Month: April 2015

Black and White: The Rise of Detroit’s White Middle Class, Part 1

By Matt Johnson

Detroit is a unique yet very familiar narrative of the continuing struggle for liberty, equality, and equity in this nation. On the one hand, it is both an historic and modern example of American ingenuity, prosperity, and American economic achievement; but on the other hand it is a sad reminder of the worst of what America is. It is the epitome of economic triump and it is the epitome of economic embarrassment. Unfortunately, there is another reality with these facts. That is, today, Detroit is the epitome of race and poverty in America.

1950's Detroit
(1950’s Detroit – Photo Courtesy of Wayne State)

Detroit was once a prosperous city and praised for its economic achievements. This was a white and rich Detroit in the early to middle part of the 20th century. The other Detroit is largely ignored. But this prosperity of Detroit began to change and degrade during the middle part of the 20th century and continued to degrade over the later part of the 20th century and into the 21st century when the “Motor City” became economically stagnant and unattractive. This Detroit, the “Modern Detroit,” has been associated with black and poor and the data illustrates this point unequivocally. As Farley et al. explain in their book Detroit Divided, “Only 4 percent of adult black men reported not having worked at all in 1949, but for1989 that figure was 28 percent. Among white men, the change was more modest: from 6 to 9 percent.”

But why and how did Detroit emerge rich and white and end up black and poor? For this essay, the first part of the question will help explain the current circumstances of the second part of the question. That is, by understanding a few white hegemonic economic, social, and political policies of the first half of the 20th century, the black and poor Detroit of today will be better understood.

There is not doubt that this is a complex story layered with social, political, and economic considerations – an infinite number of considerations to be honest. The history of Detroit is more than 300 years old, and in-group/out-group dynamics have always been an intricate part of the Detroit experience. However, there are three major and overarching themes to Detroit in the first half of the century. First, is the rise of the auto industry led by Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company from the early to the middle part of the 20th century.

Second, is the Great Migration, where hundreds of thousands of black Americans migrated from the southern states to the northern states at approximately the same time as the rise of the “Motor City.” Thus, it is important to highlight that Detroit became a prime destination for black migration into the city in part due to the opportunistic nature of Henry Ford’s willingness to hire black employees and provide them with high skilled jobs. Third, it is important to understand the response by whites to those immigrating black Americans into urban Detroit. Besides Henry Ford and a few white allies, most of Detroit objected to the new population of incoming migrants.

Henry Ford
(Henry Ford – Courtesy of Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that Henry Ford is one of the greatest innovators in American history. His concept of taking the assembly line and applying Adam Smith’s ideas of division of labor from the Wealth of Nations, built an automotive empire. This allowed Ford and his employees to produce a greater number of automobiles in less time. In short, this increased Ford’s labor output, units produced, and profit margins while decreasing the amount to produce an automobile. However, the assembly line satisfied Ford’s profit margins, not his employees’ patients or pocket books.

His workers objected to the never-ending, repetitive work on the new line. Turnover was so high that the company had to hire 53,000 people a year to keep 14,000 jobs filled. Henry responded with his boldest innovation ever—in January 1914 he virtually doubled wages to $5 per day.

As a consequence, Ford was able to retain his workers, which decreased turnover rates and his employees were able to afford and purchase the automobiles they helped build. Despite oscillations in the market place, especially during the Great Depression and after, the Ford Motor Company would help to create the first great American middle class and the golden years of Detroit, Michigan as the “Motor City.” But as the white middle class was growing in Detroit throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, black Americans were immigrating into the city and their numbers were growing as well.

Since reconstruction, black Americans, who mostly resided in the southern United States, otherwise known as the antebellum south, had to deal with economic and political policies passed by white, southern politicians and upheld and supported by the Guardians of the Locke, the United States Supreme Court. In addition, much of the labor market place resembled pre-reconstruction, where black families were working in similar conditions to their parents and grandparents who were chattel. Many of these black families were right back where they started – working as agricultural labor for former families of slave masters on the plantations that their parents and grandparents were formally held as slaves. Because of these conditions – lack of employment and type of employment, lack of a competitive education, lack of political representation and access to political agenda setting, lynching, and Jim Crow laws – hundreds of thousands of black Americans emigrated from states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia to northern cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.

