The Origins of the Urban Crisis

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A case study can be a very useful tool for a historian. In the case of Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Sugrue examines a particular topic (civil rights) from a geographically stationary position (Detroit)during a set time period (roughly 1940-1960). He argues that by using Detroit as a case study, he is then able to place the city in a general historical context. He extracts tremendous amounts of data that may have gone unnoticed through a broader chronological or thematic examination of a particular topic. Then, having finished his study of Detroit, Sugrue takes a broader viewpoint, using the information that he has collected, and compares it to other trends and topics that exist during the period studied.

Sugrue's aim in writing this book is to provide the reader with a snapshot view of Detroit during the 1940s and 1950s. In looking at this particular city during this period, Sugrue has a number of goals in mind. First, he attempts to put to rest the myth that every group in America prospered during the 1950s and that there was little poverty in the Northeastern and Midwestern cities since industry was struggling to keep up with the demand of America’s newfound consumerism. Next, Sugrue argues that that postwar urban crisis that Detroit experienced was a result of the fact “…that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of the inequality.” (5) Finally, Sugrue shows the reader that America was a much more complex and troubled society than traditional scholarship typically depicts. Sugrue argues that the cities of the "rust belt," generally believed to be places of massive industrial expansion at this time, were actually scenes of massive discontent.

Sugrue breaks his book into three parts, which he titles "Arsenal", "Rust", and "Fire", with each section focusing on various aspects of labor and housing during the period. In Sugrue's housing sections, he argues that as a continuous influx of African-American migrants came to the city seeking industrial and wartime work, they found their ability to locate decent housing blocked. Official and unofficial segregation was the rule, and blacks had to deal with incredibly crowded housing; even if a family was able to afford to leave the newly-formed ghettos, they were generally unable to obtain housing loans or to find a neighborhood that would accept them.

Sugrue also describes the problem of adequate employment. Blacks were generally only given menial, unskilled employment, regardless of their education or qualifications. Blacks tended to be the first targeted for downsizing and hiring policies (many of which were based on personal recommendations and connections, even at the larger companies) made it difficult to find permanent employment. The manual labor which was done by blacks in the 1940s was the same labor that quickly became automated in the 1950s, resulting in the elimination of many jobs and the cessation of hiring entry level positions. As major industry began to move out of Detroit to the suburbs and to more rural areas, which was possible because of the ease of nationwide transportation, white workers were more likely to follow, while black workers financially could not afford to follow.

Sugrue presents a picture of a city in crisis, both racially and economically. World War II saw unprecedented industrial growth in Detroit, but after the end of the massive defense contracts and the rise of automation, many workers were suddenly unemployed. Since the war was a period of mainly African-American mass migration into Detroit for labor, this unemployment hit the African-American community the hardest. The post-war poverty of the community strengthened the racism that already existed, and whites believed that interactions with blacks, either at work or at home, would only be detrimental to the world they delineated for themselves. Consequently, neighborhoods and businesses, already segregated, became even more so. As laws were passed and court cases rule that this segregation was illegal, the white community reacted, in many cases violently. Sugrue ends his book with a brief discussion of Detroit in the 1960s, a city which saw riots, marches, and upheaval due to racial conflict. He argues that this conflict was not sudden, but that the seeds were sown as early as World War II. The development (or decomposition) of Detroit was not inevitable, but was based on multiple individual and community decisions that created systematic and sustained racial separation and conflict.


T. Demharter, Fall 2005

While the author provides a tremendous amount of information on the topic, I believe that there were two additional topics that should have been covered. The first one is education and the ramifications this environment had on the ability of blacks to receive an education. Nothing is said about this at all and I believe that this is a major flaw. Without increased educational possibilities, the ability of blacks to move up into desirable jobs continued to stay low. Were schools segregated? Did blacks aspire to higher education? What barriers existed to limit this?

The final topic that the author should have discussed was voting patterns by African Americans at this time. How were blacks voting? Who were they voting for? Were they voting? Again, through politics, could African Americans have changed their place in life? Nothing is said on this topic.

