Unconventional wisdom

Nov 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis should have been to the ’90s what Michael Harrington’s The Other America was to the ’60s — a book that galvanized the nation to see a problem and act. If it fell short of that mark, it hardly went unnoticed.

Subtitled Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, the University of Pennsylvania historian’s 1996 book has been lauded as a milestone in contemporary American history. It resists oversimplification, but its key points are clear: The flight of jobs that began immediately after World War II was key to the fate of cities like Detroit, as were the racial barriers in employment and housing faced by their black citizens. Sugrue spoke recently to Metro Times by phone on the occasion of a new edition of Origins from Princeton University Press.

Metro Times: Your new preface begins with a visit to your father’s childhood home around Chalfonte and Santa Rosa, south of Fenkell on the West Side.

Thomas Sugrue: My grandparents’ house was still there, but there is a lot of abandonment and a lot of vacancy in that neighborhood, and — being the good social scientist that I like to be — I went back to the 2000 census and began doing some research to see what had changed in the period when my father grew up there in the 1940s and early 1950s.

I found that it was a neighborhood that in many ways was Detroit in microcosm; it was a neighborhood that had been all-white that became overwhelmingly African-American in a very short period of time in the early 1960s. It’s a neighborhood whose white residents had fiercely resisted black movement into their neighborhoods prior to the 1960s, and it’s a neighborhood that experienced white flight, disinvestment, the combined effects of land contracts and unscrupulous real estate dealings and absentee landlords that led to a deterioration of properties. It’s a neighborhood that saw its commercial district pretty much gutted from the 1960s to the present, and it was a neighborhood that had once been home to blue-collar Detroit workers, and still has some blue-collar workers, but had, in 2000, a sizable segment of the population that was unemployed and underemployed, again representing larger trends that had transformed the city.

MT: What was your gut reaction?

Sugrue: There is a sadness that I can’t help but feel when I visit neighborhoods like that. I saw some beautifully manicured lawns, some nice gardens; some kids were shooting hoops at a basketball net that they had set up on a telephone pole. So there were signs of life and vitality. But it was also a place where vacant lots and crumbling houses and a very eviscerated shopping district kind of overwhelmed the signs of hope and opportunity.

MT: Going back to the old neighborhood — and despairing — is a common experience for Detroiters of a certain age.

Sugrue: One of the reasons why I wrote Origins of the Urban Crisis was because of my conversations with folks who had grown up in Detroit who would offer easy conventional wisdom about why the city had changed. Almost all of it came down to when they moved in — they meaning African-Americans — everything went downhill. They didn’t keep up their properties. They didn’t have the same values or commitment to home ownership. They didn’t work as hard. They didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. So when I visited that neighborhood, and when I began writing my book, part of my task was really to try to come up with a deeper, certainly better researched, and, I think, more compelling explanation than what still passes as conventional wisdom.

When I look at the abandoned houses and the vacant lots and the deterioration in that neighborhood, my first reaction — having written my book, and I hope my readers’ first reaction — is to see the combined impact of persistent residential segregation, discrimination in the workplace and the massive economic disinvestment that has plagued Detroit and other metropolitan areas. Those go a lot further in explaining the landscape of Detroit than arguments about the individual motivations of homeowners or people’s values and attitudes.

MT: Detroiters repeat that we’re the most segregated big metropolitan area almost like a mantra, but your book has broad relevance because Detroit is so typical of Rust Belt cities.

Sugrue: Almost all of the old industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest are highly segregated by race. Detroit happens to be extreme, but the variation between Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and so forth is pretty small. All of them have a very long way to go before there is any degree of racial integration or racial diversity. Detroit’s is very much a story that can be retold — with variations in timing, with some variations in local detail — for Philadelphia or Cleveland or St. Louis or Oakland. The overall pattern is one that’s depressingly familiar.

MT: One of the discoveries of your Detroit research was the extent of the white homeowners movement.

Sugrue: A little-known aspect of the history of the city and of most other Northern and Midwestern cities was the deeply entrenched resistance by whites to African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods. It was resistance that played out politically in terms of whites supporting conservative politicians like Detroit’s Mayor Cobo in the 1950s, but it’s also a movement that played out in protests and violence. I found more than 200 incidents of whites protesting, picketing, breaking windows, committing arson and attacking African-Americans who were the first or second or third to move into what were formerly white neighborhoods. These organized acts of protest and resistance played a crucial role in shaping the racial divide in Detroit and the metro area at large.