Before this migration, at most five percent of the black American population resided in the northern states. To equate, no more than 1 to 10 percent of the Detroit population was African American between 1900 and 1930, respectively. These migrating Americans were looking for the same opportunity as all other Americans. And as the economic, political, and social forces from the system converged on the descendants of slaves in the south, opportunity in industry attracted those looking for a better life; those looking to live the American dream promised at the dawn of the republic. In this case, Detroit became a prime destination for those looking to immerse themselves in the promise of that American dream by way of Henry Ford and the rising middle class. Detroit waited.


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog; and is a mathematical scientist. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News.

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Copyright ©2015 – The Systems Scientist


By Matt Johnson

Valkommen till vart hem! This means “Welcolm to our home!” I would hear this every so often from my grandmother during my boyhood years. I learned a few words here and there. Most importantly, I learned that when I was a young man of age 4, I looked like I just got off the boat from Sweden (picture forth coming). Grandma would tell me that over and over again. Grandma was proud of our Swedish heritage. She would tell me stories about what it was like being around people who spoke Swedish 24/7. She would explain to me that the same was true for my grandfather. Unfortunately, I lost my grandfather at the age of 4. He was not only the grandson of Sven Alfred, but he was, and still is, that one, special person to me. I will explain in greater detail in a later posting.

Aunt Ida
(Aunt Ida – Daughter of Sven Alfred and Betsy)

When I was a boy, my grandmother would make a hot dish when ever I visited her. My favorite was the tater tot hot dish with swedish meatballs and scalloped corn on the side. No body can make swedish meatballs like my grandmother except my great aunt Ida (daughter of Sven Alfred and Betsy). Aunt Ida was a master cook, a master aunt, and a master at being a kind person. She loved her Swedish family. She was a strong woman with a commanding presence. I respected and adored her greatly. She had incredible substance and she had quite a personality. She was warm, funny, and I will always remember her smile and her hugs. She was also empathetic, but not to fault. She maintained her boundaries, which is why I often remember her as the Johnson matriarch. I am very sure that she is one of the main reasons why I respect and have zero problem with female authority. She had quite an infuence on me.

Uncle Paul
(Uncle Paul – Son of Sven Alfred and Betsy)

The other person I must introduce to you is my great uncle Paul. He also influenced me greatly. Besides his wonderful and witty personality, he had a thick Swedish accent, and boy was it really cool to listen to. I could have listened to him all day and there were times where I thought I was going to pull off that feat. A typical engagement between my uncle and I always started off with him speaking Swedish to me. He spoke four languages – Swedish, German, Finnish, and English – and would test me to see if I could understand the differences between the languages. I shall remain humble and decline from sharing with you if I could or could not answer correctly. But I will say this, he was always pleased with my responses and was not at all surprised with my knack for differentiation. And as you can see from the photo, Uncle Paul enjoyed shaking hands and mingling with people, and people enjoyed shaking hands and mingling with him. He always had a smile and liked to dish out a few jokes here and there. He once told me, at the age of 91, that he was too young to get married. He was also very proud of his volunteer work. He volunteered at a senior home. Indeed he was full of confidence.

Brittany Gaura, one of my fellow students heading to Sweden with me, has asked me a few times, and I must say I appreciate her enthusiasm and consistency, “Matt! You excited for Sweden?!” To answer Brittany’s question honestly, the reader must know that I have been quite reserved in my response to her question. In short, I am excited to go. In fact, I have been waiting for this opportunity for my entire life. And when I say my entire life, I mean my entire life. However, I do not yet believe it. I suppose that may happen when I set foot on Scandinavian soil.

