The Detroit Declaration Cultural Studies Essay

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This past January 18th a group of twenty Detroit residents announced their plan for a new kind of social movement to occur within Detroit. The movement is known as the Detroit Declaration. Using the internet and social networking sites as a base, the Detroit Declaration hopes to improve on grass-roots efforts of the past to educate, mobilize, and inspire citizen to have a greater say in the future of Detroit. What is unique about Declaration Detroit is it broadness in scope. The document provides twelve basic principles that must be addressed in future conversations about rebuilding Detroit. All twelve principles underscore prevalent issues and initiatives already put forth by other community groups to "address the structural deficiencies that have acted over the decades to conspire against our central premise" (Declaration Detroit: Guide to Engagement 2). It is my belief that before we can take a step forward we must educate ourselves about the 'structural deficiencies' of Detroit's past. Examining the past can help us have a greater understanding of the present day Detroit. To illustrate this point I will conduct an overview of Thomas Sugrue's The Origin of the Urban Crisis to provide a framework for understanding racism, segregation, workplace / housing discrimination, and deindustrialization in Detroit's postwar history. Furthermore I will discuss Sugrue's findings of how the "mutual reinforcement of race, economics, and politics in a particular historical moment, the period from the 1940s to the 1960s set the stage for the fiscal, social, and economic crises(Sugrue 5" of present day Detroit. Giving us a 'speak now or forever hold your peace' urgency for a comprehensive social movement. Lastly, I will explore the idea that the success of the Declaration will be dependent on formulating concrete methods of raising public awareness/participation, and the ability to directly connect innovative public involvement in the political process to bring about change.


Throughout, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Sugrue delineates and analyzes as a whole the canon of historical and sociological research available about Detroit ranging between the Great Migration and the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. The author theorizes that two mainstays of American life, employment and housing, worked in a positive feedback loop. That is setbacks in employment and housing, especially for African Americans, worked on a two way street: disadvantages in employment led to disadvantages in housing, and disadvantages in housing led to disadvantages in employment; thus forming what is now known as the cycle of poverty. The roots of poverty do not begin at deindustrialization as many scholars have argued, rather, Sugrue says, the roots begin to form in the periods just before World War Two and after it.

Sugrue explains that before World War Two housing in Detroit was not abundant, nor was there a dire shortage. Housing was extremely segregated "at the outbreak of World War II. Nearly 90 percent of Detroit's white population would have had to move from one census tract to another for there to have been an equal distribution of black and whites over the city's nearly 140 square mile area" (24). Most of the city's African Americans lived in the Black Bottom, a neighborhood on the lower east side. This neighborhood was overcrowded before World War Two; however the outbreak of war led to a great industrial mobilization. The mobilization of war industries, centered in Detroit opened employment opportunities that were previously unimaginable to Southern Blacks. When word reached the South of these jobs there was a mass migration of African Americans to Detroit. This migration was two pronged; due in part to the harsh culture of Jim Crow in the South, and the opportunities presented in the North. Detroit's African American population grew rapidly, at the outbreak of World War II. Prior to the war fewer than 10% of Detroit's population was African American, by 1960 African Americans composed 29% of Detroit's populace (23). In this period of high African American employment tensions ran high on the shop floor. "Between 1941 and 1944, workers at dozens of Detroit-area plants engaged in wildcat strikes over the hiring and upgrading of black workers to jobs formerly restricted to whites" (29).  The tensions between blacks and whites that emerged during World War II did not disintegrate after the Armistice. Likewise the wartime rhetoric of equal rights and housing was not realized in practice. In the postwar period housing remained segregated, and became one of the most pressing issues of the time.

