Chapter 5: Hopelessness, Poverty, Despair, and Crime in Detroit

In Detroit, the present is burdened by its past. Detroit is and has been one of the most racially segregated cities in America. White Detroiters kept blacks out of their neighborhoods often through violent means. KKK was active in the 20s and 30s, and then through the means of redlining and housing covenants, blacks were kept out of white neighborhoods. Housing segregation led to de facto segregation in public schools. Though blacks found jobs in the auto industry, they were given the most menial and dangerous jobs and were first to be laid off during economic downturns. These racial inequities were the cause of the race riots of 1943 and 1967.

President Lyndon Johnson, in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, remarked, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” Johnson said. “Thus, it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

Fifty years later, blacks still did not have the gates of opportunity open to them. When the whites left Detroit in the 60s and the jobs and the tax base went with them, blacks left behind had no wealth, no job prospects; many lived in poverty. A 2018 report issued by the Economic Policy Institute stated that “On the question of family wealth, the report found that the typical black family had almost zero ($2,467) in 1968.

No child is born a criminal. Blacks in Detroit were not born as criminals. Then, what drove them to a path of crime in such large numbers? To understand the root causes, we must understand what it is like growing up black in Detroit. Charlie LeDuff’s book Detroit: An American Autopsy paints a vivid picture of what it was like growing up in Detroit.

Let’s look at the Red Zone in Detroit, the most dangerous neighborhood in Detroit.

“Today, that figure is about six times larger ($17,409), but it is still not that far from zero when you consider that families typically draw on their wealth for larger expenses, such as meeting basic needs over the course of retirement, paying for their children’s college education, putting a down payment on a house, or coping with a job loss or medical crisis,” the report states. “Over the same period, the wealth of the typical white family almost tripled, from a much higher initial level. In 2016, the median African American family had only 10.2 percent of the wealth of the median white family ($17,409 versus $171,000).”

These are positive steps, and metropolitan Detroit could become the poster child illustrating that a location devastated by jobs loss and riven by race can rise from the ashes. However, it will be necessary to recognize the legacy of decades of racial conflict and hostility that made Detroit the quintessential American apartheid metropolis.



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sunil mehrotra

entrepreneur;CEO, strategist;thinker-doer;left brain/right brain;