An event like this is a big deal for my family; it is a big deal for me. Because of the anecdotes of what it means to be Swedish from my familial influences, my family elders – my grandmother, my Aunt Ida, and my Uncle Paul – it is with a bit of anxiety that I proceed on this pilgrimage. Some thoughts have crossed my mind during this preparation period. Will the modern Swedes live up to the values of the Swedes of my family – the 19th century Swedes who migrated from Sweden to the United States? What will happen if they do live up to my expectations? Will I embrace the culture and adopt Sweden as a second home? In other words, will I find cultural continuity in my observations and interactions with the Sweden of the 21st century and set forth on a deeper quest for intimacy with Sweden and my ancestral nordic brothers and sisters? Or will I find none of these things? Or will I find something in between? Ultimately, what will all of this mean for me? What will it mean for my family? What will it mean for my children (Yes, Gick! That is still on the table)? What will it mean for my career as an urban dynamicist – a systems scientist? What will it mean for my social justice writings and criticisms or praises of the history of the United States and its current state of social justice progress or lack thereof?

It should be known that hundreds of thousands of Swedes immigrated to the Americas in the middle to late 19th century because of the lack of upward mobility in Sweden. They, along with Sven and his brothers and sisters, saw opportunity in the new, “shiny” country called the United States. This meant of course that Sweden lacked these opportunities for upward mobility. But today, and in many ways, it is an example of social mobility and economic opportunity. Sweden has an impressive middle class and its parliament is generally approximately 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Modern Sweden is indeed not perfect, but needless to say, it is quite a different country from the one Sven left almost 150 years ago.

Stockholm, Sweden
(Stockholm, Sweden – Photo courtesy of

Indeed, Sweden has a lot to live up to. My Aunt and Uncle set the bar high; hell, my family set the bar high. But I do not see an impossible endeavor. If I find things that I do not like about Sweden, it will allow me to look for those same characteristics or traits in my family and within myself, introspectively (I will discuss cultural continuity from time to time). My family is certainly not perfect. We have our faults. But as my family has changed and adapted over time, so has Sweden. This is why I have faith in Sweden. Although she indeed at one point helped to facilitate the emigration of hundreds and thousands of Swedes because of the lack of social and economic upward mobility, it appears that she responded in kind and helped to facilitate the modern equal and equitable environment that exists in Sweden today. So it is with these things in mind that I set off on my journey into the undiscovered country of my ancestral, nordic land.



The Willful and/or Ignorant Tendencies of the ISU Student Body

In the April 17, 2015 publication of the Iowa State Daily, an online public pole was conducted. The pole question asked, “Who would you like to see on the new $20 bill?” The options were Wilma Mankiller, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, somebody else, or maintain the status quo. Not surprisingly, more than 50 percent of participants voted to maintain the status quo; that is, keep President Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill.

In contrast, Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt tied for second and received 13.9 percent of the votes followed by Rosa Parks who received 8.3 percent of the votes, and Wilma Mankiller who received 1.4 percent of the total votes.

America's Grandmother - Harriet Tubman
America’s Grandmother – Harriet Tubman (Photo Courtesy of Biography,

This outcome proposes a few fascinating questions and an introspective dilema. When Iowa State students vote for maintaining the status quo, are they aware of who they are voting for and what their votes respresent? Are they aware of the practices of President Andrew Jackson as a slave owner and guardian of the Lockean system of liberty – the dichotomy of American Exceptionalism? Are they aware of the great feats and sacrifices of Harriet Tubman and the hundreds of people she helped to save from bondage, that reprehensible – dishonoralbe and disgraceful – practice of America’s historic system of slavery?

Iowa State students exchange “Jacksons” on a daily basis for liquid stimulants – coffee, cappuccino, and other bevarages – and of course beloved pastries. The long lines are a regular occurrence between classes at the campus coffee shops. But what is not evident or realized is who resides on that piece of tender during each transaction. Andrew Jackson was not only the 7th president of the United States, but he was also a staunched advocate of slavery and the preservation of slavery; that is, the exploitation, marginalization, and cutural imperialism of human property – chattel. To add context, Jackson’s administration presided over the federal government from March of 1829 to 1837.

