The past several weeks have been a time of introspection for many of us living in the metro Detroit area as we attempt to assess how far we have come since those frightening days in July, 1967. I personally had very little knowledge of what happened at the time, being only 9 years old and living quite a sheltered life in a small northwestern Ohio town.
However, when I arrived in Detroit in 1976 to begin my university studies, people were still talking about the riot and the impact it had on the area surrounding the university.
Today, the metro Detroit area is considered to be the most racially segregated area in the U.S. A lot of folks blame the riots for the mass exodus of white people leaving the city for more distant suburbs. What many don’t realize is that the “white flight” phenomenon began long before 1967, and that problems of housing discrimination (blessed by the federal government), unemployment, and police brutality had long afflicted many Black Detroiters.
If you want to get a sense of how far back these problems went, I highly recommend the book by Kevin Boyle, “Arc of Justice.” He chronicles the trial of Ossian Sweet, a black physician who was charged with murder in the 1920’s after he moved into a white neighborhood. It’s compelling reading…
So…where are we today? Unfortunately, there are still many problems facing Detroit, and the high level of segregation doesn’t do much to build trust across racial lines. As I mentioned in a comment on my last post, I think we humans tend to fear what we do not understand. Unfortunately, instead of banishing that fear by seeking information, many tend to select (mis)information that reinforces the fear of people who are different than they are. And I may be showing my bias here, but I think most of the learning and listening needs to be done by those of us who are white.
Still, there are many in the area who deeply care about who we are as a community, and who are working to overcome the problems that keep us separate. I have to hope that the sincere goodwill of the many who are working for a better Detroit will be enough to overcome many of the problems we face.