An Imagined Detroit by Ben J

When I first read Marsha Battle Philpot’s “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit,” I was surprised at the remorseful tone. I was expecting an anger and a grudge. How could she not be profoundly upset at the white children and their families who ran from black people away to the suburbs? She isn’t mad at the individual people, she’s mad at the social and political trends that “kidnapped” the children.  “Marsha Music” says it best when she writes “Detroit never left–but three generations did. Today, regardless of the city’s efforts at redevelopment, most know that they will never again live in the city of their affection.” Unfortunately, no one ever really lived in this city of “their affection”–a city characterized peaceful coexistence and racial diversity. Marsha’s essay is not just a historical recount of white flight in Detroit; it’s an elegy for the integrated Detroit that seemed so possible in the 1960s.

As Sugrue explains in his 1996 book examining the systematic causes of Detroit’s’ decline, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, post-WWII industrialization completely changed the job market for Black Detroiters. They were now able to access jobs and wages like never before–even if these jobs and wages were still worse than those afforded to whites. This new wealth in the black community in the 1950s and 1960s seemed like the opportunity to bridge the opportunity gap between black and white Detroiters. The influx of money created hopes for black Detroiters of escaping the overcrowded urban ghettos to which they were previous confined. But the lack of income and savings that had previously characterized Detroit’s black community was in fact not responsible for preventing black access to white middle class neighborhoods. Race, not economic status divided Detroit’s neighborhoods, and actually, the flow of new money into the black community only created more division. It caused the formation of a black middle class and intraracial stratification in the black community.

As wealthy blacks sought to purchase homes in historically white middle class communities, they were meet with systematic opposition. In 1948, in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants–agreements not to sell homes to non white buyers–were not legally enforceable. Despite this decision, Detroit realtors mainted a Code of Ethics throughout the 1950s and 60s that forbid “changing the racial character of a neighborhood.” Essentially, it barred realtors from selling homes in white neighborhoods to black buyers. Moreover, black Americans were barred from traditional or government insured mortgages so they were often sold homes through dangerous contract buying programs. Finally, even when black people were let into historically white neighborhoods, the neighborhoods would drastically change. Because of redlining policies, black home ownership in a neighborhood would decrease the average home value of a neighborhood. That fact coupled with racist attitudes toward blackness drove whites out of their neighborhoods. So, essentially, the middle class neighborhoods that rich black Detroiters wanted to access were completely different neighborhoods by the time blacks moved in.

Marsha Music’s story covers her first hand experience of this white flight. As a black family in Highland Park, she was part of the black middle class moving into a historically white neighborhood, but soon the racial character of the neighborhood completely reversed. Her story begins with white and black children living together in the same place–at this point in the history, blacks are just beginning to move in and white people are just beginning to move out. The beginning of “The Kidnaped Children of Detroit” captures the way many conceive of 1950s Detroit: a racially integrated, thriving city. But, as Marsha explains, this is only an imagined reality. Any integration was incredibly ephemeral and existed only in the liminal space between black arrival to and white departure from a neighborhood.

Detroiters yearn for the post war years of economic prosperity; this yearning is what Marsha Music dubs the their “affection.” They imagine the economic prosperity to have healed the racially divided city. However, the increasing wealth in Detroit in the post war period only lead to more stratification and separation between communities. It not only further separated blacks from whites, it seperated poor blacks from rich blacks. No wonder Detroit’s Boggs’ Center displays a poster that reads “From Growing Our Economy to Growing Our Souls.” Detroit’s history proves that money does not heal social fracturization. Marsha’s remorseful tone indicates that the problem with Detroit’s social stratification and geographical separation of different groups is the profound sadness it creates in people isolating people from one other, in “kidnapping” them. Money can’t do anything to repair the social and spiritual debt created by social factorization, but “Growing Our Souls” might be able to.

 

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