Tag Archives: white flight

Detroit’s Depopulation was Inevitable Before the 1967 Riot

detroit decline
Detroit inevitably was destined to depopulate prior to the 1967 riot for it was landlocked and new green-fields were needed for modern auto production. Union wages, whether fair or not, were higher than could auto companies could find outside of Detroit. And continued black migration and expansion into white neighborhoods combined with FHA loan guarantees and the ease of highway commutes led to white flight.

Considering the few U.S. Automobile manufacturers today, it is hard to imagine there were more than 200 such manufacturers in the entrepreneurial days. From 1895, when only 4 cars were registered in America, Detroit quickly became the center of the universe for Autos. By the roaring twenties, the number of manufacturers had dropped to 70, but those 70 made Detroit roar to an annual production of 5.3 million vehicles in 1929. Half the cars in the world were built in Detroit.

Through the Depression, auto production dropped to 2.5 million, compared to Japan’s 24,000. Prior to the Depression, a continued influx of new workers suppressed wages for the Big Three. During the depression, pay for those workers who still had jobs decreased as much as 65%. Yet unions would soon reverse the course toward worker pay. However, their advances along with work stoppages would make Detroit a less attractive location for Auto manufacturers.

With FDR’s support, union membership grew through the depression years to over 8 million members by 1939. The United Auto Workers, UAW, formed in 1935, joined the CIO the following year, and began engaging in strikes for better pay and conditions.

By 1940, the Big Three were producing 90% of American cars. The Depression had created a pent up demand of 30 million cars. Detroit’s 1.2 % of the U.S. population created a US Auto industry revenue of $4 billion out of a U.S GDP of $101.4 billion, or about 3.9% of U.S. output.

Then for 4 years due to the war, between 1942 and 1946, no cars were produced, creating an additional pent up demand of 20 million cars. Not that stopped auto production hurt Detroit, far from it. War revenues increased from $7.5 billion to over $10 billion. While the UAW responded to the war by committing to no strikes, nonetheless, workers did participate in wildcat strikes over working conditions, including having to work alongside African Americans.

From the start of auto industry through two wars, Detroit’s population growth was driven much higher than the rest of the country because of its tie to war industry and the rise of this significant industry. After the war, Detroit was in for additional domestic boom, as millions of returning vets would be itching for wheels.

Two world wars and a Depression had created pent up demand for cars that would fuel Detroit’s growth through 1950. By 1950, U.S. auto production had surged to over 8 million vehicles, from pre-war numbers of just 2.5 million. Auto revenues surged to $12 billion, still around 4% of a burgeoning U.S. output.

Yet, by 1950, at 1.8 million people, Detroit reached its zenith. No more massive stimuli existed to continue fueling growth. In fact, Detroit’s population growth could be considered to have been a bubble fueled by extraordinary circumstances. Now those circumstances would align in the reverse direction to substantially reduce Detroit’s population.

The end of the war would also be the zenith of union participation as a percent of U.S workers. By the end of WWII, union membership had grown to 14 million, over a third of America’s workforce. Through collective bargaining, workers gained a greater share of profits, receiving higher wages, overtime pay, vacations, seniority, and less working hours. But by 1948, buoyed by what many thought were excesses of Union gains, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act reining in Unions. In 1950, the UAW won pensions, but not until workers struck for 104 days at Chrysler.

In 1950, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the United States. But the auto manufacturers began looking for less unionized locales and for land to build single story factories that fit new production technologies and automation. Between 1948 and 1967 130,000 auto manufacturing jobs went elsewhere, particularly to the less unionized Sunbelt. Unemployment in Detroit during the 1950s rose to double that of the rest of the United States, as high as 16%.

Yet even as jobs were leaving Detroit, the second Great Migration of Blacks from the South continued to populate the city, adding to a surge of blacks moving into previously white neighborhoods. In the midst of this job flux and migration, Detroit entered the Highway era. Combined with the rise of FHA insured loans, ostensibly for whites, and loss of Detroit auto manufacturing jobs, the 1950s began the White flight out of Detroit.

By the 1967 race riot of Detroit, thousands of manufacturing jobs and whites had already left the city. As higher paid whites left, small businesses followed their caravan, exacerbating Detroit’s population contraction. Investment and taxes left the city, leaving a frustrated black population that erupted.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Governance, American Politics, Economic Crisis, Racism, social trajectory

After 1967, Detroit Would be Left Alone To Fend Off the Death Knell of Racism

1967 riotDetroit had 24 years to correct its glaring racial divide between riots. The Detroit Riot of 1967 began as a reaction to police brutality, reminiscent of the Los Angeles riots that would occur 24 years after Detroit’s 1967 riot. In Los Angeles, Rodney King would be brutally arrested by police officers who would subsequently be acquitted in Los Angeles courts, signaling a continuing institutional racism in America.

