Economic Discrimination: Following Patterns of Discrimination and Violence in Post-war Detroit and Los Angeles
Note: I wrote this essay for my Urban Change & Development class at the University of Washington. I confess that I have sometimes worn a stereotypical attitude or judgment. But in reading Sugrue and Davis and writing this essay, I am sure that any previous mindset I had before is in serious question. My prayer is that anyone who reads this would gain an understanding, otherwise not have known, that would ever so slightly prick your heart and question your mind as it has done mine. Written: 3 March 2009
Some of the most brutal riots in American history took place in the economically promising cities of Detroit and Los Angeles. In the summer of 1967, an after hours police bust on a “blind pig” in the center of Detroit’s largest black neighborhood triggered a riot of outlet rage. What began as an arrest of eighty-five drunks, continued for five days of nonstop violence spawned by bitter black Detroiters. After 43 deaths, 7,231 arrests, and $36 million dollars in property damage, the riot ceased. At roughly the same time, a rebellion of hundreds of people in the arrest of a black family aroused a riot of equal animosity in Los Angeles. After the allegedly drunk driving arrest of a black man, days of uncontrollable violence attracted 13,900 guardsmen to the area. Built up racial tension exploded in forms of stoning cars and threatening police that only escalated as the riot continued and a death count was polling. 34 deaths, 3,952 arrests and $200 million in property damage were accounted for during the Watt’s Rebellion of 1965.
The cities of Detroit and Los Angeles in the twentieth century found themselves often torn apart in violence by racial difference and economic opportunity. Thomas Sugrue’s book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit reveals the horrific truths and reality of life between whites and blacks in the years that followed World War II in Detroit. City of Quartz by Mike Davis historically explores the changing cultures of Los Angles attempting to excavate it’s future. Specific emphasis is placed on the LAPD’s War on Drugs in chapter five “The Hammer and the Rock” that is centered on street violence and drug crime committed by minority groups in the 80’s and 90’s. In considering the thoughts of these two authors, there is an undeniable connection between street violence (including drugs and gangs) and racial discrimination in economic opportunity.
A fight for jobs was the basis of tension for post-war Detroit residents. Blacks from the south came to Detroit lured by economic opportunity and probability of homeownership. But when they arrived, they were greeted with a less than friendly welcome from hostile white neighbors. Whites felt as though the black immigrants were taking away their jobs (and so, their money). The threatening feeling that became of this led to much anxiety between blacks and whites that spread to areas of housing and politics ultimately forging the future of Detroit.
Race and housing became inseparable issues for white Detroiters. “The ghetto was the antithesis of [white] tightly knit, orderly communities” (Sugrue, pg. 216). Whites blamed blacks that the world they loved was slipping away. Because so, black residents were forced to live in the slums of which the conditions were barely livable. White landlords and homeowners made it impossible for blacks to own homes through policy and restrictive covenants. “Even those with steady employment found that mortgage or land contract payments stretched family budgets to the breaking point” (Sugrue, pg. 213). The black families that rented in the ghetto often paid 20%-40% more than whites had to pay in middle-class neighborhoods, of which jobless blacks could not even afford to live in. Whites and the elite class fled the city to the suburbs were segregation would surely remain in tact. “The physical separation of blacks and whites in the city [and suburbs] perpetuated inequality in housing and access to jobs…” (Sugrue, pg. 228-229).
The greatest unfulfilled promise of post-war Detroit was its job opportunities. As suburbia grew, factories and manufacturers began to decentralize from the city and move outwards following their white employees who fled to the suburbs. Detroit’s fiscal base fell as a whole because whites moved to relocating firms or to suburbs and the population fell making Detroit poorer and blacker than it was before. Thus, discrimination, decentralization, and deindustrialization became a lethal combination for blacks. Between 1948 and 1967, Detroit lost 130,000 manufacturing jobs. The black population affected most by the city’s economy was the young coming generation of black men who either found grave difficulty in acquiring a job, or lost motivation to find a job in a such a segregated city. Blacks were the majority of “the long term unemployed.” “Every attempt by civil rights groups to expand job or housing opportunities for Blacks was countered by fierce white resistance” (Davis, pg. 296).
The politics that surrounded equality (inequality) in the housing market and the workplace were a product of white business owners/real estate agents, etc… Ford would keep workers, primarily black workers, in the dark about its intentions then suddenly lay off hundreds and move machinery to other plants over night. The company’s decentralization policies began to meet face to face with issues of economic equality and justice. Although a few cases were won on behalf of racially discriminated policies, most of Detroit’s black population faced political hurdles in trying to buy a house or get a job. The government rarely got their hands dirty with issues of discrimination leaving blacks without resource or leadership of any kind.
Discrimination was an inescapable hardship for blacks in Detroit meeting them at work and at home. Civic progress gave blacks optimism for the future, but was often short-lived. “The attack on restrictive covenants raised blacks’ hopes that their housing woes would soon be over. And it inspired blacks in Detroit to move forth more boldly, looking for housing in the predominantly white neighborhoods beyond the city’s racial frontier” (Sugrue, p. 182). However, these small handfuls of hope would not be enough to justify the daily experiences of the racial violence that were encountered.
