Why the right hates Detroit

How the fates of two great cities, Detroit and New Orleans, symbolize what's gone wrong with America

Topics: Politics, Detroit, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Detropia, A Band Called Death, Movies, Editor's Picks, , ,

Why the right hates Detroit

Two great American cities have now faced near-death experiences in the 21st century. While Detroit’s gradual slide into bankruptcy and the almost biblical inundation of New Orleans in 2005 look quite different on the surface, I’m more struck by the similarities. Both these tragic events were a long time coming. Only the earlier one involved a literal act of God – although the Almighty was goosed along a bit by rising carbon emissions and rising temperatures – but both could clearly have been prevented. Both tragedies were shaped by larger economic forces and historical trends that lay (or at least appeared to lie) beyond the control of individual politicians or policy makers. Then there’s the obvious but uncomfortable fact that both are cities with large black majorities, in a country where African-Americans are only about 13 percent of the population.

But Detroit and New Orleans are not just cities where lots of black people happen to live. They are uniquely important and symbolic centers of African-American culture in particular and American culture in general, whose influence spread into every luxury high-rise, every suburban street and every farmhouse in the country. Both cities have been rigidly resegregated now, but at their cultural height both were places of tremendous fusion and ferment. Jazz was born from the children and grandchildren of kidnapped Africans learning to play European instruments for the dance parties of biracial French-speaking aristocrats; Berry Gordy’s great Motown recordings borrowed the Detroit Symphony’s string section to create what he called “the Sound of Young America,” driving white teenagers to shake a tail feather at sock hops across the land.

The cultural legacy of New Orleans and Detroit is not limited by race or geography. Even before it went around the world, jazz traveled up the Mississippi on riverboats, which is how Louis Armstrong (according to legend) met an Iowa kid named Bix Beiderbecke, who would become the era’s second greatest trumpet player. Detroit produced not just the black-owned Motown empire, but also shaped the future of rock with a thriving underground scene that included the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and the recently rediscovered proto-punk band Death (profiled in a recent documentary), a trio of African-American preacher’s kids who preferred Alice Cooper to Aretha Franklin. Detroit’s most famous rapper, by far, is a white kid from the suburbs.

Is it pure coincidence that these two landmark cities, known around the world as fountainheads of the most vibrant and creative aspects of American culture, have become our two direst examples of urban failure and collapse? If so, it’s an awfully strange one. I’m tempted to propose a conspiracy theory: As centers of African-American cultural and political power and engines of a worldwide multiracial pop culture that was egalitarian, hedonistic and anti-authoritarian, these cities posed a psychic threat to the most reactionary and racist strains in American life. I mean the strain represented by Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” (imagine what he’d have to say about New Orleans jazz) or by the slightly more coded racism of Sean Hannity today. As payback for the worldwide revolution symbolized by hot jazz, Smokey Robinson dancin’ to keep from cryin’ and Eminem trading verses with Rihanna, New Orleans and Detroit had to be punished. Specifically, they had to be isolated, impoverished and almost literally destroyed, so they could be held up as examples of what happens when black people are allowed to govern themselves.

Hang on, you can stop composing that all-caps comment – I don’t actually believe that what happened to Detroit and New Orleans resulted from anyone’s conscious plan. Real history is much more complicated than that. I do, however, think that narrative has some validity on a psychological level, and that some right-wingers in America are so delusional, so short-sighted and, frankly, so unpatriotic and culturally backward that they were delighted to see those cities fail and did everything possible to help them along. (I’m not exempting the Democratic political class of those cities from responsibility. Speaking broadly, those in city government there inherited an unsustainable situation in a downward-trending economy, pursued their own short-term objectives and only made things worse.)

