The trial of this black physician and members of his family in 1925 Detroit is the subject of the book by Kevin Boyle that I mentioned in my last post. It is also the subject of the play I mentioned, which I did get to see last night.
I haven’t read Kevin’s book yet, but judging from his very engaging lecture Thursday night, I think it’s safe to say it will be a good read. I won’t attempt to recap the entire event, just wanted to put out a couple of nuggets for you to digest.
Related to the housing discrimination theme I discussed on my last post, I want to give you a picture of Detroit in the early 20th century. Believe it or not, Detroit was the place to be at that time, in part because of good wages being paid by Henry Ford to factory workers. There was tremendous population growth from 1910-1925. The black population grew from 5741 in 1910 to about 82,000 in 1925. The problem was that the designated area for black housing, called Black Bottom, did not grow with the population. Those blacks who could afford it began to move into white neighborhoods, many of them without major incident. But in some cases, including that of Dr. Sweet, a successful physician, the new residents were met with open hostility and threats against their lives. This is the context in which the story of the Sweet trials takes place. An excellent website on this story is maintained by Douglas O. Linder.
My question as I reflect on this era of Detroit history is, have we really come all that far in our acceptance of those who are different than we are?
The second nugget from the talk was the notion that many white folks think that racism is a problem of individual white persons. That somehow, if I just make a commitment to being nicer person, that’s a good enough contribution to dismantling racism. Unfortunatately, this view doesn’t take into account the structural racism that runs through our nation’s social and economic policies. Being nicer as an individual just isn’t enough! Even if all white people were “nice” to people of color, without addressing the wealth gap there wouldn’t be much progress for the people at the bottom.
Of course, addressing the wealth gap…one can make a lot of enemies, especially if one even hints at a redistribution of wealth as a way to proceed. So what DO we do? Any suggestions?