Duggan Does Race

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan points out the city’s Birwood Street segregation wall, built in the 1940s to satisfy federal housing policy mandating separation of blacks and whites.

Sometimes, maybe it does take Nixon to go to China. Or, in this case, a white guy from Livonia to school a bunch of rich white guys about the history of official racial apartheid in Detroit. (Full video here.)

Not that others didn’t try before. Coleman Young (senior) did, with more humor (and expletives). But there was no way the lily-white suburbs were going to listen to frank talk about racism from the first black mayor of Detroit.

Indeed, none of the history Duggan described was news to most black Detroiters, or anyone who’s read Thomas Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” the main source for Duggan’s talk, first published more than twenty years ago.

Still, it means something for the mayor to have made a public acknowledgment of decades of state-sponsored white supremacy. Duggan deserves some credit – as do the aides (likely including Maurice Cox, and perhaps Aaron Foley) who pushed him to speak these truths. Even if he is, after all, the mayor of the blackest big city in the nation. Even if the comments did include some back-handed swaps at his mayoral opponent, Coleman Young II, who Duggan implicitly compared, rather laughably, to the white supremacist 1950s mayor Albert Cobo.

What Duggan didn’t mention – and perhaps could not have mentioned, given the politics of the region – was how the apartheid city policy of the 1940s and 1950s became a system of metropolitan apartheid in the decades that followed. How the racist policies of mayors like Cobo, a champion of expressways and a foe of desegregated public housing, rapidly became the regional segregation enforced by suburban sultans like Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, a champion of expressways and a foe of desegregated schools (as well as regional transit). Or like Duggan’s own departed mentor, former Livonia mayor and Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara.

Fifty-plus years after the fact, it remains, to some extent, astonishing to hear a leading white elected official in metro Detroit talk about racial segregation and inequality. But that, in itself, should give us pause.

When it comes to confronting the demons of metropolitan segregation and inequality – the forces that stripped democracy from Detroit and a dozen other cities, that have prevented regional transit, poisoned the children of Flint, and this year will bring about thousands of water shutoffs and foreclosures in the city of Detroit alone – well, let’s just say we have a long way to go.