In the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and the Detroit bankruptcy, many mainstream commentators have tried, with varying degrees of subtlety, to frame these events as “black stories,” and specifically as stories of black dysfunction and black political failure. I’m willing to bet that many white Americans still believe those hysterical early post-Katrina stories about New Orleans residents shooting at aid helicopters (all were later retracted or exposed as false), or believe there was widespread rape and murder among the 20,000 refugees in the Louisiana Superdome. (There were no homicides and only one reported sexual assault, an attempted rape.) While the Detroit situation is normally described as a failure of tax-and-spend, pro-union liberal policies, the racial coding you’ll find on Fox News and elsewhere is crystal clear – and the reader comments on any Detroit-related article, on Salon as elsewhere, will curl your hair with overt racial hatred.

There’s definitely more going on with these two cities than old-school racial politics. Alien scientists observing these case histories from outer space might not assume, at first, that skin color had anything to do with it. New Orleans was hit by one of the biggest storms in history, and the government response was monumentally incompetent at all levels. Detroit’s bankruptcy comes toward the end of a long, dreary history: The deindustrialization of the American economy hit our most famous industrial city especially hard; the Big Three automakers blundered and mismanaged themselves into permanent mediocrity; investment capital flowed away from the Rust Belt and into low-tax, non-union jurisdictions in the Sun Belt and around the world; racial discord and rising crime drove the white middle class into the suburbs; financial inequality and the geographical separation between rich and poor became more extreme. As evidenced so memorably in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s mesmerizing film “Detropia” — and if you didn’t catch it on first release, now is definitely the time — Detroit is a remarkably quiet and empty city today, one that has lost two-thirds of its 1950 population of nearly 2 million, and contains an estimated 40 square miles worth of abandoned buildings and unused land, an area larger than Manhattan.

If those E.T. scholars wrote academic papers describing the Detroit tragedy as an “overdetermined” event with many causes and many possible interpretations, they’d be right. (I realize I’ve made my aliens into Marxists; you go with what you know.) But for those of us down here on the planet’s surface, it is inescapably a tale told in black and white. Detroit is the poorest and blackest large city in the country, ringed by some of the whitest and richest suburbs. We’re now in the second term of our first African-American president, and the overt racial violence that polarized Detroit and the rest of the nation in the 1960s and ‘70s feels, most of the time, like a distant memory. New Orleans and Detroit are exceptional cities in a different sense; most American cities have become polyglot, immigrant-rich communities in which no one ethnic group is a majority, which will likely be true of the United States as a whole by the middle of this century.

But the long, hot summer of 2013 – the summer of Paula Deen’s Aunt Jemima costumes and the upside-down O.J. verdict of the George Zimmerman case and the barely concealed conservative jubilation at Detroit’s demise – has reminded us that America’s ugly old-school racial narratives die hard, if they die at all. I don’t have a policy prescription for Detroit or a fixed opinion about urban-suburban consolidation or a federal bailout or some other method of patching the city’s fiscal cracks. I do know that the people who live there, most of them black and poor, have already been victimized by several generations of high crime and failing services and the flight of capital, and are about to get beat up some more.

Instead of trying to score short-term rhetorical points or assign blame for this mess, which are the only things people on either side of the political or pundit class ever want to do, I’d like to step back and ask a different kind of question: What in the name of Christ do we imagine that people around the world think about this disaster, when they look at us? When they see one of America’s most legendary cities, a capital of the Industrial Age and of 20th-century pop culture, reduced to poverty and decrepitude and dysfunction, compelled (in all likelihood) to strip away still more of its already minimal social services and break its promises to municipal retirees? Or when they see country-club denizens of the leafy suburbs a few miles away, most of them people who grew up in Detroit and made their fortunes there, angrily protest that they have no common interest with the inhabitants of the city and no responsibility for their plight?

Does that make us look like a wise and tolerant people, a people with any understanding or reverence for our real culture and history, as opposed to the mythological version? Does it make us look confident, or intelligent, or powerful? I don’t think so. I think the collapse of Detroit makes us look the way we looked after the national humiliation of Katrina: like a bitter, miserly and dying empire where the deluded rich cling to their McMansions and mock the suffering of the poor while everyone else fights over the scraps, and where the slow-acting poison of racism continues to work its bad magic.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...