Thomas J. Sugrue: Detroit: A Dream of Integration Still Deferred

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.”]

AT first glance, the numbers released by the Census Bureau last week showing a precipitous drop in Detroit’s population — 25 percent over the last decade — seem to bear a silver lining: most of those leaving the city are blacks headed to the suburbs, once the refuge of mid-century white flight.

But a closer analysis of the data suggests that the story of housing discrimination that has dominated American urban life since the early 20th century is far from over. In the Detroit metropolitan area, blacks are moving into so-called secondhand suburbs: established communities with deteriorating housing stock that are falling out of favor with younger white homebuyers. If historical trends hold, these suburbs will likely shift from white to black — and soon look much like Detroit itself, with resegregated schools, dwindling tax bases and decaying public services.

Detroit is not the only American city to face persistent residential segregation, but it is among the worst: it has ranked among the 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States since the mid-20th century (though the rate of black-white segregation there has fallen markedly in the last decade, as blacks have moved into once-exclusive white neighborhoods)....

...[M]any believed that Detroit’s pattern of racial segregation was simply a matter of market forces. Or they attributed the whiteness of the suburbs to black racial inferiority: blacks, they said, did not have the discipline to own homes. Still others assumed that blacks didn’t move to the suburbs because they couldn’t afford it.

But those explanations were just convenient myths. Blacks and whites alike wanted to own their own homes and gardens, find better schools for their children and live on safe streets. But unlike whites, blacks did not have the freedom to move where they pleased. Detroit had many all-white suburbs with affordable housing, but qualified black homeowners could not get mortgages to move there....

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