The composition of housing in Detroit made it difficult for African Americans to move out of the ghetto that was Black Bottom. Most of Detroit's housing was composed of single family homes. The high cost of owning or renting a whole house drove many African American Detroiters to remain in Black Bottom where housing could be shared or divided up. Covenants on homes in white areas ensured that houses remained single family and could designate White-only residency (45-46). Black homeownership was further complicated by the working of Real Estate agents, the FHA, HOLC and other federal agencies. Segregation in housing was a "direct consequence of a partnership between the federal government, local bankers and real estate brokers" (43). HOLC and Real Estate agencies engaged in the practice of redlining. This practice dictated that blacks could only be shown housing in black areas, while whites could only be shown housing in white areas (44). Furthermore, banks and the FHA would not grant loans to African American homebuyers out of fear that their very presence in the area would drive down the value of the homes. Real Estate agents played off of this fear. If a home was bought by an African American family in a predominately white area real estate agents would go door to door, encouraging residents to sell before the whole neighborhood became African Americans and their homes were worthless. Often Realtors would work both sides of this game, panicking the White homeowners into putting their homes up for sale, and then selling these same homes to African Americans.

Urban Redevelopment efforts also disproportionately affected African Americans. In the post war period, African American neighborhoods were often termed "slums" and slated for renewal. In Detroit this meant the bulldozing of the neighborhoods to make way for freeways. Federal highway policies not only encouraged white flight to the suburbs, but they systematically disvalued and destroyed the property and prosperity of inner-city minorities. The Lodge and Chrysler freeways in particular razed African American neighborhoods, causing property values to plummet and worsening an already tight housing situation. It is in this instance of freeway construction that Sugrue makes his most powerful argument against pluralism. City officials and leaders did not take the complaints of African Americans seriously because they had "little political power in a majority white city" (48). Blacks in Detroit were constantly the "losers" of any political deal. There was an attempt to address the problem of housing costs and the housing shortage with public housing. In Detroit, public housing was all but an utter failure. Facing opposition from white homeowners and middle class and wealthy black homeowners, housing projects were built in densely populated black areas in which many of the residents were never given adequate assistance for relocation (49). When blacks sought out housing it was not unusual for landlords to raise the rent for black tenets by 20-40% (54).

Black Detroiters were subject to the dirtiest, most dangerous and lowest paying jobs. "By all objective measures, white Detroiters citywide enjoyed preferential treatment at hiring gates, in personnel offices, in union halls and in promotion to better positions" (92). This was in large part a direct result of the housing situation in the city. Because personal references were often the most important decision in a manager's hiring practice, whites could not refer their black neighbors and friends because they had no black neighbors or friends. This worked in a cycle, as blacks lost more job opportunities, housing became more segregated, more opportunity was lost, and so forth. Managers were also reluctant to desegregate their workforce because they feared it would demoralize workers (93). Furthermore, union apprenticeships programs were slated to accept the sons and relatives of current workers, systematically leaving out young black men from the skilled work force. The employment situation for blacks in other industries (steel, brewing, chemical, etc.) followed similar lines, and in many cases was more discriminatory than the auto industry. Disenfranchised workers often joined the day labor market. This market provided at best intermittent employment for blacks, and helped to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks for whites (121). They heyday of industry in Detroit stratified workers across racial lines.

Despite the hardships of employment in the 1940's and 1950's automation and deindustrialization brought Black Detroiters to their knees. Beginning in the postwar period General Motors and other industrial giants began decentralizing their operations to the low wage labor markets of the South. Though this raised transportation prices, it greatly reduced the power of unions-reducing labor costs and union militancy (128). In the murder of American Labor decentralization was followed by automation. "Automation was primarily a weapon in the employers' antilabor arsenal...manufactures hoped that self-regulating, computerized machines would eliminate worker led slowdowns, soldiers and sabotage on the line" (131). And it did. Machines not only lowered the number of jobs available but blew a detrimental blow to unions. Most hard hit were the entry level and dangerous jobs that were mostly sought after by African Americans. The notion of automation reinforces the notion that capitalism generates inequality, and that "African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality" (Sugrue 5). Overtime was also used as a weapon against labor. Instead of hiring more workers, industry would ask workers to work overtime, limiting the numbers power of the union and the energy of the workers to organize (142). The effects of deindustrialization, decentralization, and automation on Detroit wreaked havoc on the psychological health of Detroit young Black men. They became trapped in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. Deindustrialization became a reality and with it came the social tensions and political formation of the 1950's and 1960's.