During this time, slavery had already been constitutionally established in the southern United States and Black Codes, some of the earliest forms of anti-immigration legislation, were being ratified and implemented and supported constitutionally in the northern United States. Although such legislation emerged before Jackson’s presidency, many pieces of legislation were codified during his presidency, and well after his presidency. For example, Illinois passed anti-immigration, “Black Codes,” legislation in 1819, 1829, and 1853; and Indiana approved and passed their own anti-immigration laws in 1831 and 1852. In addition, newly formed terriotories west of the Ohio river also passed such legislation – the Michigan territory in 1827 and the Iowa territory in 1839 and 1851.

American Tender - Andrew Jackson
American Tender – Andrew Jackson- $20 (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Not only did Jackson’s administration stand by diligently while Americans were being systematically invaded and evicted from their homes, schools, businesses, and churches by rioting white mobs and codified legislation in Cincinatti in 1829 and 1836, but he and his administration remained on the sidelines while “Whites destroyed newly opened schools for blacks in Zanesville in 1837,” as historian Douglas Harper illustrates. Jackson himself was the proud owner of hundreds of slaves over the period of decades. As Matthew Warshauer explains in his paper Andrew Jackson: Chivalric Slave Master, “[Jackson] never questioned the morality of slavery…he supported the constitutionality, and he had harsh words for those who attempted to incite revolt through abolitionist publications…[Jackson also] viewed slavery as a means of economic enrichment and a way to establish himself in the aristocratic planter class.”

To elucidate Jackson’s philosophy of white supremacy, “[Jackson’s administration] embraced the racial tenets of ‘herrenvolk democracy,’ which affirmed the equality of whites and their superiority over non-whites,” illustrating unwavering support for southern institutions of slavery, and anti-immigration legislation in the northern and northwestern states and territories, i.e., the embedded hegemony. There is no doubt that President Andrew Jackson is the epitome of the dichotomy of American Exceptionalism.

Conversely, Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery, eventually freed herself and became a conductor for the Underground Railroad. During the civil war, she spied and scouted for the Union Army, and in many instances led missions to free slaves. After the war, she became prominent in the suffrage movement and contributed greatly, in her actions as an informal leader, to the eventual passing of the 19th Amendment.

This came by way of her self-sacrificing actions of freeing herself, freeing hundreds of slaves, serving a country that did not recognize her right to vote nor her place as a human being, nor did it recognize her right to take part in the political process by way of agenda setting or passing legislation. She also continued her struggle for freedom and liberty by way of her speeches and continued actions of support and leadership for suffrage throughout her life. She was, still is, and always will be, an unquestionable example of American Enlightenment and thought. Tubman’s philosophy that all people without exception were, and are, equal is a testament to her exceptionalism.

Harriet Tubman is the epitome of American sacrifice and American character. When one thinks of what it means to be American, the very first thought ought to be Harriet Tubman. One ought to ask herself, “Who is the example that ought to be followed? Someone who perpetuated a system of ‘herrenvolk democracy’ or someone who represents patriotic heroism, democracy and freedom, and liberty for those with no voice?” The answer says much about who America is and what it represents and supports.

Voting for the status quo maintains and justifies the actions of a hegemonic dominion of oppression; that is, white, straight, male, and perceived Christian; whereas, voting for the great American Harriet Tubman, or Wilma Mankiller, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Rosa Parks, illustrates the growing consciousness of the American public, specifically the Iowa State student body. Voting for Tubman illustrates a paradigm shift and a recognition of who is considered a hero, who is considered a great American, and who is worthy to reside on our currency, because when our currency is exchanging hands, it is acknowledging who America was, who America is, and who America wants to be.





Social Justice – Ready for the Revolution

(Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
(Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

By Matt Johnson

Starting a Social Justice movement is only the first step towards justice, equity, opportunity, and liberty. As has been seen from past and present movements, it takes an initial spark or idea to start it, but it takes knowledge and dedication to mold it into a recognizable entity and it takes hard work and dedication to keep it moving as it gains ground. However, this is a general view, not specific details.

