Michigan Cities: The Race Factor

By on October 17th, 2011

Craig Ruff
Craig Ruff

Michigan Cities:
The Race Factor

October 17, 2011

In the first commentary in this series (“Does Michigan Need Cities?”), I opined that cities matter. Cities are a testament to human progress. That many Michiganians have chosen to leave them over the past two generations leaves me pessimistic about our future. The trend here defies much of human history. It’s irrational, pernicious, and terribly draining of talent, investments, and economic vitality that come from close, human interaction.

In witnessing the phenomenon of our urban exodus, I lay some of its roots at the doorstep of a very touchy subject: race.

Racial segregation has contributed to the depopulation of Michigan’s cities. That most intellectual historian, W. E. B. Du Bois, wrote in the early 1900s that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line….” A new century and so little to show for it.

Racial tension and segregation in Michigan are overt and subtle. Demography pointedly proves racial segregation to be true. Seventy-two of our 83 counties have black populations below 10 percent; 96 percent of Michigan’s blacks live in our 11 metropolitan areas. In a recent analysis by CensusScope.org and the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network, the Detroit metropolitan area hosts the nation’s 4th most racially segregated neighborhoods; in years past, I’ve seen data ranking us 1st (worst).

We speak of race in the comfortable confines of our homes. Pacifists in public places disarm themselves of candor and opt to obfuscate. The privately unveiled and publicly concealed attitudes hide an obvious fact: Incontrovertibly, woeful race relations take a particularly high toll on our older, industrial cities.

There’s an old maxim about public policy: If there isn’t a problem, there isn’t a solution. With regard to race relations, there may not be a solution, but there sure as hell is a problem.

A Bit of History
Tens of thousands of southern blacks moved to Michigan cities in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s to escape rural poverty and win jobs in the world’s most vibrant industrial economy in Detroit and today’s I-75 cities of Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw. They were unaccustomed to urban life and were poorly educated. As workers in Southern fields, they were used to crop failures now and again; they could not foresee that car-making like crop-harvesting has its good and bad years. Too, there was a vibrant black middle class of entrepreneurs, professionals, retailers, and artists.

Federal, state, and local lawmakers enacted policies to confine blacks’ housing and neighborhoods and restrict other opportunities. Middle-class blacks faced the same housing discrimination, Jim Crow practices, and even KKK violence as did poor families. Highway and housing policies ravaged black commercial and residential areas in cities, while governments subsidized the movement of primarily white families to suburbs, into which both homesteads and jobs were moving.

The flight of the white population from Detroit started in the 1950s with a growing exodus of employers to cheaper land in the burbs. With it came red-lining real estate practices that denied blacks equal opportunities of housing. Then came civil unrest and rioting in 1967. (Not unprecedented: In 1943, a race riot in Detroit left 34 people killed and required the presence of federal troops to contain.)

In the early 1970s came judicially decreed cross-district busing of school children to integrate schools. The Southern segregationist George Wallace won every white-majority ward in Detroit in the 1972 presidential primary.

In the wake of these economic, policy, and cultural shocks, many whites left Detroit. Detroit’s populace, now homogeneously black, has plummeted from roughly 2 million in the mid-1950s to 700 thousand — probably one of the fastest, vastest mass exoduses in world history not attributable to war, famine, or plagues.

In typical supply-demand fashion, blacks’ homes fell in value as whites, driven by high crime, poor schools, declining home values, and prejudice, relocated to suburbs.

In Michigan, there’s an axiom: If you are poor and white, you live in a mobile home park. If you are poor and black, you live in a city ghetto.

My hometown of Saginaw is just one example of recent history. In 1950, whites outnumbered blacks by nearly a 10:1 margin. Whites still outnumbered blacks 52 percent to 40 percent in the 1990 census. The 2010 census shows that whites now comprise 37 percent and blacks 45 percent of the city’s population. People living in Saginaw Township are 84 percent white, and the township’s residents are close to being as numerous as people today living in the city.

