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The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue

With this work, Thomas J. Sugrue presented a new interpretation of the decline and fall of the American industrial city using Detroit as a case study. While previous historians have pointed to the riots of 1967 as the fulcrum upon which Detroit’s (and by extension other northern industrial cities’) fortunes turned, Sugrue pushed that point back by two decades.[1] Instead he contends that the seeds for the city’s substantial decline were actually sown in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There was massive wartime relocation of southern African American, as well as Appalachian whites, seeking factory jobs in defense industries. The loss of those jobs once defense orders waned, coupled with rampant racism and inadequate housing, all played a part in the decline.

Sugrue argued that by placing housing and employment within the context of race, one can plainly see the cause and timing of Detroit’s decline. He makes the case that the postwar economic boom enjoyed by many communities was not universal, and was in fact, unevenly distributed across the country. For Detroit specifically, Sugrue pointed out that even in the best of times, those jobs that were available, were by and large, lower-paying jobs without the security of union contracts to guarantee long-term employment. Many of the employees still could not afford to purchase the cars coming off the assembly lines of the plants in which they toiled. And while home ownership certainly grew rapidly immediately after the war, it still remained an unattainable goal for many.[2]

Sugrue also showed that the loss of jobs hurt African Americans disproportionately.[3] One could argue that a life in Appalachia had served as no greater preparation for industrial work, and yet Sugrue argued that those white migrants held onto jobs, or at least had an easier time replacing them if they were lost. He also examined hiring practices of individual firms and industries to make his point of de facto hiring discrimination.[4] He successfully argued that it was not the role of decentralization, which moved the jobs away from African Americans sequestered in the inner city ghettos, but instead ordinary, everyday racism.

Housing was another issue which contributed to the city’s economic failure. As Sugrue pointed out, not only did African Americans migrants from the South pour into Detroit, but their white counterparts from Appalachia did so as well.  The housing crisis that resulted from the thousands of new residents did not affect both groups equally. This should eliminate Wilson’s argument that class was the deciding factor; Sugrue showed plainly that it was race instead.[5] He argued that the overwhelmingly negative white response to the prospect of African American neighbors was due in large part to white fear: whites feared unknown African Americans and they also feared the impact of desegregation on home prices.[6] White neighborhood associations saw segregation as the key to peace on the home front; in fact, Sugrue noted that “Many cited the Jim Crow South as a model for successful race relations.”[7]

Sugrue’s carefully researched work does show that many of the factors that are responsible for the decline of industrial cities have been in place far longer than most would posit. By using data from the United States census and other government reports, as well as privately gathered surveys, the author clearly upholds his thesis in regard to Detroit. Where he may be on shakier ground is his assertion that Detroit serves as a model for other industrial cities of the North and Midwest that have suffered similar declines.[8] Without similar data, gathered just as painstakingly as that present in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, one would be hard pressed to apply this model universally. Sugrue himself described the work as “a social and political history of inequality in a twentieth-century city,” and it is best left to that limit.[9]


[1] See for example, William J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[2] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit: With a New Preface by the Author (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 213.

[3] See Tables 5.2 and 5.3, Sugrue, 144, 147.

[4] Sugrue, 93-95.

[5] See particularly Sugrue, 153-258.

[6] Sugrue, 214-15.

[7] Sugrue, 216.

[8] Sugrue, 3-4.

[9] My emphasis, Sugrue, 14.

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