MT: You called it one of the largest grassroots movements in the city’s history

Sugrue: Its history is one that is largely forgotten. I had to piece it together using a wide range of different sources: the African-American press, the records of city agencies, the records of civil rights organizations. The daily newspapers, to take one example, didn’t cover racial incidents involving housing until the late 1950s; so if you were to read The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press in the early 1950s, you wouldn’t know that a lot of these incidents were going on. In fact, one of the most striking things that’s happened to me in visiting Detroit and giving talks has been that African-Americans in my audience almost always have a family member, a relative, an acquaintance, who can recount a story of some sort of harassment that happened when they moved into a formerly white neighborhood at some point in the city’s past. White Detroiters by contrast are shocked. They’ve never heard of these stories before. I had one talk where I read from a section of the book describing a several months-long series of attacks and harassment of a black family that was the first to move into a white neighborhood. And there was someone in the audience, a white person, who had grown up in that neighborhood and stood up at the end of my talk and said, "I never heard of any of those things happening in my neighborhood, this is a falsehood." And he stormed out of my talk. So it’s a reminder of the ways in which our memories are very much shaped by our position. White folks have, by in large, effaced those incidents from their memories; African-Americans, on the other hand, still have a real consciousness of that long history of discrimination and harassment.

MT: In your new preface, you mention discovering relatives were involved.

Sugrue: I found this out at the very end of my research. Some new documents opened up in a collection at the Walter Reuther Library. They were obscure newsletters from a neighborhood association in the area around the DeWitt Clinton School, which was on the West Side near where my father grew up. And I looked in the masthead and saw that the editor of one of these newsletters was none other than a James Sugrue. So I immediately got on the phone and called my dad and said, "Who is James Sugrue?" You have to understand that I come from a huge Catholic family, and my dad has three digits worth of first cousins. So I haven’t met them all and hadn’t met James Sugrue, and discovered that he was either a cousin or a second cousin. And then I was looking down a list of the wardens — this organization organized itself on a sort of civil defense model and set up block wardens who were responsible for coordinating the defense of the neighborhood against blacks moving in — and I found listed there my father’s Uncle Mat, who at least for a little while was also involved in this neighborhood association. No one talked about it when I was growing up, but it made me realize you can sometimes learn surprising things about your own family’s history when you’re doing research.

MT: What do you make of the fact that those stories aren’t passed on as family lore among white families?

Sugrue: I think it probably has to do with the way that it’s become politically unacceptable to talk about racial prejudice or racial discrimination in polite company these days. I don’t have many members of my family that would look back proudly on the fact that their ancestors were involved in resisting black movement into their neighborhoods. On the other hand, most of my extended family, like most white extended families in Northeastern and Midwestern cities, have moved to predominantly or overwhelmingly white neighborhoods so many of them today would still flee or not choose a neighborhood that had a sizable number of African-Americans living in it. But I don’t think very many of them in the current political climate would violently resist African-Americans moving in as some of their relatives would have 50 or 60 years ago.

MT: New Orleans certainly isn’t a Rust Belt City, but what did you see in the Hurricane Katrina disaster from your perch as a social scientist?

Sugrue: Natural disasters reveal in eye-opening detail the nature of racial and class inequality in a society. Those with the fewest resources are those who have the most difficult time coping with the consequences of disaster. I think that’s very clear in New Orleans. What was striking to me is how shocked, shocked the news media was that a disproportionate number of the people who were trapped behind in the New Orleans were people of color, that in some ways it took such an extraordinary moment for what all of us who study race and inequality have known for a long time. It took an extraordinary moment for them to realize that these patterns of racial inequality are very deeply entrenched in the geography of American cities. If Hurricane Katrina blasted through the Detroit area or through Cleveland or in Philadelphia — thank goodness we’re not in the hurricane belt — very similar patterns would have manifested themselves. Those with means would have been able to flee and those without resources would be those disproportionately left behind to suffer the consequences.

MT: There’s been a lot of scholarship following in the wake of Origins and a whole raft of new historical studies of Detroit. At some point, shouldn’t all this scholarship make us re-examine our politics and our policies?

Sugrue: Well, I hope so. Like many of the scholars writing about Detroit, I perceive myself as an engaged historian. I’m not just writing about the past because it’s interesting. We have to come to grips with the city’s troubled past. We can’t draw a bright line between past and present. The events that I describe reshaping Detroit in the 1940s to the 1960s, to a great extent, still shape the geography the politics and economics of the metropolitan area.

MT: You talk about racialized poverty as a consequence of political decisions. That seems to be light years away from the language of today’s public policy makers.

Sugrue: So much of our discussion of public policy rests on arguments about the need to change individual behavior, to change attitudes and values. If only poor people had a work ethic, or if their families weren’t dysfunctional, then we could solve the problems of poverty and inequality in the United States. I find that very problematic, especially in light of what we know about Detroit’s past and about the past of other cities. We need to take a look at the larger political decisions and economic structures that shape and constrain people’s opportunities. It’s not just a matter of people willing themselves out of poverty; it’s not just a matter of folks getting a sense of self-esteem or imbuing themselves with some sort of Protestant work ethic to deal with problems. If it were only that easy, but it’s not. The causes are far more deeply rooted and require deeper, more far-reaching and more innovative public policies than the ones we’ve been getting over the past 20 or 30 years or maybe longer.