Ethnic (mostly eastern and southern European) blue collar workers fought to keep their neighborhoods from "Black invasion". In doing this they were both affirming their "Whitehood" to the more established ethnicities (western and northern European) and exhibiting the desperation that deindustrialization brought to Americans unsure if they would be able to hold onto their homes in a period of increase economic stress. As Blacks moved into White neighborhoods, Whites fled to the outskirts of the city or to the suburbs, further disenfranchising Blacks and the city they lived in. Middle class and wealthy Blacks were not immune to this resistance. They also resisted the movement of lower income Blacks into their neighborhoods in an attempt to achieve "Whiteness". Community groups throughout the city, allied with Mayor Albert Cobo to work against civil rights and against integration (222). Those that called for integration and equal rights were often labeled communists and placed outside the public discourse by the echoes of McCarthyism (226). White Detroiters saw their neighborhoods as their territory to defend and developed what is known as "defended neighborhoods". Violence was not out of the question in defending neighborhoods. Anything from intimidation, to rock throwing, to out and out murder was used to discourage Blacks from moving to White neighborhoods. Whites spoke of Black migration in militant terms using words such as "penetration", "invasion", and "battleground"--serving to raise racial tension in the city.

This tension was the direct result of housing segregation and its combination with persistent workplace discrimination and deindustrialization. It was, indeed, explosive. It was only a matter of time before a small spark ignited the "Arsenal of Democracy". This spark came in the hot month of July in 1967. Police had invaded a blind pig, and contrary to normal policy, arrested patrons and owners. What resulted was an explosion of violence and rebellion that was the reaction of decades of racial discrimination. This rebellion did not conclude Sugrue's narrative but accelerated it. White flight, deindustrialization only increased in the years following 1967. The intertwining problems of racism, segregation, workplace discrimination, and deindustrialization haunt Detroit and its surrounding suburbs to this day, and at no other times are the lessons of Sugrue more pertinent than now.


Nearly half a century removed from the Race Rebellion of 67' the dilemmas of housing, segregation, industrial relations, racial discrimination, and deindustrialization remain largely unresolved (Sugrue 5). The result of federal policies (suburban mortgages, redlining, and highway program), decentralization of the auto industry (regionally, nationally, and internationally), and the flight of population and capital have left the city of Detroit disinvested and segregated from the rest of the metropolitan region. In fact the region remains the most segregated in the entire nation. Neighborhoods are plagued by crime and substandard housing. The state-appointed educational financial manager Robert Bobb has planned to close 45 schools by the end of next year. The School Board President is illiterate in a public school system that fails to graduate half of students. Nearly half of the population is without work. To say the city lacks an adequate tax base is an understatement, Detroit is not just upside down; it is head over heels in trouble. The city's 900,000 residents are sprawled across 139 square miles of territory and the discussion has begun whether or not the city should 'right size' to better provide services to residents. Detroit significantly lacks job-training for high paid skilled-workers. Furthermore the city has one of the most lacking mass-transit systems out of any large American city. The city has yet to fill the void of the automobile industry and replace the hundreds of thousands of lost manufacturing jobs. The realities of present Detroit are a direct result of "the complex and interwoven histories of race, residence, and work in the post-war era" (Sugrue 5).



