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Government / Local politics

“Detroit didn’t fail. It was sabotaged”: on the decades’ long collapse of America’s industrial colossus

The United States recalls its history like a child does their school records: with self-congratulating pageantry when favourable, and a mix of awkward silences and outright distortions when the sight is too ghastly to bear.

It’s a tradition echoed in the gossip that passes for earnest deliberation of Detroit. Once heralded globally as a titan of manufacturing, and home of the arsenal of democracy during World War II, the city’s collapse from industrial colossus into post-apocalyptic wasteland is explained away with less nuance and moral courage than a bedtime story.

To exaggerate the level of skullduggery is no mean feat. But before entering the arena, a word on my allegiances: hailing from America’s most despised of cities, I hate to see its history mangled by indelicate hands, motivated by nothing more than a powerful desire to be done with it all.

Whether knowingly or not, the lion’s share of Detroit’s self-appointed narrators hold forth from the delusion that history began sometime between the 1967 riots – or “rebellion”, as many remember it – and the election of the city’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, in 1973.

Anything that came before is only mentioned with hosannas to its mythic glory. And any question of that era’s barbarous foundations is met with the same thundering silence that awaits the fellow who, upon returning from a long stay among the muggles, asks whatever happened to that surly childhood chum Lord Voldemort.

Workers at the Ford factor in 1930. Image: Fox Photos/Getty.

There’s a reason for this. By discussing anything that happened before 1967 as something divorced from the wreckage that followed, or in hushed murmurs as unfit for polite society, it becomes infinitely easier to reach one’s preferred conclusions.

Take the Trilateral Commission’s menacing prophecy of 1975. Warning against the era’s “excess of democracy”, the commission predicted that crisis loomed on the horizon in those corners of the world whose people were unprepared for the hard work of self-government. What was needed was “a greater degree of moderation in democracy.”

Detroit is the crown jewel for this genre of fairy tale: drunk on its own cultural decay and desperate for the sober intervention of more responsible forces. Spellbinding? Perhaps. The city besieged by its own vice is, after all, the stuff of biblical legend. But it’s scandalously bad history.

To argue that Detroit’s anguish is just the shadow of vice is to shoulder a heavy burden of proof. Specifically, one must prove there’s ever been an era when black political life existed independently of America’s inaugural sin – that is, white supremacy as deliberate policy.


I have studied the record and found none. So here it is: Detroit is what happens when the machinery of state is angled toward the ruin of a pariah class. Black Americans, and thus their country, have known no era free of this fact.

Certainly the antebellum period – when policy, white supremacy, and capitalism formed the unholiest of alliances in erecting an empire built on slave labour – isn’t one. And surely the same goes for its less explicit but equally maniacal Jim Crow successor, when white terrorism decimated black political life throughout the South and much of the North.

Nor is such an era found in the years of Roosevelt and Truman, when refugees fleeing Southern apartheid found that political asylum in the North was a phantom – differing only, as James Baldwin once quipped, “in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact.”

Let’s dwell there for a moment, because black Detroit was forged in the crucibles of that devastation. And in the teeth of such terrific oppression, it wasn’t alone – it shared the tortured fate of black meccas across the country. As New Deal programs spread the American religion of homeownership in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, African Americans were largely excluded from the government-backed housing market that doled out loans based on redlined maps – maps deliberately drawn to seal African Americans in the ghetto.

That market would go on to birth the American middle class, and thus the primary vehicle for wealth creation in the United States. Today’s Detroit, as much as its suburban counterparts, is the mangled fruit of statecraft, deliberate and unambiguous. Invocations of the city’s past prosperity should be met with a metric ton of scepticism. That prosperity was ill-gotten, erected on the plunder of its emerging black underclass.

It’s against this backdrop that the Detroit of today must be interpreted. One cannot seriously discuss a city that suffered the worst of the housing crisis without it.

To state the obvious once more: policy authored the maps that organised communities in a way that left them ripe for plunder during the housing boom, when as many as 75 per cent of mortgages originating in Detroit were subprime. In those same communities, widespread social misery is treated by the mutilating barbs of American criminal justice policy, banishing scores of men and women from what remains of the city’s democracy.

And in November 2013, Detroit became the largest city in the nation’s history to file for municipal bankruptcy – a bankruptcy, as the think-tank Demos has thoroughly documented, based on a falsified record of history.

Downtown Detroit on a rainy day in 1955. Image: Three Lions/Getty.

For starters, the awe-inspiring “$18bn in debt” was flat-out misleading. Detroit’s immediate cash flow shortfall, the only relevant figure for a municipal bankruptcy, was $198m. Of all the causes – a depleted tax base, skyrocketing financial costs, corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, and slashed state revenue sharing – “destructive and wasteful” conduct by city government was not among them.

It bears mentioning that that bankruptcy took place under the stewardship of an emergency manager law that annihilates local democracy by placing decision-making power in the hands of a state-appointed commissar. This horror show of a policy is straight Orwellian, yet also decidedly American in its easygoing mockery of the nation’s declared values.

By now, we’ve got a pretty clear sense of the outcome and it’s none too pretty – the emergency management experiment has a record of breathtaking failure in city after city. After pulverising the public education of children in one, it plied its trade at literally poisoning children in another. The reasons for failure aren’t mysterious: the policy ignores the actual causes of decline – a long and well-documented history of public policy angled towards plunder. That is deliberate sabotage.

All of which leads to an unpleasant but obvious conclusion: a Detroit independent of these forces and left to its own democratic devices is a convenient story, but one that has no basis in the historical record. To avoid this fact, to enroll oneself in the lie of cultural decay and the ritual of history as bedtime story, is to outdo Malcolm X’s parable of a man stabbed in the back, only to be told its removal is progress. It is to pretend the atrocity never happened to begin with.

Eli Day is a former congressional policy adviser, and a Detroit-bred writer of policy and plunder.​
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