My high school in Saginaw (1964-67) was on the east side of the river. Saginaw High had, as a student body, roughly 45 percent whites, 45 percent blacks, and 10 percent Latinos. On the river’s west side, Arthur Hill hosted a handful of blacks and Latinos. The Saginaw River was Venice’s Bridge of Sighs.

Race relations in Saginaw plummeted from tense to appalling when the Detroit riots ignited a fury of tensions. Blacks rioted on the east side. Our first black mayor went on TV, with a shotgun on his desk, to advise city residents to defend themselves against looting and violence.

A white kid ran for my high school’s presidency on the slogan: Vote Right…Vote White. White teachers, feeling threatened, either moved to other schools or retired. Mom and dad were among the last white holdouts in their east side, two-bedroom, 700 square-foot home, before leaving in the mid-1970s for a trailer park in a neighboring township.

In Saginaw, white denominations sold their buildings to black Baptist congregations. The east side hub for shopping slowly died (malls on cheap land were being built in the suburbs), leaving behind some scattered public buildings, like the bus station and post office.

Saginaw, from the mid-1960s onward, was not a place to come to. It was a place to leave — if you were white.

Urban Lore
Please read the reminiscences of a chum of mine in high school and understand part of the life of being black in a Michigan city.

“We went to integrated schools and our classes were college prep. Most blacks were not in our classes — very few. I played baseball with mostly white teammates. We played against other schools and were friends in the locker room. Our social lives were totally different. We went to separate events. The school events were the exception. Saginaw had very rigid housing restrictions with our own Berlin Wall —the Saginaw River.

“Saginaw High was our refuge. We were Trojans inside that perimeter. The ride home from late practice could include a police shadow or stop.

“Shopping could be an embarrassment. The clerks would service all the white people first. I watched my mother throw down her items and walk out of a store.

“Blacks were restricted from teaching above the elementary level until [a black-centric junior high school] was built. My mother, a University of Michigan grad, refused to get an elementary certification and worked in a grocery store. She was a language arts teacher [French, Spanish, Latin and English] and sat out until I was in seventh grade and [she] was offered a job at the new black junior high school.”

Over many generations, history is written. You don’t forgive or forget quickly. My pal is now a successful businessman. He doesn’t want his stories attributed to him. Neither do a dozen other people to whom I circulated drafts of this essay. People don’t forgive nor do they forget, but neither are they particularly forthcoming, in a public piece, to say what they think…even to say what they experienced.

There is no way to infer from data and behavior anything but that whites leave Michigan cities as those cities become increasingly black. Detroit’s population is 83 percent black. Pontiac is 64 percent black. Flint is 57 percent black. Among Michigan’s largest cities, these have lost the most people.

It’s not entirely a racial one-way exit ramp. Many Michigan cities have lost blacks as well as whites. Of Detroit’s loss of 237,000 residents in the last decade, 185,000 (78 percent) of them were blacks. Many moved into adjacent areas.

The black population of Macomb County tripled to reach nearly 73,000; in Oakland County, the black population rose 36 percent to about 164,000. Many blacks, including a good number of professionals, have moved south, to Houston, the Atlanta area, and the Carolinas. Obviously, race may take a back seat to socioeconomic status and job mobility.

For contrast with Detroit, I look at Charlotte, North Carolina. During the aughts, this banking center gained nearly as many people (190,000) as Detroit lost. Whites comprise about 45 percent of the city’s population, blacks about 35 percent, Latinos 13 percent, followed by Asians, Native Americans, and others. It may be the hottest city in America and one of its most diverse.

Michigan has had, for a half century, a pernicious walking-away epidemic among whites from cities with growing black populations. I rationalize, in part, our cities’ declines to an ugly racial history. While increasing numbers of middle-class blacks have been leaving our cities to avoid crime, find better jobs, and get better schools, even greater numbers of whites flee or have fled not only for the same objectives, but also to avoid blacks. It boils down, in large part, to voluntary racial segregation.

