Detroit: Through the lens of class and race

Labor in the white skin cannot emancipate itself when in the black skin it is branded.” – Capital, Vol. 1, Karl Marx

Much has been written about the trauma that Detroit is going through. And much of the commentary places the blame for this crisis in one of two places.

One line of thinking, articulated by the likes of conservative columnist George Will, Fox television host Bill O’Reilly, and more recently Kevin Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, is that the people of Detroit – read: its African American majority – are themselves responsible for the city’s predicament. In this explanation, supposedly excessive wages and benefits for Detroit’s workers, a corrupt political class starting with the city’s first African American mayor, Coleman Young, and a “culture of victimization, irresponsibility, and dependency” combined to bleed city finances, wreck its industrial base, turn Detroit into a municipality of  “moochers” and “mayhem,” and relegate its “glory days” to a distant past when white people were the majority.

The other narrative holds that Detroit’s current catastrophic conditions, including the bankruptcy imposed by a right-wing Republican governor, are just the latest stage of an economic decline that dates back a half-century or more. In this telling, the city’s fate is simply the result of the impersonal forces of the market that act behind people’s backs. It’s the consequence of the unstoppable and uncontrollable logic of de-industrialization and globalization, in which there are inevitable losers, such as Detroit and its workers, and winners – the 1 percent and a handful of transnational corporate giants that dominate the world economy. And, it’s simply the predictable endgame of a city that unwisely, even irresponsibly, rode a single “horse” (the auto industry) for much too long.

The first narrative is obviously more dangerous, and more outrageous. In fact, it is a shameless appeal to white people to buy into racist images and perceptions of Black people. Its aim is to heighten divisions between people who are absolutely necessary allies going forward – Black and white, city and suburb, and labor and the African American freedom movement. It is also intended to legitimize state and federal government inaction and neglect, and even encourage punitive policies, in response to an exploding and profoundly hurtful urban crisis.

Another objective is to provide fresh fodder to the old (as old as slavery) but recently amplified, especially by right-wing extremism, racist notion that the “problem” of Black people is Black people.

Finally, blaming the crisis on its victims is designed to divert the eyes of the American people from the actual causes of the crisis and its agents. The former are located in the structures and dynamics of racialized capitalism, while the latter are the individuals and institutions who drive the crisis and also enrich themselves mightily from this system of class and racial exploitation and domination of the immense many by the minuscule few.

The second narrative (economic and technological determinism), while not as mean-spirited and toxic, is not much better. It also conceals in its own way more than it reveals about the fix that Detroit is in and what to do about.

How? By blaming Detroit’s crisis solely on markets and technologies that are supposedly blind, class-neutral, and independent of human actions, it not only detaches the crisis from its socio-economic, racist, and class context, but also easily becomes the fertile soil for feelings of fatalism, hopelessness, and passivity. This is just what the victims of the crisis and their supporters don’t need.

So what does explain the current disaster that is gripping Detroit, this storied and heroic city whose people have contributed so much politically, economically, and culturally to our nation?

I would argue that Detroit’s past and present are not the outcome of overarching economic forces that operate outside the rough and tumble of history, politics, and struggle, outside the structures and dynamics of class, race, and capitalism.

Nor are they explained by any mythical “culture of irresponsibility and dependency,” supposedly peculiar to Detroit’s African American community.

Instead, Detroit and the auto industry’s trajectory over the past half century is the result of people, social classes, and diverse and changing coalitions interacting and clashing on a number of different issues and levels over decades. In auto plants and union meetings, in neighborhoods and schools, in the corridors of government and collective bargaining negotiations, on the streets and picket lines, and in churches, barber shops, planning boards, voting booths, and other places far beyond the city limits, Detroit’s future has been contested over the decades.

On one side were:

* auto executives who stripped Detroit of its industrial base and relocated production and plants to places that were not steeped in working class and democratic traditions;

*redlining real estate agents who practiced and profited from discrimination against Black homebuyers at one moment and encouraged white flight to surrounding suburbs at another;

* white ethnic working class neighborhoods in Detroit that resisted by any means necessary the “invasion” of Black families into “their” neighborhoods;

* planning boards that sanctioned segregated housing patterns;

* mortgage companies that exacted onerous terms from Black homebuyers over decades, maybe none worse than those that floated subprime mortgages in recent years, knowing all the while that they were unsustainable;

* investment firms that squeezed the city with complicated financial deals;

* elected officials at the state and national level, and especially right-wing Republicans, who relentlessly squeezed Detroit and other urban areas;

* federal housing and transportation authorities whose policies over decades encouraged and subsidized the movement of white homeowners to segregated suburbs.

These are but some of the more prominent political actors on one side of this confrontation that stretched over decades.