Deindustrialization, decentralization, and discrimination were seemingly everlasting issues felt all across the United States following the World Wars. Time however, was not a ready remedy for the problems that faced American workers, more particularly young black workers. Instead, time turned the bitterness felt by many people into a violence and ridicule that was racially discriminatory. In a small town in Wyoming, teenagers hurled firecrackers, mud and stone, at the newly purchased house of a black woman. Signs reading “Beat It Nigger” were thrown onto the porches of black families (Sugrue).
Blacks continued to face a lack of economic opportunity in Los Angeles. By the late 1970’s, a new ‘career’ had been formed on the streets and in the ghetto, drug dealing. Ghetto turf rivalries ran high for pride and ownership of territory. But if anything made such rivalries more deadly, “it was the incomparably higher economic stakes involved in control of the retail cocaine trade” (Davis, pg. 270). Two gangs, the “Crips” and the “Bloods” both consisting of a majority of black and Chicano members, ruled the streets of LA dealing and killing. Gang membership reached nearly 100,000 people in Los Angeles. Because most gang members were barely 18, drugs were being dealt in schools and in the parks. The war on drugs became the systematic reason for arrests/holding/killing on suspicion by the LAPD.
Discrimination in racial stereotyping permeated the minds of many citizens, but was arguably now the mindset for police as well. In Los Angeles 1978, a systematic abuse of non-whites by the Los Angeles Police Department including over 300 police shootings of minorities was being probed by the Justice Department after the police killing of a black women. In 1982, there was a small outbreak of LAPD chokehold killings of young black men in custody explained by Chief Daryl Gates as “the fault of the victim’s racial anatomy, not excessive police force: ‘We may be finding that in some Blacks when [the carotid chokehold] is applied the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal [white] people’” (Davis, pg. 272).
“As a result of the war on drugs, every non-Anglo teenager in Southern California [was] now a prisoner of gang paranoia and associated demonology” (Davis, pg. 284). With a reputation that many didn’t ask for, blacks and Chicano’s were over humiliated and embarrassed many times by flawed policy. In one incident, a busload of well-dressed black students from Youth For Christ were humiliatingly searched for drugs and weapons at the Magic Mountain amusement park by park managers who “defended their right to search ‘suspicious’ (ie., Black) youth as a matter of policy” (Davis, pg. 285). LAPD officers reportedly taunted and brutalized colored victims of suspicion on many occasions. Police officers were given unlimited discretion in targeting ‘undesirable,’ colored youth. Always, the black and minority community cold count on Chief Gates absurd excuses concerning police brutality after every clash.
But what happened to the promise of jobs and the revolutionary rhetoric of reformism? Already discussed earlier in this essay was the short-lived American dream of Detroit economic opportunity for blacks. The truth is that “… non-Anglo workers [bore] the brunt of adaptation and sacrifice” (Davis, pg. 304) all over the country. Although manufacturers on LA’s eastside made remarkable comebacks in the 1980s, little opportunity was available for blacks. Despite regional growth, the unemployment of Black youth in LA remained at 45% through the 80s. As a result, youth sought other forms of making money. “At a time when economic opportunity was draining away from South-central Los Angeles, the ‘Crips’ were becoming the power resource of last resort for thousands of abandoned youth” (Davis, pg. 300). “The deterioration in the labor-market position of young Black men is a major reason why the counter-economy of drug dealing and youth crime has burgeoned” (Davis, pg. 306).
In looking at the incidents that followed racial discrimination in Detroit and Los Angeles according to Sugrue and Davis, there is a seen pattern of street violence (including drugs and gang activity) as a product of racial discrimination in economic opportunity. A clear connection can be drawn between the two as the first of the issues spurring the latter. Racially discriminatory economics kept blacks from acquiring jobs leaving them poor and resentful of white business owners, landlords, etc… who, more often than not, freely exercised discriminatory politics as a freedom. “Racial violence left blacks in neighborhoods increasingly bereft of capital, distant from workplaces, and marginalized politically… The results of housing segregation, in combination with persistent workplace discrimination and deindustrialization, were explosive” (Sugrue, pg. 258).
Non-Anglo exclusion in industry and decent housing registered built up anger that exploded in cases similar to the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the ‘blind pig’ bust of 1967. In the case of whites, these revolts are referred to as ‘riots.’ But for blacks, they are thought of as ‘rebellions’ to the inequality caused by discrimination. In 1972, the Human Relations Conference allowed 60 Black gang leaders to present their grievances to city officials and police. “To the astonishment of officials present, the ‘mad dogs’ outlined an eloquent and coherent set of demands: jobs, housing, better schools, recreation facilities and community control of local institutions. It was a bravura demonstration that gang youth, however trapped in their own delusionary spirals of vendetta and self-destruction, clearly understood that they were the children of deferred dreams and defeated equality” (Davis, pg. 300). In other rare occasions in which colored gang leaders were able to publicly speak their minds, they declared “decent jobs are the price for negotiating a humane end to drug dealing and gang violence” (Davis, pg. 301). It seems as though the prospect of drugs, gangs and street violence relies on the future of racial discrimination and (lack of, or abundance of) economic opportunity.