Segregation and racial politics long the death knell for regionalism in Detroit area

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Jan. 11, 2012 — The Detroit metropolitan area, has a long history of racial antagonism between the city and its suburbs. According to Thomas J. Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, that antagonism was the primary reason for the failure of regional cooperation that could have mitigated or even prevented Detroit’s decline.

“Especially after the devastating riot of 1967, the racial divisions and antagonism between the city and the suburbs became extremely entrenched,” he said. “The racial hostility made it very hard, politically, to get anything done cooperatively.” 

Competition instead of cooperation

In Part 1 of our series, we looked at how proposals to deal with the current crisis ignore or exacerbate long-term problems.

In Part 2, we looked at a series of proposals from the 1970s that attempted to treat Detroit as an integral part of a single metropolitan region, proposals that many experts say would have radically altered Detroit’s trajectory from then to now.

Here, we probe the obstacles to achieving regional cooperation, obstacles driven in significant measure by the narrow perspectives held both by city officials and advocates as well by their suburban counterparts.

Finally, in Part 4, we will examine the nature and plausibility of the solutions — at the local, regional, state, and federal levels— that would need to be put in place if anyone were serious about trying to help Detroit thrive at any time soon.


According to Joe T. Darden, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University and a co-author of Detroit, Race, and Uneven Development, it has long been customary for both city and suburban residents and policy makers to view regional policy through a lens tinted by racial and class-based prejudice.

“Whenever these proposals have come around, the only thing people have thought about is how their particular group, their community, is going to lose,” he said. “Even when it might benefit them in the long term, the tendency is to see every policy as benefiting the other side more.”


Suburban resistance

When policy makers began talking about regionalism in the 1970s, the suburban towns surrounding Detroit were almost exclusively white. Through a mixture of local antagonism, workplace discrimination, and segregated housing policies at all levels of government, African Americans were largely shut out of these communities, Sugrue said.

“People saw the suburbs as being sanctuaries from the city, which they associated with crime and violence,” he said.

According to June Manning Thomas, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, the suburban official who best exemplified that attitude was Orville Hubbard, who served as mayor of Dearborn, a nearby suburb, from 1942 to 1978. Hubbard was an out-spoken critic of integration, and built much of his political base by promising to keep Dearborn “lily white.” In his 1989 biography of Hubbard, the writer David L. Good quotes Hubbard as saying, after the 1967 riots in Detroit, “I’m not a racist, but I just hate those black bastards.”

When, in the 1972 case of Milliken v. Bradley, a federal District Court Judge required that children in Detroit schools be bused to suburban schools and vice-versa, in order to desegregate the Detroit Public School District, the decision provoked an intense response in the suburbs. In the suburb of Wyandotte, an effigy of Steven Roth, the District judge who decided the case, was hung at the end of a mock trial. (As detailed by Part 2 of this series, the Supreme Court ultimately reversed the District Court’s decision and held the suburbs harmless from the desegregation remedy.)

“A lot of suburban elections have been dominated by an anti-Detroit fervor,” said Jeff Horner, a lecturer in urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. “People would campaign on having as little to do with Detroit as possible.”

A similar, if less heated, reaction was provoked when then-Governor William Milliken proposed a form of regional tax base sharing in 1975. Milliken proposed a system whereby new tax revenue would be shared between Detroit and its suburbs as a way of shoring up Detroit’s tax base.

“People in the suburbs thought that the reason for Detroit’s problems was because it had become a black city. So the attitude was, ‘why am I going to pay for this?’” Darden said.

Darden said that Coleman Young’s election as Detroit’s first African American mayor in 1973 crystallized the suburban perception of Detroit as a black city, which made it easier for suburban residents to think about Detroit as distinct and separate from their own towns. As the city’s decline continued, Young advocated frequently for — and occasionally won — more funding from the state, which the suburbs perceived as “stealing” their tax dollars. The issue culminated near the end of Young’s term, when Judge John Chmura, running for a district judgeship in Warren, put Young’s face on the body of a Robin Hood character in his campaign literature.

“A lot of suburban elections have been dominated by an anti-Detroit fervor,” said Jeff Horner, a lecturer in urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. “People would campaign on having as little to do with Detroit as possible.”

“As Detroit lost its tax base, the suburbs saw every attempt to make regional policy as basically taking money out of their pockets to help those blacks in Detroit,” Darden said. “Every issue became about them losing in terms of their economic interests.”

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