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Podcast: Why Greater Detroit Is So Segregated

Despite recent reports of an influx of white citizens returning to Detroit, largely young artists or empty-nesters, the metropolitan area remains one of the most segregated in the nation. The city proper is more than 80% African American, while the suburbs are overwhelmingly white. Many blame the social unrest of 1967, while others place culpability squarely on the shoulders of the late mayor Coleman Young.

However, University of Pennsylvania historian and sociologist Thomas Sugrue, who has spent years studying this very topic spoke with TIME and explained the complex history behind segregation in Greater Detroit. He says it began many decades ago and was systematic long before it became political.

Click "play" below.

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  • 1

    It would be interesting to know what Detroit would be like had the building of the expressways not obliterated whole communities. That decision alone changed Detroit's future.

  • 2

    Interesting. Mr. Sugrue doesn't even touch the police issues that escalated into the riots yet pinpoints nicely that it was not racial segregation, but "enormously forgotten racial hostility from whites toward African Americans in the 40s and 50s." He said hostility -- not segregation, the softer word -- that is the root for the hyper segregation that exists in the Detroit area today. He also notes that the furthest suburbs of Detroit, like Independence Township, where there was a cross-burning earlier this year, are "overwhelmingly white."
    I look at other cities that appear more successful and they all have barrios and burroughs, and often, and poor part that is mostly Black and Hispanic (Chicago's south side, Watts, Portland OR, Harlem, etc.). I wish that there was some way to move Detroit out of this scope of constant dialogue and into a place of more normalcy. This segregation is in every major city in America and it's a continuing problem everywhere.

    • 2.1

      Where is the data to back up the statement that "greater Detroit" is so segregated today? I hear this often, yet most of Mr Sugrues comments focus on Detroits past. Visit cities like Boston, Denver, Washigton DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland, Minneapolis, San Franciso, and LA and tell me you see more African Americans at events, restaurants, downtowns, than in greater Detroit? I don't.

      I visit these cities and often notice how white they are. Yes, you'll see asians, but not alot of African Americans in affluent neighborhoods. I believe greater Detroit could be more desegregated than we give ourselves credit for.

      Lets see the evidence.

  • 3

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  • 4

    Re: michaelporis:

    This map is a US Census data hack. The racial segregation is pretty self-evident.

    Race and ethnicity: Detroit

    • 4.1

      It is impossible to argue that Greater Detroit isn't an incredibly segregated region. This however is not simply a phenomena in Detroit. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia are all extremely segregated. The better question would be Why is America so Segregated?

  • 5

    Segregation studies should also look at income, education, wealth, life style, religion, among other factors. The Detroit area has been transformed by personal vehicles in that one can travel from one point to any other point in an hour. Communities developed since the 1950's are significantly different than those prior. Compare Troy with Royal Oak, for example. That mobility has given Detroit residents unparalled ability to live where they are most comfortable. We tend to choose where we live based on where we are most comfortable, if given the chance. For awhile I lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where the dominate community is Jewish and the conflicts are between Orthodox, ultra Orthodox and more secular Jews. Me, a Methodist & Presbyterian raised white guy, felt guilty going to work on high holy days. So the seemingly racially segregated Detroit community of today is probably far more nuanced than cursory analysis would suggest. Like Sheepshead Bay, where Jews have self segregated based on religious customs, communities in the Detroit area have also self segregated based on criteria other than just race.

    Also, note that Thomas Sugrue mentioned that freeway location and the effect on communites was often inadvertant. Plenty of white communities were also disrupted and destroyed by the freeways. While I don't doubt that some locations of freeways were deliberately located to disrupt specific black communities others were just road builders being myoptic. Some freeway distruction of communities located next to downtown were unavoidable as downtown was the center of the metropolitan area, consequently the freeways converged there to facitate travel in and out of the center. Protests around the nation in the 1960's began the movement to stop the myopia of the road builders, but prior to that many older communities, both black and white, Jewish, Catholic and gentile, fell under the bulldosers across America. Not all of the road construction was aimed directly at the black community. I suspect much less than supposed, with much more due to road building engineers just ploughing ahead doing what they do best.

    Additionally, what is often overlooked is the huge white migration from the rural south to Detroit that preceded the often noted black migration as the auto industry ramped up. How much of the issues that prompted the 1943 and 1967 riots were due to southerners, both white and black, bringing their issues with them? Detroit and Michigan of the 1800's was a hotbed of anti-slavery actions, with 10's of thousands of black residents in the Windsor - Detroit area tracing their families back to Detroit being the northern terminous of the underground railway. Detroit was a well integrated community in the 1800's. The resident black, well integrated, community found themselves submerged in the tidal wave of southerners moving north after WWI.

    Thomas Sugrue's analysis is fine as far as it goes but it is only a limited, narrow, look at only some of the factors that have transformed the Detroit - Windsor metropolitan area from the one of 1900 to that of 2010.

  • 6

    This is such a non issue. People live where they want to live. The more blacks that move to the burbs the more problems the burbs will have. That is just a fact. Not racist, just the facts.

    Crime follows wherever blacks move.

    • 6.1

      In the spirit of sanity - I am not going to waste time on my personal view of your attitude. Rather I am going to point out that as an African American citizen that lives in northern Oakland County my household receives a free weekly newspaper that outlines all the crime that has happened in our community (and I mean all, from traffic stops to break ins) in the past week. I can tell you that this weekly paper does not show that the crime that does happen in my peaceful suburban community is driven by its African American residents or visitors. Most often the perpetrators are listed as caucasian. In the same way that logic would say that not all caucasians are criminals , I would point out that neither are all African Americans, Hispanic or Asians and it is racist to think otherwise. I agree that people do live wherever they want to live. Something that wasn't always possible in the past and is the point of this discussion. There are many reasons for the segregation that has evolved. I personally believe that as time moves on it becomes more and more about the resources available and less and less about the ethnicity of the person with those resources. If you live in the metro Detroit area I recommend you consider moving now - there could be an African American with resources looking at one of the homes in your neighborhood right now!

  • 7

    Motown you completely missed my point. I don't car where anyone lives. The black people are moving out of Detroit to get a better life. Can't blame them for that. I don't. The problem is they bring what they are running away from with them. The kids have no clue what a crosswalk is. They have no clue how to cross at a light. They have the pants hanging off thier asses.

    They still vote for the far left liberals that ruined Detroit in the first place.

    With a change of adress and change in attitude must also come with them.

    I am all for people trying to make a better life for themdelves but they need to change more than their zip code.

  • 8

    Glad to see this interview. Thank you.

  • 9

    Did you guys know there was a wall in Detroit seperating the Whites from the Blacks? It goes back to the 40's and was built by a real estate developer. Absolutely crazy... The wall is nowadays a vivid mural. But the scars are there. Have a look at our blog post on it:

  • 10

    [...] since we all hate the divisions in our society , I want all my fellow NFL Lions fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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