As of April 13th. 3,000 people have signed the Declaration of Detroit. Most are from Detroit, or the metropolitan region, yet others represent the international community. Any person that cares about the city of Detroit, or would like to have a say in the renaissance of future Detroit can sign the document. You may be asking yourself what exactly is Declaration Detroit? According to the drafters, "Detroit Declaration is an organizing document for people who love Detroit, who sense that there is a growing tide of consensus about what our city must do differently to thrive, and who are willing to invest time and energy into the political process to see that consensus emerge on a transformative scale The document is a starting point for an attempt to organize a constituency that we believe already exists. It simply lacks a name, a list, and a single purpose" (Detroit Declaration: Guide To Engagement 4). Citizen engagement is not a new concept in Detroit. It has been understood for decades that top-down, downtown planning has failed neighborhoods and citizens are not willing to rely on government as a savior. Passivity has never been the consensus amongst the strong-minded individuals of the Detroit community. The city has hundreds of community and faith based groups, block clubs, and philanthropic based organizations; however, a lot of there work is accomplished in a vacuum, whereas each group acts separately and independent of one another to achieve a greater good. The Declaration understands that each individual person alone may lack governmental influence, and that currently there is no unifying group or place that is willing to hear every perspective put forth. Thus the Declaration offers citizens, block groups, non-profits, politicians, and institutions a forum and say in the rebuilding of Detroit. Loosely bonded by twelve principles the Declaration is broad enough to incorporate and engage any group throughout the city who might be partaking in similar initiatives, but specific enough to address the core issues fundamental and necessary to restoring Detroit to its glory. The Twelve Principle are as following:

· Be welcoming and embrace our diversity. Move beyond mere tolerance of our differences to a true commitment to openness, understanding and cooperation, and the inclusion of multiple perspectives both in our neighborhoods and at the highest decision-making realms.

· Preserve our authenticity. Celebrate and elevate that which makes Detroit unique-local art, music, food, design, architecture, culture-to build a stronger local economy. · Cultivate creativity. Build an infrastructure to foster and promote emerging talent in one of Detroit's greatest strengths, the arts: music, film, visual arts, design, and other creative industries.

· Diversify our economy. Create a culture of opportunity and risk-taking, especially by investing in entrepreneurialism and small, micro-business.

· Promote sustainability. Embrace the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental benefit by retooling our infrastructure with green technology, adapting vacant buildings and open spaces for new uses, and creating healthy, family-supporting jobs.

· Enhance quality of place. Create a comprehensive vision for transit-linked, high-quality, walkable urban centers in Detroit.

· Demand transportation alternatives. Invest in an integrated regional transportation system that links communities and provides citizens with access to the jobs, health care, and education they need.

· Prioritize education, pre-K through 12 and beyond. Create a culture that values the wide, equitable educational attainment necessary to produce both economic opportunity and stronger citizens.

· Elevate our universities and research institutions. Create world-class education, new technology, and medical centers to attract and retain students and faculty from around the world.

· Enhance the value of city living. Demand public safety and services to improve the quality of life for residents.

· Demand government accountability. Reward civic engagement with responsive, transparent, and ethical governmental decision-making.

· Think regionally and leverage our geography. Maximize our position as an international border city and a Midwestern hub between Chicago and Toronto. Forge meaningful partnerships between Detroit and its suburbs to compete globally in the 21st century.

(Detroit Declaration 2-3)

