Detroit: A Biography

I’m always interested in the history of movements, places, and institutions, so after we moved to Detroit, I really wanted to learn more about the city. I grew up in the suburbs and had a very limited understanding of Detroit, as I think many suburban Detroiters do. So, I picked up “Detroit: A Biography” by journalist Scott Martelle.

One topic I was most interested in was race relations within the city. By reading the book, I learned that race relations and riots in Detroit are nearly as old as the city itself. It seems obvious now, but I hadn’t realized that the issue was very present and very contentious long before the infamous 1967 riots (or “rebellion” as Martelle explained that some Detroiters call it).

Many of us might like to think that race is no longer an issue in Detroit (or anywhere else), but it clearly is. Martelle cites one study with surprising results. In a chapter dedicated to land covenants (documents that forbid the sales of homes to African Americans), Martelle discusses a study by the University of Michigan and the Institute for Social Research that was completed in 2004. Martelle wrote:

“Three-quarters of the whites said they’d move into a neighborhood in which blacks accounted for less than 20 percent of the residents, but only half would move into a neighborhood if the black proportion rose to one-third. If a neighborhood was more than half black, less than a third of whites said they would be likely to move in. Blacks, though, were most likely to move into a neighborhood that was evenly split, and less likely to move into predominately white or predominately black neighborhoods. So, in broad terms, black home owners were seeking new neighborhoods in which there was a racial balance. But once that balance was achieved, the neighborhoods became less attractive to whites, who one can presume, then began moving out.”

This study was done only nine years ago, and it’s sad to think these attitudes still prevail.

Another highlight of the book, was Martelle’s interviews with individual Detroiters. His conversations with them demonstrated how diverse the Detroit experience can be. If you’re interested in Detroit, please check out “Detroit: A Biography.”



4 thoughts on “Detroit: A Biography

  1. Very nice post Shannon! First, I applaud you for at least being aware and curious enough to explore the topic of race relations in Detroit. Most people wouldn’t make the effort, or wouldn’t approach the topic with an open mind. It appears that you have bucked the trend and done both.

    As a Black person, I’ve always been aware of the balance of neighborhood demographics among different races. I’m probably different than the results in the study as I would (and do) live in a mostly white neighborhood. The sub where I live in Lake Orion has about 200 houses; Maybe, MAYBE there are 3 Black families. I’ve been here 15 years; never had a problem, never have given it a second thought. I just do what I do.

    The results of the study are interesting because it shows (at least to me) that when the numbers reach a tipping point that gets close to a level where White people could end up as a “minority”, they get nervous and move to a community where Whites are the clear majority. I believe that is a cultural phenomenon that was established back to colonial times when White Europeans dominated the development of the country.

    The thing that some White people don’t make enough of an effort to do is get to know people of color FIRST, before making a decision about that person. Ultimately, Black people, Hispanic people, Asian people all want the same as White people: safe neighborhoods, good schools, nice kids to play with their kids and a feeling of comfort and security. If more White people would approach getting to know people of color with that understanding, there would be fewer race-based incidents.

    All the best to you and your family!

  2. I find this very frustrating for as a Detroiter who has tried HARD to raise my children in diverse verse neighborhoods…around her it is almost impossible to find!!!

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