Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Origins of the Urban Crisis

Although many Americans remember the 1950s for its great prosperity, Surgrue in his historic monograph, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, depicts Detroit as a divisive and poverty ridden, where many residents faced systematic and structural racism. He argues that the mundane discrimination, most prevalent in employment and housing practices, caused the Detroit’s crisis of racial segregation and conflict in the 1960s. The local government only reinforced this discrimination based on its own incentives created by the emerging, predominantly white, working class.

The US government responses to Detroit’s housing and employment markets during the 1930s-1960s were drastically different from the national to the local level. Where as the New Deal policies encouraged homeownership, entrepreneurship and collective organizing, this disproportionately affected blacks and whites because blacks faced upward challenges of racial inequalities. Structural racism was mutually reinforced by local laws and city government actions.

In the early 1930s, the housing supply for the blacks was wretched. Poor blacks didn’t own their homes and many families were forced to live together. Pockets of poor housing existed, blacks couldn’t get loans, properties deteriorated, black neighborhoods were condemned and areas became blight. Living conditions became worse as the federal housing officials classified black neighborhoods as sub-standard. Overcrowding created sanitation, safety and fire hazards. Blacks also faced highway construction throughout their neighborhoods, which downplayed the human costs and displaced many. Rental costs for blacks were disproportional higher than for whites of up to 40 percent or more.

The housing shortages complicated additionally problems for blacks in their pursuit of purchasing homes in the later 1940s and 1950s. White homeowners were the city officials, bankers and loan officers, who constructed policies like red lining which discriminated blacks from the housing market. Private sector discrimination doubled with these bad bank-lending practices. Black’s became risk adverse.

Deindustrialization began in the 1950s, as did “white flight” into the suburbs. White city planers avoided building public housing in the suburban areas, which drew distinctive lines for where blacks and whites could live. Local politicians also siege on the segregation of housing settlements suggesting lower values for black homes. The inter-city public housing built only made a more decisive role in racial inequality instead of creating a city of inclusion.

Unfortunately, the workplace only maintained similar discriminatory practices that grew out of the housing environment. Not only were less desirable jobs offered to black, they were also paid less. Even with racially progressive unions, cultures within the organizations, labor market structures and internal firm dynamics generated workplace discrimination. Items like union-negotiated rules, seniority and apprenticeship fostered the same gender and racial segmentation and exclusion.

Stereotypes—like blacks were lazy, unproductive, and unreliable—also fueled unfavorable employment practices. The “brotherhood” culture of highly labor intense working environment did not encourage racial diversity, nor trust with individuals who didn’t look similar. Each industry whether it was an employment agency, the auto industry, municipal jobs, skill trades or retail stores, blacks were often disregarded, selected for the worst jobs or hide behind counters. This endemic discrimination created a huge underclass of workers. The new emerging middle class whites more over had better jobs in the auto factors, guilds and stores, which enabled them to have stable incomes to buy homes. Thus developing two Detroit’s, one black and the other white.


Yet beginning in the 1950s, much of Detroit’s auto industries saw deindustrialization. For the Chrysler Corporation to compete with Ford or General Motors, they needed to shrink their labor supple, relocated manufacturing plans in the suburbs with atomization, and sought after tax breaks and non-unionized labor. Job loss and economic distress predominated in the 1950s and 1960s. As the major auto industries decentralized their related industries like shop-owners, taxpayers and homeowners also moved out and left town. Along with it, “white flight” moved homeowners to the suburbs. Deindustrialization only fortified the already strained black employment market. Sugrue highlighted job training programs only partially assisted the situation, because they would first help all-white jobs and later help the black pioneers.

Between national legislation of the New Deal (1940s) and the Great Society (1960s), local governments filled the gap to implement housing, social and economic policy. Although the systematic roots of racism became further embedded into society while white elites were elected officials and managed to maintain race lines in new home construction and management of public resources. Although black politicians and the NAACP elected pro-integration leaders, patterns of divergent residential lines and poor-paying jobs in the context of deindustrialization lead to further racial tension and decay. Also black politicians were outnumbered in local voting practices.

Residential fighting first began with the game of blockbusting. Although housing discrimination was illegal, real-estate brokers developed blockbusting by creating “panic among whites,” encouraging them to move because a black family would purchase a home on the block. Once one block would “turn” housing prices would follow south, thus many people left as soon as they could. The turnaround of neighborhoods would be on a house-by-house and block-by-block ratio. Class and status matters, but more so did race. As blacks increased in class and status, their white counterparts fought more vehemently. While the Irish Catholic immigrants seemed to be the most fanatical; the least were the more elite, which were also less affected.

Local government representatives and community leaders followed the white politicians as they attack the black encroachment with zeal. Sugrue suggested the New Deal ideology of self-help and individual achievement helped blacks to buy homes, as well as helped whites to build civic associations and neighborhood watches in order to be vigilant of the potential “invaders”. The city government followed the political influences shaped by the civic associations and neighborhood groups. As the grassroots organized participatory democracy of values embroiled the average white mother with their children to protest black homebuyers in their neighborhood. Also white real estate developers assisted with the racial exclusion by creating and enforcing building restrictions, codes, and zoning laws.

As the white political elite developed how to manage public resources, they systematically created benefits for their own color and class. Because of personal incentives, whites continued to discriminate in employment practices, thereby not allowing blacks the same benefits of the New Deal policies. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis argues that the actual implementation of these policies at the local level from the 1930s to mid-1960s played a crucial role in the developing civil unrest in the city of Detroit.

Race riots were the outcome of the profound segregation and structural racism. Sugrue implied the violet summer of 1943 was only a fractional background to the 1967 riots, which were deeper and more profound because the fighting became ever more bitter and multifaceted. Young black men on the city streets without work and white ladies fighting off property invasions juxtaposed the racial tensions. The lack of jobs, depolarization of African Americans for the work place and deeply unsetting them from homeownership created chaos and conflict. Sugrue ultimately argues that the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty came too late for the deteriorating development of Detroit. White flights proceed as black power surged. The silent majority didn’t receive attention in time to confront the major deficiencies in work and living greatly deserved by African Americans after the Second World War. The eroding society and community is what still remains in Detroit today lacking sufficient capital and attention for rebuilding.

Although it can be argued, which Sugrue omitted, that without the New Deal assistance of social security, unemployment insurance in addition to other social benefits, African Americans may have faired far worse. Regardless, in this historical review of Detroit, Sugure describes how complex racial inequality fortified itself though a structural explication of individual actors making rational decisions. Only through the thick interwoven history, Sugure can describe how pervasive and destructive this situation effected Detroit residents even prior to deindustrialization. Major factors for this pervasive structural racism are described through the city’s housing and employment practices.

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