There are many things that should be considered during the initial steps of the movement. First, it is important to dentify who will take on the responsibilities of leaders and followers. In other words, it is important to identify strengths and weaknesses, talents and human capital. Second, it is important to identify the structure and the vision of the movement. Does the movement take on a traditional structure of the former social movements throughout American history or does it take on a new structure, solely autonomous in originality and application from its predecessors? Finally, what is the message? Who does the social justice movement engage? Will it engage liberals and conservatives alike, or will it proceed in a modern hyper-political bubble? The answers to these questions will facilitate the vision, direction, and success of a social justice movement.

During the early and middle 19th century, and during the legalization and federal enforcement of slavery, free black American men formed and participated in state and national conventions. The objective was to facilitate a moral argument and to appeal to the moral conscience of white Americans; that is, blacks are not lazy by nature, nor are they inherently inferior in intellect. This was called the moral-suasion argument. In fact, leaders such as Martin Delany and William Whipper also argued that if blacks did not drink or use drugs, if they educated themselves and invested in local business, then whites would approve and see them as equals and capable of participating in the system.

However, this movement was perpetuated by, represented by, and argued by men. These men were arguing the perspective of the male viewpoint. There was no discussion about women’s rights or women’s suffrage. There was no discussion about the rights of children or of the family. Such arguments derived from the perspective of not the wealthy and free, but from the slave perspective and the family. Great American leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth gave voice to such oppression; that is, powerlessness, exploitation, marginalization, violence, and cultural imperialism, which were later organized into a comprehensive, theoretical model proposed by modern philosopher Iris Marion Young.

Other examples of American social justice movements took on this linear and discrete identity and argument, although there was more inclusion and representation in the ranks. For example, the Suffrage movement began in 1848 in Seneca Falls and continued until the 19th amendment was ratified into the constitution in 1920. Although this movement was supported by such progressives as President Theodore Roosevelt, it was a women’s movement and mostly white. Later in the 20th century, Dr. King marched beside both men and women in the deep south. White men and women supported this movement and some even gave their lives in the fight for civil rights and social justice but it was an American movement led by black men and supported by black women nonetheless. At that same time, author and American intellectual Angela Davis stood by and supported the Black Panther Party during the “Black Power” movement of the 1960’s, although it was mostly a patriarchal structure.

So again, does this social justice movement, take on a traditional structure or does it propose to organize a new and innovative format, one that is inclusive and representative of those who do experience the five modes of oppression stated earlier in this writing? Does it also propose to include those who are self-actualized to their own systemic privilege; that is, white, straight, male, and perceived Christian? And finally, does it propose to include those and/or perhaps propose to engage those cut from a conservative cloth?

This point is important to address because it shows the willingness, malleability, and curiosity to seek out and facilitate dialogue with those who may hold more traditional views. As difficult as this last point may be, it would be even more difficult to listen to a different point of view. But is this not the very definition of inclusion and tolerance? Is this not a progressive idea? As Jonathan Haidt discusses in his book The Righteous Mind, conservatives have a particular view of the world and liberals have a particular view of the world, and in today’s hyper-political environment, it may seem that there is not much over lap. As Haidt explains, conservatives tend to view tradition, authority, and sacredness as important; whereas, liberals tend to view fairness and tolerance as important.

But this does not mean that conservatives and liberals cannot hold opposing views, nor does it preclude some of both political leanings from holding both sets of views simultaneously. So would knowing about and considering such opposing views make a movement stronger or would it make a movement weaker? Or is the challenge derived from fear of questioning one’s own view of reality? No doubt it takes courage and strength to consider another point of view, but it also takes courage and strength to learn about and recognize history and messaging (a message will be critiqued and scrutinized – history is clear on this point).

Knowledge of history and messaging are important. But these two factors must be considered during the construction phase of organizing a social justice entity. Undoubtly, and after these two important factors are considered, they should be continually considered and reconsidered until all objectives are achieved, or until there is a failure in achieving such objectives. There is precedent for this action. All great leaders in history, to the knowledge of this author, read and were knowledgeable of those leaders who came before them, or who are present in their political arena. For example, it is proposed that General George S. Patton, during World War II, rode on top of his tank in North Africa after defeating Field Marshall Rommel and the German Panzers proclaiming, “[General] Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!”

