The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas Sugrue


When I moved to Detroit in the fall of 2015, I immediately sought to educate myself about the city: its politics, history, economics, and culture. One of the books that kept popping up in my research was Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue. Several weeks into my move, I came down with a seasonal flu that confined me to my bed for several days. Having grown up in Southern California, I surmised that some Michigan bug was welcoming me to the state in its own unique way. Sitting in bed, agonizing about how I couldn’t return to work, I read Sugrue’s book to keep me connected to the city’s own struggle towards revitalization. My review of the book is as follows.


What caused Detroit’s economic and racial inequality? This is a critically important political question because the dominant answer will shape the dominant strategy for Detroit’s recovery. One popular (yet wrong) explanation is that Detroit’s economic decline is primarily due to the 1967 race riots, which sparked white flight, shrunk the municipal tax base, and enabled the corruption and mismanagement which maintained and entrenched the deprivation that continues to this day.

Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University Pennsylvania, looks to the evidence to find the real answer. He carefully examines the origins of the main factors, or “structural forces” which caused the city’s decline. Sugrue concludes that, in contrast to the popular explanation, there are three major causes for Detroit’s economic and racial inequality: deindustrialization, housing segregation, and workplace discrimination.

1.     Deindustrialization

The first major factor that Sugrue singles out is deindustrialization, which he also calls capital mobility. By this he means that the major auto manufacturers, which created Detroit’s economic prosperity, relocated and automated industrial production to minimize their costs but consequently deprive the city of its economic base over time.

Specifically, automakers relocated production facilities to places where labor costs were cheaper, first in non-unionized (or right-to-work) parts of the country in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt, and then overseas (a trend which would continue with the development of global neoliberal capitalism). Importantly, Sugrue finds that capital flight began as early as the 1950s, when the industrial demand created by World War II came to an end.

Interestingly, Sugrue writes that auto manufacturers deliberately used automation, or the mechanization of production, as a weapon against the militant Detroit union movement, whose advocacy nonetheless achieved significant labor protections and helped create the American middle class.

2.     Housing segregation

Sugrue identifies housing segregation as the second major force for Detroit’s racial and economic inequality. Sugrue finds that housing segregation occurred through two main pathways, public policy and private discrimination.

In terms of public policy, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration—both part of the New Deal—promulgated underwriting standards that were used by the federal government as well as private mortgage investors. These underwriting standards heavily discriminated against African Americans and ethnic minorities. Because of this process—known as financial redlining—minority groups were unable to secure mortgage loans and were structurally disadvantaged from owning property and transferring wealth intergenerationally. This contrasted starkly with white residents, whose federal loan guarantees significantly facilitated home ownership, suburbanization, and wealth-building.

Next, Sugrue finds that private discrimination significantly contributed to residential racial segregation. Many Detroiters know the story of Ossian Sweet, a black physician who, in 1925, employed armed self-defense against a white mob trying to force him out of the home he recently purchased in a predominantly white neighborhood. Sugrue shows that the scale of white resistance towards black integration was much, much larger. He meticulously documents how white residents employed all forms of direct violence and indirect means (like restrictive racial covenants, blockbusting, and urban renewal) to shut African-Americans out of white neighborhoods and lock them into poorer parts of the city.

3.     Workplace Discrimination

Lastly, Sugrue finds that the third structural force that most contributed to Detroit’s economic and racial inequality is workplace discrimination. Sugrue’s research shows that across industries, public and private employers systematically favored white applicants over black ones. In addition, although the booming wartime auto industry created many good-paying and stable jobs, the automakers disproportionately recruited black workers to lower-end, less desirable jobs, like janitorial services, that had little opportunities for advancement. Union contracts’ benchmarks, like seniority, often worked to reinforce employment inequality, since African Americans would be the last hired and the first to be let go.

My Thoughts

On the positive side, Sugrue’s book is refreshing for those looking for a systematic, rigorous examination of the root causes for Detroit’s decline. His analysis is persuasive and extremely well-researched with abundant evidence from, reports, statistics, and quotes.

On the critical side, there is barely any mention of characters or culture in Sugrue’s narrative. This not only omits legitimate history makers but makes for somewhat dry reading. And although it’s not necessarily the focus of the book, I would have appreciated what Sugrue thinks of post-67 events and how they relate to economic and racial inequality. Just some of these momentous events include Mayor Coleman Young’s administration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the War on Poverty, and the Great Society. Their importance makes them cry out for analysis. Instead, the 1967 rebellion receives only one sentence, and subsequent events are alluded to but not examined in a serious way. All that said, Sugrue’s book is a powerful primer on the deep underlying forces that set the stage for Detroit’s decline.

On a more personal level, I moved to Detroit because, to me, it epitomizes both the failures of the old—capitalism and racism—and the possibilities of the new—economic democracy and social solidarity. Therefore, as a social change agent, I feel that transforming Detroit is one of the best ways to prove a model for transforming society. Reading Sugrue gives me a historical basis that reaffirms my intuitions. Based on the evidence, Detroit’s economic and racial inequality is not based on the popular explanation, but is instead fundamentally rooted in the nature of global capitalism and white supremacy. Therefore, any strategy for lasting progress that hopes to be truly inclusive and equitable must confront both of these issues head-on. The conclusion to Sugrue’s book eloquently echoes this view:

The bleak landscapes and unremitting poverty of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s are the legacies of the transformation of the city’s economy in the wake of World War II, and of the politics and culture of race that have their origins in the persistent housing and workplace discrimination of the postwar decades. What hope remains in the city comes from the continued efforts of city residents to resist the debilitating effects of poverty, racial tension, and industrial decline. But the rehabilitation of Detroit and other major American cities will require a more vigorous attempt to grapple with the enduring effects of the postwar transformation of the city, and creative responses, piece by piece, to the interconnected forces of race, residence, discrimination, and industrial decline, the consequences of a troubled and still unresolved past.


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