MT: What kind of policies might address the issues?

Sugrue: I’m not a policymaker, so I’m loath to give you a long laundry list. But we need to think about ways of providing greater economic opportunities for folks living in center cities. I’m thinking about the role that federal policy — and state and local, but especially federal policy — can play in transforming the economy of various parts of the country.

It was federal policy that allowed for the dramatic expansion of suburbia beginning in the post-World War II era — and continuing right up to the present day. It happened because of conscious public policy decisions to subsidize highways, to subsidize single-family home ownership. In other words, an infusion of federal dollars made possible the dramatic transformation of our metropolitan areas. And I think we need to, in a general sense, take the lesson from that and think about the ways in which federal policy and local and state policy can remake or transform our central cities in ways that maybe will have just as enduring long-term consequences as those policies that made suburbia.

Or think about the other federal policies that remade America. The Sun Belt was transformed by a massive infusion of federal spending on highways and especially the military and the defense industry. It’s ironic that some of the staunchest critics of the supposed menace of big government are senators from places like Mississippi or Texas, places that owe much of their economic good fortune to massive infusions of federal spending beginning in the 1930s and 1940s and continuing right up to the present day. Again those are public policy decisions. We’ve decided to privilege certain areas against certain other areas, and so the Detroits and the New Orleans of the world get disproportionately less in terms of federal support than suburban places or some of these rapidly growing cities in the Sun Belt. It’s a matter of where we put our priorities. I would make a case that we need to think about public policies that put the needs of the disadvantaged over the desires of the advantaged, which is where so much of our public policy, especially in the last 25 years, has gone.

MT: For activists in this area, one focus has been at trying to put transit policy in the context that you’re talking about.

Sugrue: Transit policy is really important, especially in a sprawling metropolitan area like Detroit. How do you connect people to the places where job growth is most significant? When I was last out in the metro area, I visited an aunt and uncle who live in Milford. It’s one of the most rapidly growing sections of the metropolitian area. What was farmland and marsh and woods 20 years ago is now full of condominiums and McMansions and new shopping malls. These places are virtually impossible to get to unless you own your own car. Public transportation is very important in giving people access to places where jobs are occurring.

Another thing we need to think about is zoning and housing policy, and this is where local policy matters. It’s very difficult for working-class folks to move into the communities where the most rapid job growth is happening because the housing prices are too high; they’re priced out of the market. We talk a lot in American society about choice and freedom, but working-class and poor folk do not have the same choices and the same degree of freedom in the housing market as middle- and upper-class folks do.

MT: Do you think your next book, Sweet Land of Liberty, will revise thinking about the civil rights movement?

Sugrue: I sure hope so. I’m exploring the largely unknown story of the black freedom struggle in the North. Our understanding of civil rights is largely shaped by the Southern story, and it’s a story that usually begins with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision or the Montgomery bus boycott. The story of civil rights that’s so familiar to us is a story that largely has a happy ending: America redeemed itself by getting rid of official Jim Crow in the South.

The Northern story really complicates that; it messes with our conventional wisdom about civil rights. Many of the questions that Northern activists were struggling with in the 1930s and 1940s — workplace discrimination, housing segregation, the lack of economic development, of attempts to build infrastructure within the African-American community — these are all issues that are still to a great extent front-and-center and only partially resolved in American society today. The Northern story allows us to break out of the easy moralism of the Southern story. It’s a story also, I should say, that brings in a whole new rich and complicated set of activists. Just to take one example, the links between civil rights and black power are much more visible, are much clearer, when you begin to explore the histories of Northern cities than they are when you stick to the conventional narrative about what happened in the South. Many black activists in the North are simultaneously demanding equality with whites and inclusion into the political and economic institutions of American society, but also calling for the creation and invigoration of black-controlled communities. So there is much more tension between what is usually seen as dichotomous in the civil rights literature.

MT: It seems that part of what happened in the 1960s was that the Northern media could go to the South almost as a foreign country rather than report about race in their own communities.

Sugrue: I think there’s a lot to this. The Southern story allowed Northern whites in particular to point their fingers and shake their heads in disgust and to proclaim their innocence. We’re not responsible for racial inequality in the United States; it’s the result of slavery; it’s the result of institutionalized Jim Crow; it’s the result of red neck racists. So it conveniently allowed Northern whites to avert their gaze from the problems in their own backyard.

MT: We talked about your impressions of your father’s childhood neighborhood, but what about the city as a whole?

Sugrue: Certainly some sections of Detroit have changed pretty significantly. But the assumption was that gentrification or rehabilitation of the neighborhoods was going to have a trickle-down effect, that it was going to benefit large segments of the city’s population. The neighborhood where my father grew up was one — like so many — that was being clearly left behind. So part of my writing that preface was to show what’s changed in American cities over the last decade, decade-and-a-half, and what’s remained the same.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to [email protected].