Detroit ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the country | Michigan Radio
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Detroit ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the country

Jun 21, 2021

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio

Detroit is the most segregated city in America, according to a new study from the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley. The study also ranks the Detroit-Warren-Livonia metropolitan area as the fourth most segregated metro area in the country.

Researchers for the study point to Detroit's history as a destination for Black Americans from the South during the Great Migration, and the efforts by city and state government to keep these new arrivals segregated to certain neighborhoods. The segregation in the metro area increased as white people fled to the suburbs, making Detroit a majority Black city by 1980.

Stephen Menendian is one of the researchers for the project, and the head of research for the Othering and Belonging Institute. He says cities like Detroit often suffer from chronic disinvestment, which contributes to inequality in public goods.

"They suffered from deindustrialization, but also just decades of disinvestment," Menedian says. "A lot of these cities in that mid-Atlantic, industrial Midwest corridor, like Newark, like Detroit, like Flint: they've been under conservatorship. They've gone bankrupt, especially after the last recession. These are places that have suffered from a kind of political and economic regime of austerity."

Peter Hammer is a professor of law at Wayne State University, and the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State. He agrees with Menendian's assessment regarding Detroit's financial state contributing to segregation.

"“What we had in Detroit, if you go back to emergency management and bankruptcy, was really the denial of democracy for the largest Black majority city in the nation, and the new fights over the charter that are happening as we speak," he says. "You had a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor basically telling the citizens of Detroit they couldn't adopt rational policies. They were trying to get the root causes of this spatial structural racism: a right to water, a right to affordable housing, a right to recreation, a right to public safety, and the democratic process of telling them, no, you don't deserve those rights. And that just simply compounds the sort of century long story of deepening segregation."

Hammer says the information from the study is nothing new, but is important nonetheless. Creating a more integrated and economically just Detroit is not something that can happen overnight, he says.

"One of the things I do in my seminars is write ’solution’ on the board and cross it out. Because there are no silver bullets, there’s going to be no short term or intermediate solutions. We have to start viewing this as a multigenerational challenge. But the core of it is fundamental changes in the way that we do business as normal," says Hammer.

Hammer says property ownership is the primary way to accumulate wealth in the U.S., something Black and brown Detroiters historically haven't had access to, due to redlining.

"We have to put a form of economic development that puts people in the center of development, and not property. We have to look at the schoolchildren of Detroit as the real treasures of Detroit, and not the art in the DIA that was saved in the bankruptcy process."

Menendian agrees with Hammer's assessment of people-focused economic development.

"We need to invest. We need to invest in pre-K. We need to invest in child care. We need to invest in extracurricular activities, we need to invest in community colleges. We need investments in our people that will improve their life chances and cycles and in their health and well-being rather than in sort of the things that we've invested in in the last 40, 50 years, like prisons and jails."

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