My family is from Detroit.
My four times great grandfather, George Cottrell, was one of the founders of St. Clair County, up river from the Motor City. He and his French descendents helped settle the region.
Another hundred years later, my grandmother's grandfather arrived from Germany and married my great great grandmother, who also hailed from the Rhineland. Just 55 years ago, my maternal grandparents arrived here by boat, World War II refugees from Poland, and settled near the Polish enclave of Hamtramck.
My family is from Detroit. Which is why I was so unsettled by reading Richard Rothstein and Mark Sankow's The Cost of Living Apart in the American Prospect, which details the city's history of racial segregation. I knew about the history, but never heard about it growing up, nor did I realize the extent to which the government enforced and mandated it.
The article centers around a familiar surname-- Romney. But instead of talking about the presidential candidate, Rothstein and Sankow talk about his father, George Romney, who was governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969. What I didn't know was that Romney Sr. went on to be President Richard Nixon's secretary of Housing and Urban Development until 1973. During that tenure, one of his main goals was to fight residential segregation, and to do so, he targeted Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. He fought racist politics within the Republican Party in 1964:
At the time, he explained his maturation like this: “I come from a Rocky Mountain Mormon background. I didn’t know any Negroes. … It was only after I got to Detroit that I got to know Negroes and began to recognize that some Negroes are better and more capable than lots of whites. … I understand (Senator and presidential candidate) Barry (Goldwater) and Ronnie Reagan, they come from the same background I did—they just can’t understand what we have to do.” By 1966, in his gubernatorial re-election, Romney won 30 percent of the African-American vote, unprecedented then (or now) for a Republican.
As HUD secretary, Romney thought up an ingenious strategy to keep white suburbs from blocking the construction of low-income or public housing: Cut off all HUD funding to those municipalities and make sure they didn't get government construction projects. It worked, at least at first. He got suburban Boston and Toledo to relent. Then, he targeted Warren, Mich. It's a northern suburb of Detroit, where my grandmother lived when I was a child. The city where I was stuffed with pierogis and goblacki was staunchly resistant to integration.
HUD officials told city officials they would not receive future funds for parks, street repairs, sidewalks, and schools unless they also accepted low-income housing, passed an anti--discrimination ordinance, and provided greater police protection to African-American residents.
Romney told the officials, “You can try to hermetically seal Warren off from the surrounding areas if you want to, but you won’t do it with federal money. … Black people have as much right to equal opportunities as we do. God knows, they have suffered so much they may have more right. … This problem is the most important one America has ever faced.”
It didn't work. It wasn't a popular policy, and Nixon shut it down. Romney resigned two years later.
Detroit's legacy and stagnant segregation
All of this happened years before I was even born. I never even asked my mom what it was like to live in Detroit at the time of the race riots in 1967 until it came up after watching an episode of the AMC series Mad Men. She told me a story about how the night of the riots, my dad had a suit at the cleaners that he needed for a job interview the next day. They drove to pick it up, but were stopped by a police man who told them it wasn't safe to travel to that part of town and they better turn around. They did.
My parents had both been raised within the city, but they moved out to the suburbs a few years later. I was born in Mount Clemens, a white suburb of Detroit. While I was in high school, the state instituted the "Schools of Choice" plan, which allowed any student to transfer to any school district they wanted to. Of course, it also gave a school district the ability to refuse to participate. The combination has actually increased racial segregation, Rothstein and Sarkow said.
Districts like Grosse Pointe simply opt out, taking no students from neighboring Detroit. In other suburban communities bordering Detroit, white families in newly integrated and changing neighborhoods drive their children to schools in districts even farther from the city. That leaves a disproportionately high number of poorer students in these suburban schools.
The cost of all of this, as the article details, is "failing schools"--schools with so many disadvantaged students that it's almost comical that officials seem to expect them to perform equally well on standardized tests, and then when they don't, they shut them down. Clearly, this issue isn’t just Detroit's, it’s alive and well here in Chicago, as well as in New York, St. Louis and Cleveland. The solution to our school crisis, argues the article, is meaningful residential integration, which would desegregate our schools.
It wasn't a popular idea in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that hasn't changed much since then. Neither President Barack Obama nor Gov. Mitt Romney talk about desegregation in their stump speeches or debates. "Segregation" and "integration" are words we left back in the '60s, doomed now only to exist in history books, not on party platforms.
It's probably just a coincidence, but I've had so many experts lately tell me about how segregation is at the root of one social problem or another.
A housing advocate was explaining to me how segregation is bad for the economy because it keeps people who desperately need jobs from the entry-level positions they could get. They either don't get a job or if they do, have to waste their money driving miles and miles every day because they can't afford to live where they work. I read a study about how segregation enabled the housing crisis to happen -- that if our communities weren't so segregated, shady lenders wouldn't have had whole communities to prey on, people who were desperate to be homeowners because they had been so long denied.
Education, poverty, the economy, the housing market. That's a lot of problems related to segregation, and I'm sure there's many more. We left the discussions about segregation back in the '60s, but we couldn't leave the problems it creates behind.
It troubles me because there's no solution to it. I mean, no viable solution. No solution anyone is willing to campaign on, champion or stand up for. Entrenched segregation has locked in so many other social problems, and while we try to fix those problems, we have no solution for the underlying cause. I see this as I look at Detroit today -- so many black families left to starve in a nearly resource-less city, while white families like mine got out and prospered.
"This problem is the most important one America has ever faced," said George Romney in 1970.
The trouble is, we never really faced it. And we still haven't.