Overall, this book provides the reader with a tremendous amount of information and, despite its shortcomings and limits, presents a wonderful overview of many of the problems faced by the African American community during the 1950’s. However, because the book is so narrow in its scope, it would be of little use to any class besides at the graduate level. Too much prior knowledge is required of the reader to allow for it to be used either in a high school or undergraduate class.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

High school history books tend to begin the civil rights movement begins around 1954, with Brown vs. the Board of Education. Thomas Sugrue, in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, convincingly demonstrates that a proper study of the civil rights movement needs context. One cannot understand why there was so much racial conflict in the late 1950s and 1960s without understanding the root causes of the conflict. Sugrue uses Detroit as his example. By examining the issues of housing and labor--the two issues that most saliently affected the facets of everyday life--Sugrue demonstrates that the African-American community was stuck in a cycle of poverty and unemployment due to the deindustrialization of the city and the rampant racism of the white community.

Sugrue also convincingly demonstrates that the civil rights movement in the North is a topic that has been virtually ignored by historians. His work on Detroit is breathtakingly broad. He cites so many statistics so comfortably that one cannot help but be impressed by the depth of his research. Sugrue argues that the selection of Detroit was based on his familiarity with the area (his family's hometown) and the symbolic nature of the city as a wartime industrial powerhouse. The 1960s racial riots, I'm sure, were also a factor.

There are only two criticisms I can make about the book, which is a complete and worthwhile examination of the context of the civil rights movement (and one that makes recent news articles about the proposed ruralization of parts of Detroit particularly interesting). First, Sugrue should have paid more attention to education. As Tom alluded in his 2005 review, Sugrue does not thoroughly examine this issue, though he does discuss literacy and access to education briefly. A more thorough examination would only have strengthened his argument. Since school districts were constructed by neighborhood, was the threat of housing integration also the threat of school integration? Also, Sugrue's choice of Detroit is a good one, and his parallels to other rust belt cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh seem valid. While it is no doubt more than he wanted to research, how complete were the similarities? Were these cities as industrial, and did they have the same problems with racism? Every city is unique, and Detroit, as the "Motor City" and home of automobile manufacturing, seems atypical in this fashion. An explanation of why this comparison is valid (for example, did Pittsburgh steel also automate during this period?) would have been helpful.

John Lillard, Spring 2010

Origins of the Urban Crisis is an illustration of how a case study methodology can be used to illuminate a particular argument. Thomas Sugrue’s argument is that two of the most important, inter-related and unresolved problems in American history, (a) that capitalism generates economic inequality and (b) that African-Americans have borne a disproportionally large impact of that inequality -- are embodied in the story of the rise and fall of Detroit (5). Sugrue describes the postwar transformation of urban America by placing flight of jobs, workplace discrimination, and intractable racial segregation in housing at the root of Detroit’s ongoing crisis (xviii).

But the validity of a case study rests in the proof of the representative nature of the subject. One could provide a counter-argument that the magnitude of Detroit’s since the 50’s ordeal make it not a representative case study but the worst case. Other American industrial cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Boston shared many of the same attributes as Detroit such as a monolithic industrial base, rapid wartime expansion, work force migration from other regions, and high percentages of ethnic populations. Why was Detroit’s transformation so rancorous and violent by comparison?

The rich volume of examples and data that Sugrue provides about Detroit gives the impression that the city’s ordeal might have simply been due to scale. Detroit’s industrial base, so heavily vesting in auto manufacture, was narrower in scope than other cities. Other unique conditions, such as the Ford Company’s outreach policy of hiring blacks at their River Rouge plant (25-26), might have contributed to a larger influx of African Americans than was seen in Chicago or Cleveland. But it is up to the reader to do this research - Sugrue does not make this comparison himself.

Sugrue’s conclusion is that Detroit’s fate – and by extension the fate of any city in the postwar era - is the consequence of an unequal distribution of power and resources (14). He does an excellent job of proving this point for Detroit, but the broader connection urban America is not made.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

Thomas Sugrue’s work on post-industrial urban America employs race, economics, and politics from the 1940s to 1960s to “set the stage for the fiscal, social, and economic crises that confront urban America today (p. 5).” This case study of Detroit is one of many to look at the city. Like Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America by David Freund which is also about Detroit, the book examines the housing market and how blacks were often shut out of home ownership by both the economy and racial politics.

One aspect of the disappearance of factory jobs from the rust belt cities that is often under-rated, if it is even considered, is the impact that unions had on driving out factories and consequently contributing to the loss of jobs. Sugrue does raise the issue, but perhaps does not give it the weight that it deserves. He quotes a manufacturer as saying that union activity drove companies from Detroit to other states in the Midwest like Indiana and Ohio (p. 138). Inequality in pay and housing opportunities could have been resolved in time, if there was a will, but without jobs it becomes an exercise in trying to stop the bleeding without a tourniquet.

