Obama, Race and the Dynamism of America

I listened to Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race issues as a resident of the Detroit area.

Barack Obama was talking about something very personal to him, about being rooted in family and community. He recognizes that race had shaped both and had wounded both. He refuses to give up on the communities in which he is rooted even if they sometimes act out on issues of race. He cannot, he says, afford to give up, and neither can we. No matter what happens in electoral politics, on March 18, 2008, Barack Obama entered the American history books with his brilliant, searingly honest speech on race.

The United States is peculiarly obsessed with race and skin color. Brazil has no ‘one-drop rule,’ such that any African heritage makes one African. In the Middle East, slavery never produced a distinct race, because Islamic law recognized offspring of master and concubine as free Muslims with inheritance rights, and they went on to intermarry with local Arabs or Iranians, gradually melding into the population. The United States is very weird with regard to this race thing. Whiteness is a club that immigrants try to get into. The Irish weren’t considered white when they first came. Likewise Poles and Italians and Jews. It only came with time and upward mobility.

Obama says we have to stop hiding the incompleteness of our struggle with race inequality from ourselves. We have to recognize how traumatized African Americans are by the memory of Jim Crow. We have to recognize how whiteness shapes the working class’s perception of blacks. Most importantly, he argues that we should not be hobbled by the past, that we have to see how fluid and dynamic American society is, such that things can change. Attitudes can be transformed on a large scale, with macro effects.

Living where I live, I could not agree more. Race shapes the Detroit area very powerfully. It is the most segregated area in the country. The Detroit News did an excellent series on the Cost of Segregation to the area a few years ago. Our white suburbs are very white. In Livonia it is 96%. The African-American neighborhoods in Detroit are very black.

Where African-American ‘pioneers’ go out into white neighborhoods to settle, the whites only accept a few such residents. If a plurality in a neighborhood becomes African-American, the whites move out. The article notes:

‘ One constant indicator of the region’s black-white divide stands out even among other highly segregated regions: the concentration of the area’s black population within the city of Detroit and a handful of much smaller pockets.

Of the 185 cities and townships in the six-county Detroit region, 115 are more than 95 percent white.

Meanwhile, three out of four area blacks live in Detroit — a concentration much higher than any other large metro area, even in places with largely black central cities. By contrast, 22 percent of the Atlanta region’s blacks live in the city of Atlanta; in the Baltimore area, it’s 60 percent; it’s 27 percent in Washington, D.C.

While the number of blacks in Detroit’s suburbs has grown steadily, to more than 240,000 in 2000, suburban blacks are also highly concentrated: 44 percent of them are in just four cities, Southfield, Pontiac, Inkster and Oak Park. ‘

You could say, ‘so what?’ But every evidence is that the extreme segregation of the Detroit kind contributes to high unemployment for African-American youth and other consequent social pathologies. The jobs aren’t where they live, they don’t have the skills for a lot of the jobs that are accessible.

Detroit struck one recent French visitor as a post-apocalyptic landscape:

‘ A baffling, unsettling experience for any newcomer, arriving in the city of Detroit comes as a shock. Indeed, no amount of reading up on the city or knowledge of a few statistics can prepare you for being met with a huge, abandoned train station on arrival. This strange feeling only grows on discovering an impressive and near-appealing series of boarded-up buildings, but becomes disquieting on encountering the first burned-out shells of houses and yellow-painted Ds on those slated for destruction.

Ravaged by daily fires—houses, cars, trash cans—the city of Detroit has lost more than 200,000 homes in fifty years, covering an area almost equivalent to that of Montreal. Although Detroit’s plight is all too easily compared to post-apocalyptic devastation, the fact that it escapes all logic gives it a tragic character. ‘

Despite the boasting of our current scandal-plagued mayor that some old run-down buildings are being renovated, even downtown Detroit is still blighted. Only about 7,000 people live right downtown, even after a recent influx, , and they have to drive to the suburbs to do a lot of their shopping. It is only now occurring to the development authority that African-American culture–jazz, blues, art– might in itself be a positive draw for the city.

The Borders downtown closes early because few are out at night. Aside from a couple blocks of Greektown near the casinos, the downtown is hardly bustling after dark, except for some dance clubs very late. I went to see Louis Black at the Fox Theatre a couple of years ago and the walk from Greektown to the theater was eery. It was like 7:30 pm on a Sunday. You could see lots of former office buildings now empty and dark. Black himself was clearly shocked at how bad downtown was. He blamed the politicians in Washington, DC, for spending the money elsewhere.

And downtown is a relatively positive story, with 80 businesses having moved in recently. A lot of the rest of the city is pretty bad. Forbes recently rated it as the most miserable city in the US.

The simple fact is that Detroiters have done it to themselves, in some large part over race. Historian Thomas Sugrue demonstrated how racial segregation used to be actively policed by white yahoos, back in the 1940s, establishing patterns of spatial separation. And, of course, racial segregation in American cities was actively enforced through laws and covenants de jure until the late 1940s and de facto until the 1960s.

Detroiters have declined in large numbers to live next door to one another. In 1966, Detroit was 2/3s white. After the race riots of 1967, and with the end of covenants that kept African-Americans out of white neighborhoods, whites fled to the suburbs like lemmings off a fjord. There was no good reason for it, but they were afraid of losing the value of their property. By the 70s, Detroit was 2/3s African-American. Later on, even a lot of the black middle class left. The tax base dwindled, so the size of the police force and fire departments shrank. The resultant insecurity caused more people with money to leave. Many neighborhoods were afflicted with crack houses and high crime.

Detroit is a Great Lakes port, like Toronto and Chicago. It should flourish. It has a great, convenient airport of a sort that has revived other cities. The impact here has been muted. It has an educated work force and cheap rents. Few takers. The unemployment rate has recently fallen from 7.4% to 7.1% in Michigan, still far above the national average. See above. Some of the extra unemployment is because of extreme racial segregation.

Race is not just a matter of culture wars, of resentments and counter-resentments over government policy. It has real consequences in the real world. Extreme race segregation deeply harmed a once-great city.

And, in fact, even before Katrina hit, similar processes had deeply harmed New Orleans.

What Barack Obama is saying is that Detroit is not doomed to be America’s most miserable city. The white suburbs and the African-American neighborhoods can come together in new synergies. But only if we face up squarely to what is driving our social pathology and economic doldrums. We have been stuck in a paradigm of insuperable difference.

When I think of the $15 bn. spent in Iraq every month, I could spit. Invest one month’s worth in Detroit and New Orleans. Structure some incentives the right way, and this thing can be turned around. We have schools that need to be painted. We have schools that need to be built. We have to find ways of funneling African American students from Detroit to the University of Michigan without offending the sense of fairness and justice among white students. Is it magnet schools that would do the trick? I don’t know. I do know that with the fall of black enrollments in universities such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Texas, and over time probably the University of Michigan, there is a rapidly diminishing chance of our seeing the emergence of more Barack Obamas in this area in the next generation. America will be much impoverished for it if it happens. Obama is right. There is work to do, together.

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