“Detroit Divided”: New book explores forces that have shaped the Motor City, and proposes renewal strategies

May 23, 2000

ANN ARBOR—Why has metropolitan Detroit, once the symbol of U.S. industrial prowess, become racially, economically, and geographically polarized to a degree seen in few other American metro areas?

In “Detroit Divided,” just published by the Russell Sage Foundation, co-authors Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danziger and Harry J. Holzer explore the relationships among labor market disadvantages, residential segregation, and exclusionary racial views. In the process, they explain why the combination of manufacturing decline, technological changes and the globalization of markets have had such severe consequences for the Motor City.

Taking advantage of subsidized home loans, in the 1950s and 1960s whites began leaving city neighborhoods for the suburbs where new jobs were created, explains Farley, a demographer at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization.

But the suburbs were mostly closed to African Americans, who faced disappearing jobs in the city as well as educational disadvantages and racial discrimination in both the labor and housing markets.

Danziger, professor of social work and public policy at the U-M, Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University, and Farley describe how these forces have played out over the past 60 years in the metro area. Their analysis is based on data from a variety of sources, including U.S. Census data from 1940 to the present, the Detroit Area Study of households in 1978 and 1992, and a 1993 survey of Detroit area employers.

“Detroit has a long history of racial conflicts, often violent ones,” the authors note. “Federal troops have been called out four times to put down Black-white bloodshed: twice in the 19th century and twice in the 20th. No other city has such a history.”

Farley, Danziger, and Holzer identify five crucial turning points that shaped the nature of the area’s current economic, residential and racial divides. The first turning point was the emergence of the city as a leading national manufacturing center in the late 19th century. The second occurred in the 1910s, with the development of a booming automobile industry. Demographic shifts provoked by World War I triggered the third turning point, in which the American South replaced Europe as the primary source of the city’s very rapid population growth.

The fourth turning point started during World War II and established race as the metro area’s most divisive issue. “For a score of years after that war, Blacks and whites contested the control of neighborhoods, jobs, schools, and political power,” notes Farley. “At the end of that period, most whites lived in the suburbs while African Americans overwhelmingly lived in the city.”

Between the end of World War II and the early 1970s, high-paying, unionized jobs in the automobile and related industries lifted unprecedented numbers of blue-collar workers, whites and African Americans, securely into the economic middle class, the authors observe.

The fifth turning point resulted from the decline of Detroit’s manufacturing dominance after 1970. Many of these high-paying jobs for men and women with moderate educations were eliminated—a change that greatly reduced employment opportunities and earnings for African American men and subsequently transformed the city-suburban divide into a racial and economic one. Detroit became a prime example of a rust-belt central city, marked by abandoned homes, factories and office buildings, high crime and poverty and bitter racial strife, surrounded by prosperous white suburbs.

The authors draw upon survey data to show that Detroit residents increasingly endorse the principles of racial equality. Nevertheless, racial segregation and mistrust remain very high, according to Farley. And despite a booming national economy and the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, poverty and unemployment in central-city Detroit remain high in absolute terms, and especially high in relation to the surrounding suburbs.

The authors see some grounds for optimism, as the automobile industry has been strong in the 1990s, central city unemployment rates have fallen, and major downtown redevelopment projects are reviving the city’s core and creating new jobs. To build on these positive developments, and to counteract the concentration of poverty, unemployment, crime and a variety of other central city social problems, they recommend a multi-pronged set of policy strategies.

These policies seek to raise the employment and earnings of less-skilled workers, and include improving the quality of inner-city schools, establishing employer subsidies to encourage hiring and training less-skilled workers, and creating public service employment for poor people who want to work but cannot find either a private-sector or a public-sector job.

They also endorse a variety of “mobility” strategies to link firms and workers.These include moving central-city residents to the suburbs, moving firms to the inner city, and reducing transportation costs. “The motor capital of the world is the most appropriate place to experiment with programs that would subsidize automobile ownership or encourage vanpools,” the authors note. They cite a recent Michigan study by Danziger showing that about two-thirds of single-mother welfare recipients who had access to a car and a driver’s license were working at least 20 hours a week, compared with only 45 percent of those without one or the other.

“The policies we propose, if successfully implemented, should gradually reduce inequalities in educational attainment, employment, occupational achievement, and earnings,” the authors write. “They will thus contribute to the revitalization of the entire metropolis, with particularly great gains for the city of Detroit. Without a comprehensive urban redevelopment and antipoverty strategy, it is likely that the divisions we have described will continue and, if macroeconomic trends turn unfavorable, worsen.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world’s oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.


Reynolds FarleyInstitute for Social Researchsocial workSurvey of Consumer Attitudes