On the other side were African Americans and African American workers who seldom yielded in their struggle for a livable wage and city, a people-centered economy, and long overdue equality. It is a story of uncommon courage in the face of difficult odds and belligerent and well-heeled foes.

They were joined in small skirmishes and big battles by a section of their white, Latino, and Arab American brothers and sisters in the UAW (United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America ) and other unions as well as their allies in churches, community organizations, and other progressive and democratic organizations at the local, state, and national level.

Occupying an inconsistent position were a range of social and political forces, but for the purposes of this article, I will mention just one, because its role was so critical: the leadership of the UAW during the second half of the 20th century..

Even when it was negotiating contracts that increased wages and benefits, staking out progressive positions on civil rights, breaking with AFL-CIO President George Meany over Vietnam, and challenging the likes of Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan in the electoral arena, it was slow to bring African American workers into union leadership, reluctant to support Detroit’s African American political leaders, less than vigorous in integrating the skilled trades, and, not least, too quick to cede the right to organize production – management prerogatives – to auto companies, including the unilateral right to relocate production to sites of management’s choosing.

Moreover, in the early 1980s, regular contractual gains gave way to concessionary bargaining by the union’s top leadership, which had a particularly negative impact on Detroit and its African American auto workers.

These struggles in Detroit, stretching out over six decades, didn’t take place in a vacuum however. Their character and outcome were shaped as well by a number of interrelated factors operating on a far larger political, economic, and geographical scale.

What were some of the most important ones?

* First of all, the erosion, if not disappearance, of the conditions that powered a nearly three-decade-long expansion of U.S. and global capitalism in the aftermath of Word War II. That expansion gave way in the mid-1970s to slower growth, greater economic (and financial) instability, rising unemployment and inflation, the restructuring and spatial reorganization of capital, economic activity, and the working class, and, not least, a new model of government-corporate governance, popularly called neoliberalism.

This model, in contrast to the Keynesian model that facilitated corporate profit-taking and the post-World-War-II expansion, no longer accented, as its predecessor did, shared prosperity; corporate, financial, and trade regulation; consumer, safety, and environmental protections; expansion of the public sector and public goods (education, health care, retirement security, etc.); an equitable tax structure; a commitment to full employment; and enlargement of civil, labor, and other social rights. The neoliberal model accented, instead, the very opposite, and with a vengeance.

In doing so, it facilitated capital’s accumulation (profit-making) and growth, like the earlier Keynesian model did, but in a different way and in decidedly new conditions of exploitation, intra-capitalist competition, monopolization, and market saturation in a global capitalist economy. As a result, corporate profits soared and the unearned income of the 1 percent reached unprecedented levels, even if growth rates never returned to earlier levels. But the cost of this neoliberal turn for working people, people of color, women, youth, seniors, and urban centers like Detroit was enormous.

* Second, the breakup of the New Deal coalition on the shoals of racist (and ultimately self-destructive) resentment harbored by white people in reaction to the new assertiveness and just demands of the African American people. The breakup was made easier by the Cold War repression of the old left (mainly communists), the sectarianism of the new left, and the ascent of business-minded, pro-war, and anti-democratic leadership to the top tiers of the labor movement in the 1950s.

* Third, the difficulty of the African American freedom movement and its leaders, in part due to the assassination of Martin Luther King, in transitioning to a new stage of struggle for full political, economic, and social equality in the post-civil-rights period.

* Fourth, the steady and sustained ascendancy of right-wing extremism, fueled by the mobilizing language of white supremacy and reaching a new level with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

* Fifth, a coordinated and many-leveled intensification of the class struggle by the capitalist class in the mid-1970s that the now badly weakened labor and democratic movement were unprepared ideologically and organizationally to effectively resist and turn back – even now, 40 years later.

* Sixth, the emergence of new global institutions and rules that broke down national barriers inhibiting capital flows, while pressuring downward the price of labor power (in other words, wages) worldwide.

* Finally, the integration of new centers of capital accumulation in the global periphery, with massive pools of low-wage labor, particularly China and India, into the system of global capitalism.

Thus, Detroit’s current landscape – marked as it is by huge swathes of vacant and foreclosed homes; shuttered factories; decrepit roads, schools, and infrastructure; homeless and hungry children; violence and crime; failing schools; widespread and extreme poverty; environmental pollution; catastrophic levels of joblessness, and now bankruptcy – wasn’t preordained by some kind of irresistible economic logic. Nor can it be accounted for by purported moral and familial failures in the African American community.

It was a product of a protracted, complex, and cumulative process. Its main inflection points were on the axis of class and race. It took place on many levels and played out on a political, economic, and ideological terrain that shifted continually and sometimes in profound ways. And in the end the forces of profit-making, exploitation, political reaction, and, above all, racism prevailed over the forces of economic justice, anti-racism, democracy, full equality, and peace.

