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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