The Great Detroit Betrayal

AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. Most of the spot-news coverage has focused on the immediate fiscal crisis of the city, but the immediate fiscal crisis really isn’t what got the city into such deep trouble. Certainly, Detroit’s contracts with its employees and its debts to its retirees don’t explain anything about how and why this once-great city has come to such grief. Those contracts and retirement benefits are par for the course for major American cities—certainly, no more generous than those in cities of comparable size.

Any remotely accurate autopsy of the city will find the cancer that killed Detroit was the decline of the American auto industry. The failure of U.S. automakers in the '70s, '80s and '90s to make better cars at a time when foreign-made autos were beginning to enter the U.S. market was surely one factor. Another was the trade deals that made it easy for Detroit automakers to relocate to cheaper climes—most particularly, NAFTA, which boosted maquiladoras while shuttering auto plants in the United States, disproportionately, in Greater Detroit. Taken in aggregate, the U.S. trade deals of the past half-century have benefited finance while crippling manufacturing, and Detroit—along with swaths of Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and other industrial cities—paid the price.

A second factor is the racial polarization that Detroit has never managed to overcome. As far back as the 1920s, the Detroit factories attracted workers who didn’t always get along. In particular, it drew hundreds of thousands of workers from the African American South and white Appalachia. Since its formation the 1930s, the United Auto Workers has spent much time and energy trying to combat white racism, and to keep tensions between these two groups from erupting in violence. The union didn’t always succeed. While it generally managed to get both its white and black members voting for liberal Democrats for state and national office, it seldom managed, even during the height of its strength in the '30s, '40s and '50s, to get its white members to vote for its endorsed candidates for Detroit city office. Why the difference? Because city officials, unlike state and national ones, set Detroit’s policing and housing policies, and many white Detroiters, including auto workers, wanted to preserve racially segregated housing and a brutal, racist police force.

As mass suburban development came to Detroit in the decades following World War II, the city became prey to epochal white flight. By the late '80s, when pollster Stan Greenberg conducted his now famous study of Macomb County—a white, working-class suburb adjoining Detroit, which had voted overwhelmingly for John Kennedy in 1960 and just as overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1984—he discovered a white electorate convinced that Democrats had created a government that benefited only blacks. Any notion of regional cooperation between increasingly black Detroit and its white suburbs was a non-starter.

As the auto plants closed and the whites fled, Detroit hollowed out. In time, as jobs and services vanished, blacks fled as well. In 1950, the city was home to 2 million people. Today, it is home to 700,000. Its unemployment rate, at 18.6 percent, is the highest of the 50 largest American cities. Its tax revenues, not surprisingly, can’t support adequate city services. And today’s bankruptcy filing is likely to reduce those services still further, while likely reducing the monthly pension checks of its retirees, though they and their unions have a strong moral claim to most favored creditor status. Moral claims often don’t amount to much, however, in bankruptcy proceedings.

Is it right to call what has happened to Detroit a tragedy? Not, surely, in a strictly Greek sense. There was hubris aplenty, but it was the hubris of auto executives who certainly don’t live within the city limits and won’t suffer the bankruptcy’s consequences. As for those who will suffer them—the residents, employees and retirees of Detroit—they’re not the tragic heroes who brought the city down. They’re the tragic victims.

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