If the outcome was dependent on many things, few loomed as large as the insufficient breadth and depth of anti-racist understanding and unity in the labor and people’s movement at the local, state, and national levels. The hopes raised by people’s victories to expand democracy and freedom and rein in the war machine of U.S. imperialism in the 1960s and subsequent decades never morphed into a lasting, broad, democratic, class based, and consistently anti-racist movement (either in Detroit or nationally).

Forty years later the building of that kind of movement remains the overriding challenge facing Detroiters and others who are feeling the weight of this crisis – while its architects are smugly tucked away in opulent communities, executive suites, and the corridors of political power. Only such a movement can thrust Detroit, other urban centers, and our nation as a whole on a trajectory of economic renewal and security, equality, substantive democracy and sustainability, and peace.

It would be wishful thinking to say that such a movement is around the corner. But it is not a stretch to say that we see early signs of such a movement in the struggles of the present.

They are evident in the day-to-day resistance of Detroiters and other people in similarly situated communities to efforts to sell and privatize vital services, deny them political representation and voice, and impose on them more austerity measures to resolve a crisis that they had no hand in making.

The signs are also apparent in the struggles in Washington for jobs and infrastructure renewal.

They are plain to see in the hundreds of thousands who this August celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march for freedom and jobs too.

In the new energy in the labor movement too, we see signs of a better future.

Much the same could be said about the new initiatives to defend voting rights and resist the new racist offensive.

In the battles to overhaul the system of criminal justice, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and mass incarceration that falls so heavily and negatively on African Americans and other peoples of color, especially young men, we detect the beginnings of a better future as well.

The beginnings are obvious in the struggle for gay rights, including marriage equality.

The precursors are found in the inspiring and multi-dimensional campaigns for immigrant rights.

In the ongoing efforts to rein in U.S. military ventures in Syria and other far-flung parts of the world and turn swords into ploughshares and a sustainable economy, we can catch a glimpse of this emerging movement.

Signs are also evident in the actions to heal and cool our planet.

Finally, they are visible too in the new common sense embraced by tens of millions that people’s needs, equality and fairness trump corporate profits and the unconscionable piling up of wealth.

I wish there were an easier way to address the crisis in Detroit as well as elsewhere in our country, but if there is it escapes me.

Certainly, schemes that favor real estate interests, downtown development, and gentrification hold little promise for residents living in Detroit’s decaying neighborhoods and idled by the lack of jobs, despite claims that economic growth and vitality will radiate from the core to the surrounding city.

Nor, in my opinion, will plans of socially committed people and organizations to reclaim unused land in the city and foster small-scale entrepreneurial development. Such initiatives can bring some relief, and relief no matter how small is to be welcomed. But it seems doubtful to me that these efforts will ever achieve the necessary scale and economic/industrial mix to set Detroit and its people on a new foundation of growth, renewal, equality, and economic security.

Any viable future for Detroit will require a lot of heavy lifting, a sustained popular movement, the full participation of the UAW and the rest of the trade union movement, diverse forms of struggle, and higher levels of multiracial and working class unity and understanding.

It will also entail the re-imagining of Detroit in new ways that empower people and mobilize (and it will have to be mobilized; it won’t come on its own) public capital for living wage jobs, infrastructure renewal, neighborhood revitalization, affordable housing, economic and green development, worker/community owned enterprises, quality public education for every child from pre-kindergarten through high school, and so forth.

But those efforts will bear full fruit only if three other conditions are met.

* First, the necessary long-term restructuring of Detroit has to be embedded in the immediate battles to shift the burden of the city’s crisis onto the banks, auto corporations, and state and federal government.

* Second, the city’s future can’t be separated from the overriding political objective in 2014 and 2016 of rolling back the grip of right-wing extremism on the structures of state and federal government.

* Finally, the near- and long-term struggles of the people of Detroit have to be connected to the energies of like-minded people in nearby suburbs and around the country who also aspire to radically restructure the politics, economics, culture, and racial relations of their city, region, state, and country.

But if past history in general and specific historical turning points in particular are any guide, the success of this struggle in Detroit as well as elsewhere will hinge especially on the degree of anti-racist understanding achieved by white people and workers in particular.

Such an understanding (and practice) is informed by a sense of moral outrage. But it also arises and crystallizes into a more durable form from an awareness that, in this era of systemic economic crisis and generalized attack on the entire working class and people, the struggle for racial equality and against racism in its old and new forms is as much a condition for the freedom, well being, and security of people in white skin as it is for people in black and brown skins.

Anything less guarantees that Detroit and other cities and the rest of us will sink together. Maybe not at the same speed or to the same exact place, but wherever we land it won’t be pretty for anyone, leaving people morally and psychically scarred, culturally impoverished, economically hurting and fearful, and politically near powerless.

Photo: Street art in Detroit, 2012. Wikimedia Commons


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.