how housing segregation, workplace discrimination and deindustrialization combined over a period of slightly more than twenty five years to fuel one of the most destructive acts of civil disturbance in the country's history and contribute to the city's slow, painful decline.
Naturally, the origins of this "urban crisis" can be traced back before World War II. But race riots in 1943 and 1967 provide a convenient frame for the phenomena Sugrue attributes to Detroit's decline. The people of Detroit, black and white, who became the major players in this modern tragedy largely came to the city in the Great Migration between 1916 and 1929, with a later influx during and just after WWII. Oddly enough, the racial conflicts the author describes were not carried to the city by migrants from the South eager to install Jim Crow laws in the North; instead, as Sugrue argues, "The racial politics were thoroughly homegrown" (212). Attached as they were to the personal factors of job availability and home ownership, the city's destructive racial politics can also be laid at the door of the American Dream -- and to other American Dreamers who could not or would not be persuaded to share. However, Sugrue is careful to point out that federal, state and local policies and politics, including measures meant to enforce equality, helped in no small measure to further divide black and white Detroiters by race, class and employment status.
Signs of trouble in Detroit were visible long before the riots of the late '60s, or the election of Mayor Coleman Young, or the gas crisis and the resulting American automotive industry crisis of the 1970s. Even as Detroit boomed from the industrial mobilization of WWII and the auto-driven economic expansion afterward, pervasive discrimination in the workplace and the housing market along strict racial lines thwarted sustained economic prosperity for the thousands of African Americans. Detroit and other major Northern cities went, as Sugrue describes, "from magnets of opportunity to reservations for the poor" (4) for reasons largely misunderstood or ignored, even by historians and social observers, who often seem to blame the victims or the federal aid programs of the Great Society and the War on Poverty. Instead, Sugrue also argues, it was New Deal policies and how they were applied by state and local politicians that helped ignite not black militancy, but a pervasive and radical "whiteness" that resisted equality for blacks in the workplace and the housing market as their God- and state-given right.
Detroit, though examined as a case study applicable to other cities as well, is atypical in many ways that may have served to make bad situations worse. It was heavily reliant on the automotive and related industries, and lacked a significant presence of other racial minorities (13). Its ethnic communities, largely different European groups, quickly merged into a cohesive, blue-collar, home-owning "white American" culture by the 1920s, one bolstered frequently through independent union shops and churches that bucked larger social trends toward equality and civil rights.
Even during the Depression years, Detroit's industrial economy chugged on, immortally captured in the epic murals of painter Diego Rivera. When WWII demanded a quick industrial mobilization, Detroit was ready physically; despite the association with the automobile, more than 40 ...
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