Overall, the book is well organized and very readable. Sugrue presents a nuanced overview of the Detroit housing market and racial politics. One problem of the case study is that historians tend to press their point by providing an unrelentingly negative – or positive - view. Missing here is some sense of the ways that the inhabitants attempted to gain some agency over their situation. Like Earl Lewis’ insistence that the black residents of Norfolk did have their own culture and did not just mimic white culture – and that they had some free will in making choices in their lives - other neighborhoods and cities must have exhibited some of the same characteristics. Residents of these segregated cities (and which city was not to some extent?) might not appreciate having their lives represented as being only defined by white economic politics.

Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011

The title of Sugure’s work, The Origins of the Urban Crisis clearly places this case study within an urban context and while there is much for the social and economic historian, there is an important narrative here about Detroit as a city, not just as in industrial enclave. As he writes in his preface to the second edition, “Origins examines the ways that Detroit’s policy makers and politicians responded to urban change.” (xxii) I would suggest, in contrast to others, that housing is the best way to understand and contextualize the thesis that grassroots conflicts and struggles were the defining characteristics of the political and civil rights struggles. Throughout the work, personal narratives and accounts of the importance of neighborhood reinforce the claim that housing was the real battleground. This is also reflected in his assertion that race became the defining factor in the post war years, and that race played out in geography – the ‘settling out’ theory. By expanding a moribund definition of suburbanization to include deindustrialization we see the counterpoint where companies are the actors as they settle in new neighborhoods. These businesses were leaving the inner city while the city planners were left with a permanent underclass and jobless population.

Consider David M. Katzman, Kenneth B. Clark and Gilbert Osofsky as a generation of urban historians bringing out a hidden history, Kaztman’s Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century also argued that class divisions within the Black community were as important as being imposed by whites. Race riots and upheaval were part of the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth and Sugure is astute in tracing the root causes of these in post war Detroit. We can use this volume to help understand the various ways in which an urban environment allowed for the confluence of race, geography, politics and economics. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the housing choices and programs, this is Sugure’s real battleground and arguably, the real battle ground in post war America.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Over the course of fifty years, Detroit transformed from one of America’s fastest-growing boomtowns with well-paid blue-collar workers to an “eerily apocalyptic” city where “over a third of [its] residents live beneath the poverty line, many concentrated in neighborhoods where a majority of their neighbors are also poor” (3). Thomas J. Sugrue used Detroit as the backdrop to synthesize existing scholarship on the origins of the post-war urban crisis, illustrating the complex socio-economic and political forces that facilitated the decline of Detroit and the Rust Belt cities of the Northeast and Midwest. As scholars debated urban decay in terms of social dependency, racial inequality, and urban marginalization, Sugrue contended that Detroit’s transformation stemmed from deeply-rooted, inter-connected, and possibly intractable issues of work, race, and home, which facilitated spatial separation that highlighted the explosive nature of racial mistrust (4-5).

Sugrue showed that economic restructuring in the 1950s facilitated Detroit’s decline. During the twentieth century, industrial decentralization in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities accelerated, as plants and industries relocated, downsized, or closed. The process had been facilitated not only through technological advances in communication and transportation, but also through the federal government providing funds for the development of what would become the Sun Belt military-industrial complex. In Detroit, firms like Ford and General Motors constructed plants throughout the country. The auto-related industries such as machine tool manufacturers and metalworking firms followed. Between 1950 and 1956, 124 firms moved into the Detroit suburbs while another fifty-five moved out of Detroit altogether (127-9). Automation further fueled Detroit’s economic restructuring. While automation eliminated dangerous and onerous factory jobs, automation also facilitated the downsizing of the work force. Ford used automation in engine production to cut 3,000 jobs at the Detroit Rogue Complex (130, 133). Through decentralization and automation, Sugrue showed that Detroit underwent “a systematic restructuring of the local economy from which the city never fully recovered” (126).