Although this example has little to do with social justice today, its point should be salient in this argument. Reading is important, including ideas and arguments that are dissimilar or in opposition to one’s own ideas or view points of the world. This includes historical context, social ideas, economic ideas, political ideas, philosophical ideas, and today, scientific ideas. Knowledge truly is power; and from this starting point, a stable and constructive social justice movement can be established and put into motion.




The Systems Scientist

Hello, future readers! I’ve decided to create my own forum to communicate to the world. Previously, I wrote for the Iowa State Daily as a Science Opinion writer – look for those articles posted under links. However I felt constricted by some of the parameters set forth by the Opinion Editor. In addition, many of the subjects I wanted to write about either did not fit into the editorial scheme of the paper or the subject matter involved deeper thinking than 140 characters. I also felt that in order to grow as a thinker and a writer, I needed a different format to explore and expand my ideas and positions, and that’s just something the ISU Daily could not offer me. Of course, I’m not saying that I dislike the paper or the people who write and work for the paper. No! I still read the paper in the morning during breakfast. However from time to time, I will be posting rebuttals to some of the nonsensical rhetoric that is published in that paper. For that matter, I will be rebutting other opinion writers and selected pieces of news as well, including politicians, scientists, academics, liberals, conservatives, etc…

I will have three main objectives in my writings. My first objective is to provoke a response from the reader. If you are offended, supportive, or experience some manner of sentiment somewhere in between love and hate from my writings, then I have accomplished my first objective. It is not my intention to drive you off as a reader or to assassinate your character or the character of other readers, public figures, etc… Rather, it is my intention to provoke some sort of feeling either good or bad and to provide an opportunity for you to step back and say, “I really hate, Matt. But maybe he has a point.”

My second objective is to provide an opportunity for you to think about a particular subject in a different light. As you know, the internet has  provided a median for political bubbles to emerge. For example, read the comments section of an article published on a left leaning website or a right leaning website and you’ll see just how supportively biased those comments are for the writer and the argument and position being presented. Facebook is also a great example of this.

To elucidate and support my point, Jonathan Haidt, pyschologist and professor at the University of Virginia, wrote about this very subject in a terrific book called The Righteous Mind. In his book, he discusses the increasing rift between the right and left and why political discourse is becoming more and more difficult in this country. In other words, there are right leaning bubbles and there are left leaning bubbles. Needless to say, I highly recommend the book. And if you happen to pick it up and read it, at the very least, it will confirm your political leanings, albeit right or left.

My final objective is to provide a different perspective; a perspective that is neither right nor left, although some of my writings may seem a bit to the right at times and a bit to the left at other times. This is because according to the Implicit Biases exams created by Jonathan Haidt and his team of fellow psychologists and salt mine workers (graduate students), I am more liberal than liberals and more conservative than conservatives. Obviously this is a claim and I will need to provide you with some evidence to help convince you that I am being truthful, but in the mean time, and until I can provide you with the adequate supportive material, will you accept the notion that I am a curious person that enjoys reading and learning about other people’s ideas and propositions? I can certainly provide immediate examples.

I have already mentioned and recommended Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, but I would also recommend Jason Riley’s book Please Stop Helping Us: Why Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed. I know, right? I would also suggest you read economist and conservative writer Thomas Sowell and Anti-Racist writer and speaker, Tim Wise. Yes, I have some range when it comes to reading. I have been known to read Scientific American and The National Review in one sitting.

To illustrate this dichotomy even further, I’m not going to say that conservatives don’t believe in science. What I am going to say is that there are many conservative politicians who think the Earth is 6,000 years old, and that’s a problem when it comes to science policy. But I will say this as well, I’m not opposed to providing other types of schooling options for children other than public schools. In fact, I think Jason Riley in his book puts forth a really good argument for why parents should have the option to send their children to Charter schools. But those are topics for future essays, postings, and blogs. My point is that I can hold both conservative and liberal views at the same time while critizing both conservative and liberal views; and when you read my writings, you should expect no less.