American cities are not immune to racial segregation. But in addition to racially segregating within the city, as is true of places like New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, many Michigan’s whites have chosen to leave cities altogether. That has imperiled our cities more so than others.

Can Michigan’s cities survive, let alone prosper, when they host neighborhoods that purely are all-white, all-black, or all-Hispanic? Do our cities’ residents welcome immigrants, people of different colors, Native Americans, and people whose native tongue is not English? Perhaps nothing condemns a city so much as its people’s unfriendly eyes fixed upon and making strangers unwelcome.

Within any cultural group, there is a rather stark division of opinion about sharing fate with other groups. Some members would rather team up with other cultures if that means that they would be more prosperous. Some would rather horde their political and economic power, even at the sacrifice of gaining greater prosperity by teaming up with other cultures. This polarized opinion is very pronounced within minority groups.

Without naming names, I think of political shepherds of both flocks within the black as well as other communities.

I’m a policy wonk. I’m not a psychologist or anthropologist. The most obvious anti-black policies of government have been repealed. Public policies of the last 40 years largely have been remedial, though I find examples of black-centered bias in things such as the rollback of the Earned Income Tax Credit and limitations on welfare benefits. What exists, today, in white-black relations is not so much de jure, but behavioral. Behavior is a far harder nut to crack.

Race and cultural divisions are only part of the dilemmas facing Michigan’s cities. We strive to focus on cold, hard, and demographic and economic facts and policy choices. Those are things about which we are comfortable discussing and negotiating in the open.

The problem of the color-line and the culture-line endures. Another problem is how few will touch it. Where it plays the greatest havoc is in our cities. It is our curse.

Here and there, good people and organizations fight the good fight. Let us hope that racial and cultural bigotry, on all sides, gives up the bad fight.

The racial divide, particularly in our cities and their neighboring communities, need not be intractable. But it’s not within government’s sphere of influence and power to change. That race and cultural tension vexes our cities and more aspects of life is far less a public policy problem than a societal and personal problem.

Hope lies in each generation farther removed from an ugly history. Not every young person craves an urban lifestyle. Not everyone seeks out a culturally and racially diverse neighborhood. Yet, in the souls of each generation younger than mine and, optimistically, of those to come, there is a strong heartbeat of not only tolerance and acceptance of, but also fondness for, diversity.

While much of the fate of Michigan’s cities lies within my generation’s leadership skills, a far greater responsibility and opportunity rest on the behavior and attitudes of people not reliving old history, but etching a new one.

Craig Ruff is, among many things, a senior policy fellow and former president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

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Rick Haglund

Great analysis, Craig. I grew up and worked for a time as an adult in northern Michigan. During those years, I came in contact with whites who had fled the cities and spread racist attitudes among lifelong northern Michigan residents who knew no black people. That, I think, also contributed to the racial misunderstandings we have today.


Now I know what my white childhood friends were learning every summer going “up north”. I always wondered what else went on up there besides the lake.


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[…] For another interesting article on the history and current state of race in Michigan cities see Craig Ruff's recent article in Dome Magazine. Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogle […]

Dr. Richard Zeile
Dr. Richard Zeile

Candidly, I think that Mr. Ruff regards race as too important a factor. Racism (which is to say ethno-centrism) is so pervasive as to not explain much. Black psychologist Kenneth Clark made the point that race determined the experiences of generations of Blacks with the result that Blacks are much more likely to see race as significant, if not determinant, in other people while Whites, unless they lived in integrated settings, did not. And Thomas Sowell has shown that cultural values are the best way of explaining the “success” or prosperity of one group versus another. We neglected Daniel Patrick… Read more »


Yes Craig, and if those future generations continue to pull us through, we will see the largest drop in IQ tests in the history of our nation.


With every percentage of increase in the black population comes an increase of violence, corruption and decline. I was born and raised in Flint. I watched it all happen.


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