African Americans experienced the brunt of Detroit’s economic restructuring. As Sugrue noted, “Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality” (5). African Americans faced discriminatory hiring practices as employers used work force efficiency and racial stereotypes like absenteeism and laziness to deny jobs. When African Americans gained employment, they often found themselves in poor-paying secondary sector jobs like service work, or in the worst primary sector jobs like janitorial work. Decentralization made matters worse. As firms downsized or closed plants, African Americans were often the first group laid off. Seniority helped slightly, as most African American workers rarely reached a level of job security. As Sugrue noted, decentralization worsened the employment plight of Detroit’s African American community (92-3, 103-4, 141).

African Americans faced further discrimination on the housing market. As Sugrue declared, “[d]espite the supposedly liberal mores of the North, despite successful court challenges to the housing market discrimination, despite open housing advocacy and legislation, northern cities experienced rates of segregation that barely changed between the 1940s and the present” (8). Neighborhood associations sought to protect family, home, and community from forces of social disorder. As Sugrue showed, many white Detroiters viewed homeownership as a precarious position shaped by external forces beyond their control. Thus, in an era characterized by the simultaneous occurrences of economic decentralization and black migration, most white Detroiters blamed African Americans for the insecurity they faced, and thus worked against community integration (213-4). African Americans found themselves spatially segregated from whites, living in overcrowded and poorly maintained places like Paradise Valley (23-4, 36). When African Americans like Easby Wilson moved into white neighborhoods, they faced white protests, picketing, confrontations, and attacks until they moved. Some African Americans like the Reverend David Mitcham withstood white confrontations, but they represented the exception and not the rule (231-3, 249, 255-6).

The racial battles waged in post-war Detroit fueled growing black mistrust against whites and white institutions. In highlighting black anger, the Reverend Charles W. Butler noted that “[t]he desire and ability to move without the right to move is refined slavery” (256-7). Detroit’s racial mistrust and tension culminated in the riot of July 1967, resulting in the looting and burning of 2,509 buildings, $36 million in insured property lost, and the arrest of 7,231 people on riot-related charges (259). Yet, the riot only represented one legacy of the white resistance and racial mistrust that characterized Detroit’s urban crisis. Sugrue maintained that African American Detroiters lived in a world that offered little prospects. At the time of the riot, the unemployment rate of young African Americans from eighteen to twenty-four ranged between twenty-five to thirty percent (261). The high unemployment rate of young African American Detroiters helped facilitate the city’s long-term deproletarianization, as increasing numbers of young blacks, mostly men, gave up on work. In the process, Sugrue concluded that the post-war urban crisis facilitated a “disturbingly new” pattern of poverty (262).

Sugrue’s analysis at times lacked nuance. For example, he underemphasized the heterogeneous nature of white Detroiters. Sugrue noted that the United Automobile Workers (UAW) brought together workers of diverse immigrant groups such as Lithuanians, Canadians, Hungarians, Germans, Poles, and Italians, not to mention religious groups such as Catholics and Jews. Yet, Sugrue often overlooked the differences between each group, and how the differences shaped their interactions with each other. Instead, he focused on how white homeowners defined themselves based on race and religion, with emphasis on homeownership. Immigrants defined the home as the center for community life and family values, but, more importantly, immigrants viewed homeownership as “evidence that they had truly become Americans” (19, 213). Here, Sugrue presented a portrait that appeared too neat, especially given the differences and animosities that existed between different ethnic groups. Sugrue’s study could have been improved had he devoted more time to examine the intricacies inherent in the ethnic differences between white Detroiters, which would have significantly buttressed his views on racism’s complicated nature (8).

However, Sugrue succeeded in providing an analysis that not only showed the dark side of post-war American society, but also adding new perspectives on trends that characterized the period. Sugrue thrived in connecting Detroit’s decline to the 1940s and 1950s, providing a vaulable counterpoint to the traditional post-war American narrative. At a time when America’s economy soared, and an increasing number of Americans engaged in the consumer culture, Detroit and other Rust Belt cities began a decline that had a profound impact on the urban landscape. Moreover, Sugrue thrived in framing aspects of his story in terms of individual civil rights. As African Americans fought for their civil rights in employment, education, and housing, whites resisted as a means of protecting their own rights. Sugrue thus offered a fresh perspective on the rights revolution that characterized post-war America. After all, the rights revolution did not pertain only to the dispossessed and oppressed, but also to those groups in control. Sugrue, in the process, produced a significant study that set the stage for future studies, namely Kevin Kruse’s White Flight.

