Strength In What Remains

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Mural at Oakland Avenue and Custer in Detroit’s North End.

Democracy in Detroit, and all of Michigan, is in trouble.

And the trouble it’s in runs much deeper than many of us want to admit.

Even before the poisoning of Flint’s water, even before the state-orchestrated bankruptcy of Detroit, even before the passage of so-called “right to work” legislation in a state once synonymous with the union movement, democracy in Michigan was in crisis.

If you wanted, you could trace the roots of the crisis pretty far back in time. Maybe the trouble began in 1896, when Henry Ford puttered onto Bagley Avenue in his Quadricycle, setting up the state for a century of dependence on a few giant corporations. Maybe it started even earlier, way back in 1833, when Kentucky slave-hunters kidnapped two black Detroiters and sparked the city’s first race riot.

Yet, for much of the twentieth century, things seemed to be going pretty well in Detroit. We were driving the American economy, at the head of the movement for civil rights, and may have boasted the nation’s most prosperous middle class.

Thomas Sugrue’s myth-shattering history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, shows that this apparent good fortune masked deep tensions. As early as the 1940s, the automakers were abandoning Detroit, shifting production to suburbs and rural locations. Meanwhile, segregation kept black Detroiters confined to deteriorating neighborhoods, and white racism opened huge fissures in the New Deal coalition the unions had worked so hard to to build.

By the time the 21st century rolled around, the flight of industry and the racial fragmentation of metropolitan Detroit had set the stage for what was once unthinkable. With the state under one-party rule, corporate interests rolled back Michigan’s labor tradition and turned it into a so-called “right-to-work” state, breaking the back of union strength. The city of Detroit, once a leading bastion of black political power, was placed under the control of an emergency manager by a governor elected without the votes of anything more than a handful of Detroiters.

If the emergency manager law proves anything, it’s that we can’t have a fair political system without a fair economy. Politics and economics are bound together. With the emergency manager law, the state has essentially deemed some cities too poor for democracy, as well as too black.

Does democracy in Detroit have a future? I believe it does.

Democratic values still run strong in our city, region, and state. The memory of the middle class may be fading, but it’s far from dead. The people of Michigan still have a latent sympathy for the little guy, and a distrust of corporate elites who try to dictate what’s best for the rest of us. Despite the continuing strength of racism, there are still many people, on both sides of Eight Mile Road, with the courage to fight for justice and equality. There is strength in what remains.

Yet the answer, in the end, is for all of us to determine in the years to come. I hope this blog does a little to help us keep the faith that we can respond in the affirmative.

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