In my mind, the seven most important principles are (1) be welcoming and embrace our diversity, (2) diversify our economy, (3) promote sustainability, (4) demand government accountability, (5) prioritize education and (6) think regionally and leverage our geography.(7) Elevate our universities and research institutions. According to Darden any solutions for resolving the complex problems facing the city will have to address: "strengthening the economy, improvement of race relations, and reduction of regional inequality" (Darden 262). A state economy concentrated in automobile manufacturing is simply an idea of the past. If Detroit and its residents have any hope of surviving the years ahead we must diversify our economy and find new ways to re-educate the labor force and get on the forefront of developing green technology. One proposal in the city is the implementation of place-based education. This is the idea that schools need to be teaching children the skills necessary to find jobs in their communities. Place-based education may also be a means to entice students to graduate and instill in them a greater sense of wanting to stay in their community and provoke change. By diversifying our economy and prioritizing education the city of Detroit may be able to train and place the unemployed to work. One idea that I find particularly fascinating is "Power Houses." Two years ago a married couple bought a 500 dollar abandon house in Northern Hamtramck adjacent to where they lived. The couple added reused solar panels and wind mills to the house, and then essentially hooked their current home up to the abandon house for energy. This idea is completely revolutionary and could solve some key problems in the city of Detroit. One power houses fix blight, two they create an 'off the grid' solution to high energy costs, and three they have the capability of joining industry and people together to create new positive jobs that could really help Detroit. Strides must also be made in regional cooperation and reducing racial tensions. Reducing racial tensions or promoting diversity can be accomplished through education. Any student of anthropology knows that race is not a biological classification, rather an emphasis on the arbitrary trait of skin color. Racial tensions could be reduced, if people began to talk more openly about race and culture. Hamtramck provides a good impetus of a community who promotes diversity. Detroit could benefit economically and socially from attracting immigrants from all parts of the world. Deindustrialization and the economic recession are evening the playing fields for Detroit and its suburbs. Because now the suburbs are becoming as broke and disinvested as Detroit there is a good opportunity for residents of both constituencies to voice a desire for 'metropolitan governance' and 'regional tax base sharing.' These types of procedures are the only equitable way to finance the needs and solutions of metropolitan issues (i.e. water & sewer infrastructure).

According to Mike Hamlin, there are three steps necessary to create a social renaissance or revolution. The first step is propaganda- organize a group of people around an idea and become knowledgeable. The second step is agitation - broadcasting the message to the people. The third step is to mobilize and organize. Mr. Hamlin said that "revolution is for the people - taking on the people's struggle." In my assessment the Declaration of Detroit is half-way in-between the first, second, and third step. People have organized around a central idea, the message is currently being broadcasted to the people, and efforts have been made to organize and mobilize. The drafters of the Declaration state when you sign the declaration "you are making a personal commitment to promote these principles in your daily life and work. Furthermore, you are agreeing to help elect leaders who support them and advocate for policies that uphold them" (Detroit Declaration: Guide To Engagement 4). Any person can contribute to the cause of the Declaration by: (1) electing political leaders that believe in the doctrine, (2) advocating for important issues and participate in contrasting policy recommendations, and (3) leveraging personal action, talents, and resources to support the principles (5-6). Another key to the Declaration of Detroit is that unlike other social-movement groups it holds itself accountable to a Code Of Conduct. The Code of Conduct states (1) "Declare Detroit is committed to making decisions in a cooperative manner that does not overlook the objections of a few in order to support the opinions of the majority."(9)

(2) "Declare Detroit is committed to advocating for the Principles of the Detroit Declaration in a manner that is deliberately accessible, inclusive and available to people of diverse races, religions, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations and socio-economic status"(9)

(3) "Declare Detroit is committed to advocating for the Principles of the Detroit Declaration in a manner that is deliberately accessible, inclusive and available to people of diverse races, religions, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations and socio-economic status."(9)

It is my belief that before we can take a step forward we must educate ourselves about the 'structural deficiencies' of Detroit's past.(5) Examining the past can help us have a greater understanding of the present day Detroit. Thomas Sugrue's The Origin of the Urban Crisis provides a solid framework for understanding how; racism, segregation, workplace / housing discrimination, and deindustrialization in Detroit's postwar years, caused what is now referred to as 'the urban crisis' (Sugrue 5). The Declaration of Detroit is one group of like-minded people's solution to the problems created by the disparities of Detroit's crisis. Because of there call for assistance from everyday people, principles, provided avenues of engagement, and code of conduct I believe that the Declaration of Detroit will provide to be the most instrumental tool in the retransformation of Detroit.