Andrew Salamone, Spring 2016

Thomas Sugrue traces the economic decay of post-World War II Detroit and the accompanying impact on the racial landscape in his work The Origins of the urban Crisis. Sugrue empahsized the idea that "racialized inequality" is a political problem and placed Detroit's specific issues into a broader national context to illuminate the unique factors that combined to perpetuate the crisis. Rather than placing the blame for the urban crisis on the shoulders of a single entity as authors such as Kenneth Jackson did before, Sugrue asserted that large corporations, the Federal Government,, and individual communities as well as the social, economic, and political environment in which they operated bore responsibility. For example, he argued that liberal politicians wanted to highlight the inequalities spurred by corporate and capitalist policies immediately following World War II, but the ideologically-charged environment of the Cold War made it politically untenable for these politicians to openly champion policies that opponents could easily frame as Communist. Capitalism, with its accompanying tenet of creative destruction, stoked growing economic inequality, particularly as corporations moved towards automating many of the tasks that African-American workers performed. Shrinking numbers of jobs and limited housing prompted whites to band together to preserve their access to these commodities. Often times this took the form of resisting court decisions and refusing to enact legislation that could have eased some of the discriminatory practices of the past, forcing blacks into increasingly difficult positions. Sugrue concluded the book with a glimpse at Detroit during the 1960s, arguing that the riots and discontent of this decade were the result of the anger that had built up over the preceeding decades. Sugrue provides an excellent window into the factors that shaped Detroit's trajectory over several decades, but it is less clear whether Detroit was the exception or the rule to the ways in which the urban crisis unfolded in other cities and regions across the nation.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

Thomas Sugrue has provided a case study of the economic, political and racial decline of Detroit following World War II. When we think of the history of civil rights, the information Sugrue puts forth is not the first thing that comes to mind. Histories of the civil rights movement tend to focus on the South in the 1960s with emphasis on school desegregation, nonviolent protests and bus boycotts. Sugrue focuses instead on the issues of racial discrimination that tended to garner less attention from civil rights activists and more importantly civil rights historians: housing segregation and employment discrimination.

For a great deal of his book he is focusing not on civil rights, per say, but homeowner’s rights, specifically the rights of working class white homeowners who believe it is their right to exclude African Americans from their neighborhoods. This discussion of rights was interesting to me as it highlighted the unsettling notion held by white Detroiters, that their rights as homeowners were greater or more important than the basic civil rights of the other, or in this case African Americans.

Arguably the most important contribution Sugrue makes to the historiography is his dismantling of the postwar image of Detroit as a prosperous, somewhat racially advanced city and his insistence that the decline of this city and others like it actually began in the 1940s (not in the 1960s as many historians have argued) as a result of deindustrialization, automation, increased capital mobility, employment discrimination, white flight, housing discrimination, forced residential segregation, white resistance and violence and the inability or unwillingness of national and local government to intervene. Each of these factors worked together to keep African Americans impoverished, unemployed or marginally employed, and forced to reside in specific downtrodden areas of Detroit. Without sympathy from the majority of white Detroiters or seemingly anyone else for that matter, these African Americans were and are caught in a never-ending cycle that contributes to the cycle of decay plaguing the city itself.

Stephanie Walters, Spring 2016

In the Origins of the Urban Crisis, Sugrue argues that methodology is important in how historians examine urban life shortly after World War II. In order to understand urban America, Sugrue uses the city of Detroit as a case study by tracing back it's pre-World War origins and how it transformed in the 20th century. According to Sugrue, Detroit suffered intense growing pains as many industrial cities did around World War II. The industrial region which was used to supply a lot of the war effort relied on poor African American and white labor. Both groups moved from rural areas around Detroit into the city in order to fill vast job openings.

However, as the war came to a close, Detroit came to a slow standstill. The people who moved into the area and populated the region were no longer needed as they were during the war. As a result housing developments declined, opportunity for better jobs disappeared, and African American residents were put under extraordinarily rough circumstances. Neither the federal government or the state of Michigan were willing to step in to aid those who became increasingly impoverished as a result of deindustrialization. While governments played games of finger pointing at each other, Detroit continued to decline which is echoed in Peterson's Planning the Homefront. Over the decades government did little to support black Detroiters and the are became one of the more volitaile regions during the Civil Rights movement in the North.

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