In 1967 Detroit, instead of it escalating from conflict between white and black youth as had occurred in 1943, this time the riot started when police broke up a party for a returning Viet Nam vet. What should have been a routine call turned into a bloody five day riot littered with gunfire.

The response of 1967 rioters was more militant with outrage than the 1943 riot. Instead of blacks just targeting white stores as in 1943, this time they destroyed beloved black owned businesses of the city as well. Instead of white mobs roaming into black neighborhoods and beating blacks, this time, blacks stood atop buildings and sniped with rifles at authorities that attempted to put out fires and to respond to scenes with EMS vehicles. 467 were injured in the riots. Instead of mostly blacks injured as in 1943, this time 167 of the injured were police officers, 83 were fire fighters, 17 were National Guard, 16 were federal police officers, and 3 were U.S. Army soldiers.

The response by police officers, known by the black community to be racially oppressive, was brutal as well. This time 43 rioters were killed, mostly black. This time, 7000 were arrested, mostly black. This time the federal troops responded by firing their weapons, killing 12 rioters. Tanks rolled. Machine guns fired. This time the riot continued on for five bloody days.

The escalation of violence seemed out of place to some for Detroit seemed a city racially mending, at least on the surface. Detroit had begun to deal with the institutional racism that sparked the last riot in 9143. The city had begun to reform the city’s police department. Blacks now had political representation and agency leaders. Black incomes had been steadily rising and a black middle class was emerging. The Mayor of Detroit had participated in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society city revival efforts and had brought millions back to invest in Detroit’s inner city.

Yet, the underlying causes of the 1967 riot remained the same as that in 1943, an unanswered call for justice. Police brutality, housing, and employment discrimination continued. Educational discrimination and segregation intensified. Frustrations had escalated over years of neglect. By 1967, militancy had replaced patience in the fight against the slow pace of reform in Detroit.

Blacks wanted what most Americans want, decent jobs and neighborhoods, and to be considered by the content of character and not the color of skin, as Dr. King had urged for the first time in his speech in Detroit. Yet, while blatant racism enforced by lynching was finally fading, violent racism had mutated into more sterile yet just as potent racism that terrorized the psyche of African Americans.

Institutional racism still infected Detroit society. Detroit hospital wards for instance were still segregated and mortality rates were higher in the black wards than in the white. Black schools were overcrowded and under funded. And FHA insurance ensured that whites could leave the city while FHA continued to trap blacks within through redlining.

New suburbs, made possible from FHA insurance, were free of the environmental racism of industrial toxins and blight that remained in black communities. And civic racism abounded in Detroit. Mo-town had a culture centered in the slums of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, communities with a history as old as the foundations of Detroit. Yet in the redevelopment of the motor city as the ideal community the automobile world, highways were built through the heart of these black communities, carving up their identities. Highways became cement corrals separating black slums from the sprawling suburbs escaping Detroit’s racial divide.

Detroit’s whites ran to the suburbs away from the city’s oppressive past, just as European superiority ran from its past across America. In the void, Detroit’s blacks became increasingly frustrated from what was left of the city.

Detroit’s industrial employment, which had bubbled higher and higher for two decades on the backs of two world wars, was absolutely destined to decline. Its myopia of industry centered on automobiles certainly had to dilute. Detroit would have to eventually live through an economic transformation from war industry and auto manufacturing to a more sustainable mixed economy. Yet, as whites escaped to the metro area surrounding Detroit, they brought that inevitable transformation with them, leaving Detroit to fend for itself.

Detroit was left with an increasingly distilled, lower socioeconomic class that would be left on the sidelines of economic reform. And as business became increasingly global, Detroit would become the city with the highest African American population, the highest unemployment, and the highest crime rate in America. As city officials searched for a way to turn around the Detroit, the path toward economic transformation would elude them because the city could not heal its racial divide.

The race riot of 1967 is touted as a milestone that cemented Detroit’s economic fate. That bigoted vision of Detroit is skewed poppycock. But the race riot of 1967 was indeed the milestone that challenged Detroit to finally reverse course from letting race divide it. Thus far, Detroit has failed to heed its mission.

Detroit can transform economically. It is a city with vitally important resources that can support an industrial mecca of the future. Yet that Promised Land will never return until factors of race are healed. Why must a community that has been oppressed since Detroit first became a city be the ones to initiate the healing? Well, for the most part, they are all that are left in the city. If it will be done at all, it must be the city that rises up now to do it.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Governance, American Politics, Class warfare, Racism, social trajectory