Coleman Young didn’t destroy Detroit

Former Mayor Coleman A. Young is not an unimpeachable character in Detroit’s story, nor is he the antagonist he’s often been made out to be.

Too often, discussions of how Detroit became desolate or how racial tensions flared, are answered by “it all started with Coleman Young,” as if he were the boogeyman who scared white families out of the city. In essence, the former mayor has become the monster in a kind of folklore which belies the true factors that decimated the city’s people and industry.

In 1942, Detroit had its first race riot. An estimated 34 people were killed, 433 injured, and $2 million worth of property was stolen or destroyed.

In 1967, Detroit had its second race riot. An estimated 43 people were killed, 1,189 were injured, and $50 million worth of property was stolen or destroyed.

All of this before Young’s first inaugural address in 1974.

Detroit’s history is often melded into a false North versus South dichotomy of racial history. It misleads people to believe that black Americans who left the South during the Great Migration found much better fortunes in Northern cities. They did not.

White-hooded Klansmen burning down a black family’s home in Mississippi or Alabama is more intense visually than a white-collared banker denying a home loan to a black family in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit or Pittsburgh. But the effect was the same. It denied black Americans the ability to build homes, wealth, and stable families.

Thomas Sugrue, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” writes about the exodus of white families and factories from the city. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations,” featured in The Atlantic, tells the story of how black Americans were excluded from the real estate market until the 1970s, with a focus on Chicago, Illinois. This exclusion happened in Detroit as well, and its effects are still evident today.

White enclaves in the city did their best to keep themselves white. White homeowners refused to sell to black Americans. Real estate brokers would not show black families homes in white areas. Deeds to homes in white areas often included provisions which prevented the owner from selling his home to anyone who was not white. Such covenants were backed by federal, state, and local policy.

As Sugrue writes, “Every Detroit neighborhood with even a tiny African American population was rated ‘D’ or ‘hazardous’ by federal appraisers, and colored red on the HOLC (Home Owners’ Loan Corporation) Security Map….The FHA (Federal Housing Administration) regularly refused loans to black homebuilders while underwriting the construction of homes by whites of a similar economic status a few blocks away.”

This was redlining.

Redlining was not the policy of Young, and the city lost much of its white population before he became mayor. Detroit’s total population peaked at 1.85 million people in 1950. For the years in between 1950 and 1973, when Young was first elected, the city’s total population had already declined to an estimated 1.5 million.

Moreover, this decline happened in other urban centers for the same reasons. Daniel Hartley, a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland shows that in compiled data between 1970 and 2006, Buffalo, New York lost 44 percent of its population. Cleveland, Ohio lost 46 percent. Detroit lost 45 percent, and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania lost 43 percent.

Young was certainly cognizant of this. He wrote in his autobiography that “I don’t dispute the gravity of Detroit’s problems…They are basically the same problems of every American city, except that they are magnified by the fact that modern Detroit was built around the auto industry, which has been losing blood for two decades, and the accompanying reality that white flight, industrial and social, has left Detroit with the damnedest demographics in America.”

It’s more than unfair to blame Young for the way Detroit is today, it is inaccurate. Many things were outside of his control. He wasn’t a central banker who could lower interest rates to make what Detroit was selling more attractive to the rest of the world. He couldn’t enact economic stimulus the way President Barack Obama did in 2009.

Surely he can be blamed for the fact that he did not diversify the city’s economy. But then, many of the theories of economic development that are known now were not known then. Economic development was to heap subsidies upon favored industries. And how could Young have had the prescience to know businesses like Facebook and Twitter – that make nothing – would be more profitable than companies that do make something like General Motors and Ford Motor Company.

He served for 20 years as mayor (1974-1994). He shaped the city, and bears some responsibility for how it is today. But those areas where his handiwork is most evident, where he drew federal, state, and private dollars to, the riverfront, the Renaissance Center, are the places that are otherwise still alive in a corroded city.


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