City Snapshot: Detroit

Detroit's Black population today stands at about 78 percent, the highest proportion of any city in the United States. In contrast, the metro area, including Detroit, is only 23 percent Black, and 68 percent white, making Detroit the most segregated city in the United States. In the early-twentieth century several automobile companies were established in Detroit, establishing it as a manufacturing hub with a growing need for a labor force. Like many northern cities, Detroit’s population of Black residents can be traced back to the Great Migration (1916-1970). Black Americans fled the South en masse seeking jobs and fleeing Jim Crow. Alongside European and Arab immigrants, Black Americans constituted much of the labor force for the burgeoning auto industry, which was on the precipice of an economic boon. By 1920 Detroit became the fourth largest city in the US. While the city’s population remained over 90 percent white, the Black population in Detroit grew 611 percent between 1910 and 1920. 

Despite the large economy and rich culture, segregation caused dire conditions in postwar Detroit. The jobs that attracted so many to the city did not offer housing, and white neighborhoods were violently defended from “infiltrators,” hemming many Black residents into few overcrowded apartments in terrible condition. Some Black residents moved to a sparse neighborhood called Conant Gardens, which had only a small population, plenty of space, and no formal restrictions to legally prevent Black homeownership. But in 1942 when the city made plans to build Black public housing nearby in a white neighborhood, the white homeowners’ association and mobs of white residents burned a cross and picketed in protest. Tensions continued to simmer. In June 1943 white factory workers halted production to protest the promotion of a Black co-worker, and racially motivated fights broke out on the streets. Later that month, the tensions spilled over into a full-blown race riot not quelled until 6,000 army troops were dispatched. Nine white Detroiters and 25 Black Detroiters died in the violence. Seventeen of the 25 Black Detroiters who died were killed by police.

In the 1945 mayoral election, conservative incumbent Edward Jeffries further stirred racial tensions around housing to win a narrow victory. His rival was Richard Frankensteen, a liberal with an endorsement from one of the most powerful influences in the city: the United Automobile Workers union. Jeffries rallied white voters against Frankensteen with campaign flyers that read “Negroes Can Live Anywhere With Frankensteen Mayor. Negroes – Do Your Duty Nov. 6,” and other race-baiting tactics. In the next mayoral election, Albert Cobo, even more conservative than his predecessor, ran a similar campaign of stoking racial fears to divide the working class. Cobo had voiced public opposition to “Negro invasions” of white neighborhoods, and with the support of white homeowners’ associations, Cobo not only won the election but was re-elected three times. During his tenure Cobo “eviscerated the city's race relations commission, supported exclusionary white homeowners' associations, and ignored labor activists. He adamantly opposed the local and state Fair Employment Practices laws…During his administration, tens of thousands of blue collar jobs were lost in the city as employers fled to low-wage labor markets.” Furthermore, white homeowners saw public housing as a threat, and Cobo brought public housing to a halt. Using federal funds from the Housing Act of 1949, Cobo undertook urban renewal projects that razed Black neighborhoods, including the Black business district Paradise Valley. Rather than building new housing to ameliorate the housing shortage, expressways were built in their place to increase access to suburbs.

The desolate conditions for Black residents in cities across the US spurred a wave of uprisings by the 1960s. The Twelfth Street Riot in Detroit in 1967 was one of the most severe. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the unrest. The Commission cited pervasive inequality and racism as the overarching reason, including poor living and working conditions, unemployment, and police brutality. “White society,” the report famously concluded, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” However, a majority of white Americans polled disagreed with the Commission’s conclusions that racism caused the unrest. In the two years following the uprisings, it is estimated that nearly 150,000 white Detroiters fled for the suburbs. Between 1970 and 1980, Detroit flipped from a majority white city to a majority Black city.

The auto industry, upon which the region heavily relied, had been gradually declining since its mid-century peak. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the industry began to plummet and threatened manufacturing nation-wide. A bailout of $20 billion was given to two automotive giants, Chrysler and General Motors, and the US auto industry began its rebound. Still, the recession hit Detroit hard, and in 2013, it became the largest municipality to file for bankruptcy. This only exacerbated an issue that was already destabilizing the economy of Detroit: between 2004 and 2007 predatory subprime lending was rampant and accelerating mortgage foreclosures. In 2005 alone, an estimated 68 percent of Detroit’s mortgages were subprime. For one of the largest lenders of these subprime mortgages, Black customers were 70 percent more likely to receive a subprime loan than white customers with similar financial profiles. Lawsuits were filed on behalf of homeowners but dragged on over the next decade with little relief. Making matters worse, the city failed to properly assess property values during and after the housing market crash, further extracting $600 million worth of unconstitutional property taxes from owners. Between 2011 and 2015 approximately one-quarter of all properties and over 30 percent of all Detroit residences were foreclosed upon for unpaid property taxes, blighting large swaths of Detroit neighborhoods. 

Billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert has been lauded as a missionary, savior and even superhero of Detroit. He has bought 60 buildings in downtown Detroit and chairs the Detroit Blight removal Task Force. His efforts to revitalize downtown has even earned downtown a nickname, “Gilbertville.” But many Detroiters are reasonably anxious about the concentrated efforts to “save” downtown, a mere 7.2 miles out of the nearly 140 square miles that make up Detroit. Not only are large swaths of the city still facing severe neglect, but Gilbert’s own mortgage company, Detroit-based Quicken Loans, was responsible for many of the subprime loans that caused the blight in the first place. Quicken Loans had the fifth-highest number of mortgages that ended in foreclosure between 2005 and 2015. 

Buzzwords like “revitalization” and “renewal” are common in public discourse about Detroit now. Investors are taking full advantage of low housing prices to purchase and flip residences. Suburbanites are moving back to the city, excited to be a part of its “comeback.” However, housing activists and long-time residents are calling for local and state officials to engage with a different discourse: one centered on refunds and restitution.