Title: The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
Author: Thomas Sugrue
Categories: Urban History, Race, Housing, Civil Rights, New Suburban History, Deindustrialization, Segregation
Place: Detroit, Michigan
Time Period: 1943-1967
Thomas Sugrue analyzes the confluence of race, deindustrialization, and housing in Detroit between the 1940s and 1960s. Sugrue works to extend the roots of the "urban crisis" backwards into the immediate post-war years, rather than the 1960s, and charts three major analytical threads: racial inequality, grassroots conservatism, and the confluence of housing and urban space. First, in the realm of race and inequality, Sugrue charts a middle ground between structural explanations and more micro-level forces. He describes how large forces such as discriminatory federal housing policies, systemic cultural racism, and deindustrialization set the boundaries for historical actors. Within these boundaries, however, Sugrue notes the importance of workplace discrimination policies, local political movements, and divisions based on neighborhood and class in shaping the unequal racial landscape of Detroit.
Sugrue's second narrative thread examines the rise of white, grassroots conservatism during the late 1940s and 1950s - a viewpoint that goes against the standard political narrative that locates white conservatism as a "backlash" against the Great Society's excesses and the more radical racial and social liberalism of the late 1960s. Instead, Sugrue places the origins of this conservative movement much earlier and describes it in the "rights-based" terms of competing claims over the legacies of New Deal liberalism. On the one hand, the Civil Rights movement and others argued for rights in terms of equal opportunity and racial equality, and of society's obligation to provide for the needy. On the other hand, more conservative groups lobbied for the rights that protected their prosperity in the workplace and in the home - a viewpoint championed by the conservative movement and one that argued for racial exclusion as a means of protecting their property and status.
Housing and the racial geography of Detroit constituted the third, and central, thread of analysis for Sugrue. He complicates a simple spatial narrative of "ghettoization" and instead notes the complexities of both race and class. Poor whites, for instance, could not afford to flee to more affluent suburbs, while those blacks that entered into white neighborhoods were most often from the middle and upper class - leaving behind a core of poor blacks in neighborhoods that increasingly declined. Meanwhile, white homeowners fiercely resisted black incursions into their neighborhoods, often turning to violence and intimidation along with restrictive covenants, municipal legislation, and a reliance on discriminatory lending policies by the federal government, to reify their own racial identity via spatial boundary-marking. Although ultimately unsuccessful, "white flight" and the class divisions within the black community imposed a new racial geography on the city, one that created a dialectical relationship between tangible spatial trends (segregation, crime, poverty) with an ideological, cognitive geography of black and white neighborhoods.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Combination of structural forces AND micro-level actions in building racism, economic policies
- Urban crisis occurs much earlier, begins in 1940s and 1950s - postwar boom was unevenly distributed
- Complicity of federal government in enforcing housing segregation (FHA policies)
- Competing "rights-based" vision of postwar liberalism and "rights revolution":
- Civil Rights: Providing for needy and equal opportunity
- Expanding opportunities/privileges of property ownership/race (often homeowner rights)
- Interrelationship of class and race - poor whites can't move out, black entrants into white neighborhoods often middle class
- Race impacts spatial ordering of the city - both physical segregation AND cognitive marking/identity formation
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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