Ah, November. Her starved winds have swept away October’s barbarous campaign ads and tepid editorial endorsements. She has buried the specter of Jim Blanchard’s caricature debate-face far, far away beneath last summer’s art fair booths and presidential searches. Another Michigan election season has reached its terminus. Further proof that twits too shall pass.

Paul Wong
John Honkala

Now that the election’s over, we can rest easy knowing that our candidates ran a remarkably issueless campaign. Somehow (man, I’m stumped) they managed to slip that one by an electorate that was more concerned with Jennifer Granholm’s sex – she’s a woman – than her platform. A platform, by the way, that still has me scratching my head. Finding a vital issue in Michigan involves nothing more than a quick jaunt down Woodward Ave., but if candidates are really that hard up for something worth opining on they need to look no further than last Sunday’s Detroit News.

Last January the News began an insightful investigative series that used 2000 census data to analyze segregation in Metro Detroit. That series continued Sunday with the newspaper’s “Impact of Affluence” installment wherein the paper showed that race continues to be a stronger force than class on Metro Detroit’s housing pattern. This in the country’s most segregated metropolitan area.

Such large-scale segregation is disturbing in any form, but in Detroit segregation takes on a particularly nasty demeanor. In many U.S. cities, where the lower and middle classes have begun a protracted process of integration, the racial picture tends toward segregation by class. But here in southeast Michigan, race is such a powerful and salient force that even when blacks have had the money to move into suburbs they have not. The percentage of blacks in the suburbs has remained essentially stagnant since the 1950’s.

Why do these problems persist? Well, for starters, blacks are turned down for mortgages on homes costing over $50,000 three times as often as whites.* Feel free to take a moment to let that sink in. Three times as often as whites.

Nor has it helped that cities like Livonia and Warren have kept their welcome wagons rust-free on blocks in their garages when blacks have come house hunting. Nor that unanimated but effective demagogues like the Dick Posthumi of the state have spent years stoking white middle-class victimhood into indignant little fires that encourage white homeowners in Northville to feel like Detroit is out to get them and their hard-earned dollars. Nevermind that cities like Northville have most of the dollars.

It’s little wonder that Detroit’s racial pattern didn’t come up during the election, save for Posthumus’ inane advertisement. Outside of Detroit proper and a few liberal enclaves in the suburbs, Metro Detroit’s segregation seems as natural as the Detroit Lions losing on Sunday afternoons. We rarely question the region’s racial pattern, let alone understand its consequences. And heaven forbid we make an election issue out of it. The first serious gubernatorial candidate to address the problem can expect to quickly become unserious. Witness, for example, Granholm’s furious backpedaling when she was “accused” of backing even a modest form of slave reparations.

Ultimately, Detroit suburbanites really don’t care about segregation and the inequality it has wrought. They’re too tangled up in their own bootstraps to lift a finger to help the city that begat them. And most Michigan politicians with the ability to do anything about the problem are too chickenshit to risk their political careers for a city with inadequate political capital.

In place of calls for integration and structural remedies, Michiganders express either disgust with Detroit or a misguided pity that acknowledges white abandonment of the city but remains wholly opposed to regional solutions to address the consequences. Seduced by the myth that their hard work justifies their status, suburbanites have constructed an ahistorical and, frankly, silly narrative wherein Detroit is the money-grubbing aggressor and the suburbs are the friendless victim. So strong is this ideology that at no time in the latest campaign – nor in campaigns recently past – did Detroit’s structural segregation and inequality make the political radar.

Reversing this trend is as important a cause as we have in Michigan. And if the Detroit News – a newspaper whose editorial page makes the Free Press seem liberal – possesses the cognizance to publish such a thought-provoking and important series about the problem, those who choose to ignore it are only solidifying their space on history’s list of complicit nonactors.

*See the Nov. 2, 2002 Detroit News feature.

John Honkala can be reached at jhonkala@umich.edu.

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