Black and White: The Rise of Detroit’s White Middle Class, Part 3

By Matt Johnson

Photo Courtesy of Detroit 2020

Photo Courtesy of Detroit 2020

In his book Markets and Minorities, Thomas Sowell argues that “acting on [stereotypes] can be costly” and that the success of groups may be attributable to behaviors and work ethic. Sowell explains, “Economic competition means that the less discriminatory transactors acquire a competitive advantage, forcing others either to reduce their discrimination or to risk losing profits, perhaps even being forced out of business.” At first glance, this argument makes sense on the surface, but the fact of the matter is that the United States for the vast majority of its history practiced economic disenfranchisement in the market place with little to no care. Moreover, Detroit was no different. It illustrated, despite the obvious opportunities by Henry Ford, Hudson, and a few other economic opportunities for blacks, that “Economic competition [does not mean] that the less discriminatory transactors acquire a competitive advantage, forcing others either to reduce their discrimination or to risk losing profits.” No, Detroit never played that type of game in totality in the market between the 1920’s and 1940’s.

Detroit City Planning, 1939

(Detroit City Planning, 1939 – Detroit News Archivist)

In fact, many whites in Detroit were “discriminatory transactors” themselves. They moved black migrants into undesired neighborhoods on arrival while local law enforcement administered the community boundaries. As an example of late 1940’s property rights and rhetoric to maintain the already established white and black neighborhood boundaries, “Some [white homeowners] defined homeowners’ rights as an extension of their constitutional right to freedom of assembly. They [stated] they had a right to choose their associates. That right would be infringed if their neighborhoods were racially mixed.” Thomas Sugrue continues in his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, “Rights for blacks were acceptable in the abstract, as long as blacks remained in their own neighborhoods and kept to themselves.” Those “discriminatory transactors” did not seem to find Sowell’s economic argument very persuasive.

At its peak, Detroit was hired to build trucks for the World War II victory march. The city and its residents and work force answered Uncle Sam’s call for national support. This call included black Americans on the assembly line as members of the United Auto Workers and it included black Americans in segregated military units on the battle field. But Detroit did not include black Americans in highly skilled employment, for the most part, and Detroit did not include black Americans in the day to day decisions of the municipality. These opportunities belonged to white Americans of Detroit.

These white Americans had prime access to economic labor and capital; they had prime access to the most attractive neighborhoods and property rights and equity; they had prime access to setting political agendas and passing favorable legislation for their families, for their neighborhoods, and for themselves; and they had the most access to the accumulation of wealth. Thus, there were little or no restrictions for white Americans in Detroit, Michigan. It indeed was a great time. But the most important thing of all was that the world they built in Detroit provided prime access for their children to the next generation of opportunities.

Detroit House

(Detroit House – J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

Today, the numbers bear this out. Household incomes from under $25,000 to over $150,000 are relatively comparable between white and blacks who live in the Detroit city limits. However, the surrounding areas are a different story. For example, household incomes for blacks are more than double that of whites for those who make under $25,000 – 44.4 percent for blacks and 21.9 percent for whites. The only income level where the household income for blacks is higher than whites in Wayne County is the $25,000 to $49,999 range and that difference is less than 3 percent. For all other household incomes, whites do much better, according to the Metropolitan Detroit Race Equity Report. These same household income caparisons can pretty much be made for Oakland County and Macomb County as well.

It is clear that the economic, political, and social policies of the early 20th century favored whites over blacks. It set the stage for deferring paths and policies that caused the system to affect these differing groups in very different ways. For whites, it created a positive aggregate of wealth in the set of access to better schools, access to better paying jobs, access to more attractive property, and access to accumulate generational opportunity. But for blacks, it created aggregate of mixed results at best.

It is true that there are more blacks in the elite class of Detroit. It is also true that more blacks are highly educated and it is true that blacks have achieved greater political self-determination. But if the goal is equity and equality for all, then black Americans in Detroit are sorely behind white Americans in Detroit. And this is precisely why America has the perspective of Detroit that it has. When Americans think of the prosperous Detroit, they think of the “good ol’ years” and the 1950’s, or white and rich; but when Americans think of the Detroit of today, they think of crime, poverty and mass emigration out of a once proud city, thus they think black and poor. Such thoughts are truly the dichotomy of the American dream.


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 ©2016 – The Systems Scientist

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