I got this great essay in my inbox last night by a fellow who’d like to be known as Earl Williams. It’s long and well-worth a read. The premise is that racial tensions in the late ’60’s early ’70’s contributed significantly to Detroit’s demise. It’s a sort-of response to the always-entertaining but never-very-convincing Travis Rowley’s Saturday missive how the left killed Detroit….
Personally, I lay a lot of the blame on NAFTA, the Clinton-era free trade agreement that promised economic growth but delivered depression for the Rust Belt and bigger bottom lines for corporations and CEOs. But Earl makes a good case that the problem started long before a globalized economy took its toll.
Also, please read this report I wrote in 2011 about Occupy Detroit’s efforts to pick up where the economy and then the public sector had failed…
As the right wing dances gleefully on the fresh grave of the motor city, trading clever epithets to carve on the once great city’s tombstone, many economic truths lay buried beneath the soil in the motor city’s tomb. Already the comparison has been made to Rhode Island and whether the fate of our own, small state, can be divined by the default of the enormous debt owed by the industrial city once known as the Arsenal of Democracy.
The easy propaganda, eulogizing the economic demise of Detroit is that the socialist, liberal, welfare experiment has failed miserably and any economy that even slightly resembles Detroit’s will suffer the same cancerous fate. These voices will have one believe that unions killed Detroit; social welfare killed Detroit; taxes killed Detroit; pensions killed Detroit; etc. Furthermore, the example set forth by the city’s landslide into chapter 9 is quickly becoming rhetorical ammunition for the conservative argument against government employees’ retirement security, private and public sector unions and social safety-net programs for those below the poverty line.
These oversimplified condemnations of political philosophies are merely excellent distractions to factual history and the series of events that led to the critical condition in which Detroit currently finds itself. If by liberal failures, one actually means negative economic impact of race riots due to black disenfranchisement during the civil rights conflicts of the 1960s, then they are absolutely right.
In the summer of 1967, five days of race riots hit the city. Over the course of those days, 43 people died. There were 467 injured, including 167 Detroit police officers, 83 Detroit firefighters, 17 National Guard troops, 16 State Police officers and 3 U.S. Army soldiers. The economic ramifications proved to be a permanent and crippling injury. 2,509 stores looted or burned, 388 families rendered homeless or displaced and 412 buildings burned or damaged to the point of requiring demolition. The total monetary damage was estimated to be between $40 and $80 million. The aforementioned permanent damage was the flight of the emerging middle-class population from the city to the suburbs.
According to Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, “The heaviest casualty,however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money.
The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totally twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.
Since then, the city’s urban population has consistently declined. Demographically speaking, the least financially secure have been the population that remained, while the more financially contributory citizens have continued to avoid residency within the city limits. Less tax revenue and more financial insecurity has proved a recipe for unsustainable, fiscal liability. This is an easily arguable example of what is known as “the new Jim Crow.” So, a founding principle of the state of the city is a race based economic decline.
Perhaps, though, the liberal failures of which those who exploit the unfortunate bankruptcy of a city that helped to birth the backbone of America’s economic prowess. Detroit has also been a historically union city and necessarily so. In the 1920s, a Protestant minister trained at Yale Divinity School by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr, earned national attention by criticizing the auto industry in an era when Henry Ford was considered an American icon. He preached the Social Gospe, attacking what he considered the brutalization and insecurity of Ford workers. He became an outspoken critic of Ford and allowed union organizers to use his pulpit to expound their message of workers’ rights. Niebuhr attacked poor conditions created by the assembly lines and erratic employment practices.
The demonization of collective bargaining is a historically recent generational ideology. The mindset that one man builds his own kingdom by grasping his proverbial bootstraps and hoisting with all his might. Those who fail to prosper lack the fortitude by which to defy the gravity and, thereby, earn their meager places as the stepping-stones for the strong. However, the reality of the creation of the middle class, through which America has attained its precarious position at the top of the world’s economic food chain, was possible only with the rise of the labor unions. In fact, without the living wage set as a standard by the labor movement, those masses who provided the purchasing power for the very products that rolled off the assembly lines of the golden-era Detroit automobile plants would have been a commodity for those landed gentry who often fabricated the bootstrap mythology as their American heritage.
But, since the one percent progressively seized more and more power from the working class citizens, the history has been re-written to focus only on the small corner of corruption within the story of the labor movement in Detroit and elsewhere. This same agenda has conveniently ignored the corruption of the fabulously wealthy coalitions such as ALEC, and Wall Street and the Republican Party when stealing election rights, deregulating the banking industry to the point of economic collapse and starting multi-trillion dollar wars for profit.
And that brings the discussion of Detroit, full circle, to current conversation. As one outspoken and sensationalist holy man residing in the fantasy land United States of Glen Beckistan summarized, “Detroit’s demise hasn’t been good for either of the two parties that are often set against one another – taxpayers and unionized government employees – whenever government grows beyond its appropriate size and leftists begin to use state power to redistribute private wealth.”
Leftists begin to use state power to redistribute private wealth? Actually, one can take that particular point and dismantle it with a single proper noun: Mitt Romney. If, in fact, the situation in Detroit hasn’t been good for either party then why did the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee so enthusiastically endorse the bankruptcy of the auto industry – much of which was notoriously based in Detroit? Could it be that the fall of the industry that has been under Republican attack for decades would result in enormous profit for Romney and the company in which he held an enormous “blind trust” (come on now, really?) stake? One that yielded he and his wife upwards of $115 million? That seems to be a prime example of the polar opposite of redistribution of private wealth. In fact, that seems to be encouraging the hard earned wages of those working class Americans in pursuit of a middle class American dream to funnel into a financial wormhole with a small group of already overstuffed wallets open and waiting at the other end.
Detroit is not Central Falls. Detroit is not Providence and Detroit is certainly not the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. One can find comparisons between apples and oranges. Both are round. Both are fruit. One can find comparisons between the Tour de France and NASCAR. Both are races with wheeled vehicles. One can find comparisons between Humans and possums. Both are mammals separated by a surprisingly small percentage of DNA. However, legalities aside (states cannot declare bankruptcy by law), Detroit is not the canary in the coalmine for the future of the State of Rhode Island. And, as exemplified by its very unique history, is more than just an easily exploited cautionary tale for progressive political ideology.