The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Surgrue
Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms, by Richard R. W. Brooks & Carol M. Rose
“From Rural South to Metropolitan Sunbelt: Creating a Cowboy Identity in the Shadow of Houston,” by Andrew C. Baker
In cities across America race has been a crucial line of demarcation. The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Saving the Neighborhood show how race transformed American cities, towns, and neighborhoods. “From Rural South to Metropolitan Sunbelt” demonstrates how racial prejudices lingered in Montgomery County, Texas, even after racial residential segregation and racially restrictive covenants were proscribed.
The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas J. Sugrue examines the deindustrialization of Detroit, Michigan as a result of commercial decline, disinvestment, property devaluation, job loss, and depopulation. As a perfect and detailed case study, Sugrue uses Detroit to explain the transformation of American cities as a result of three factors: flight of jobs, workplace discrimination, and racial residential segregation. Sugrue boldly argues that the origins of the urban crisis lay much earlier than social scientists have recognized and previously reported.
Deviating from established opinion, Sugrue provides evidence for his theory that the origins of the urban crisis, or the “Rusting of the Rust Belt,” began in the 1950s, not after the oil crisis of the 1970s or stagflation. Post-World War II Detroit experienced the widespread loss of entry-level manufacturing jobs, reduced workforces, new overtime requirements, and the relocation of American industrial plants.
Workplace discrimination hit African Americans particularly hard in Detroit. Glass ceilings existed in every industry for blacks and the existence of good-paying jobs for blacks were scarce, leaving many blacks to earn low wages. Blacks became trapped in Detroit’s worst housing, and in strictly segregated sections of the city. Through the use of racially restrictive covenants, Detroit’s white citizens, mortgage companies, banks, real estate brokers, and real estate agents played crucial roles in maintaining racial barriers that would perpetuate the marginalization of Detroit’s blacks.
Sugrue maintains that deindustrialization occurred because of a systematic restructuring of the local economy, from which the city was never able to recover from. Experiencing recessions, demand for automobiles, small shifts in interest rates, and plant closures or relocations, Detroit also withstood “long-term and steady decline in manufacturing employment.” At the same time the population of Detroit increased.
This double-whammy of population increase and loss of manufacturing jobs resulted in some action from the city government. However, racial conflicts were downplayed and discussions of class structure were censored. City government solutions were never able to correct the underlying causes of Detroit’s economic woes. Racially restrictive covenants led to a shifting of Detroit’s racial borderlands. For elite and steadily-employed blacks, housing options were opened up, if the housing was located in still-segregated neighborhoods.
Detroit’s white citizens banded together to form grassroots groups to keep their neighborhoods racially segregated. Sugrue argues that violence practiced by whites was organized, widespread, and the largest grassroots movement in Detroit’s history. The effects of racial violence in Detroit were far-reaching and included: hardened definitions of white and black identities; limited housing opportunities for blacks, persistent housing segregation that stigmatized blacks; racial divisions; and a reinforcement of unequal race relations.
While Sugrue focused on an entire city and its economy, Brooks and Rose take a look at racially restrictive covenants in neighborhoods in the second book, Saving the Neighborhood. The authors also aim to examine the ways legal and social norms reinforce one another.
White citizens began to experience uneasiness with the movement of blacks into their cities and neighborhoods. To combat this movement, white neighborhoods and communities developed restrictive covenants to restrict ownership or residency according to one’s race. “Racial covenants were a legal substitute for the more vigorous and potentially vicious informal means used” to restrict residential segregation. Despite the ruling in 1948 by Shelley v. Kraemer that outlawed racially restrictive covenants, white flight became the new means of segregation.
To provide a legal route to enforce residential segregation, whites resorted to racially restrictive covenants agreed upon by property owners themselves. These agreements were designed to “run with the land,” thus binding future purchasers into racial restrictions. Whites were able to avoid legal obstacles, even in the form of the Supreme Court of the United States, and continue to legally enforce racial covenants.
Brooks and Rose go on to detail the “ways that a white homeowner or prospective homeowner might have assessed the various options if she wished to live in a segregated residential community.” One method a white person could have used to limit and prohibit blacks from racial integration in neighborhoods was harassment. However, large-scale harassment was difficult for whites to accomplish without long-term neighborhood solidarity that was hard to come by. Nuisance laws and zoning restrictions were also available methods to control the racial make-up of neighborhoods. These two methods, however, proved to be impractical on a large scale.
White homeowners were then left with racial covenants to restrict the racial makeup of neighborhoods and cities. The people Brooks and Rose credit with the spread of racially restrictive covenants are norm entrepreneurs. Developers, brokers, and the FHA, instituted covenants as standard practice. Paradoxically, these norm entrepreneurs were faced against norm breakers who attempted to ameliorate the practice and effects of racial covenants. Norm breakers, including blacks thinking of integrating into white neighborhoods, civil rights lawyers, and political groups such as the NAACP, began to challenge racially restrictive covenants.
While illegal in today’s world, racially restrictive covenants do still exist in many deeds, covenants, conditions and restrictions. Homeowners are still left with few options in handling their restrictive covenants. “The amendment process nonetheless can be arduous, often requiring some kind of supermajority along with legally acknowledged signatures of the participating members.” Seemingly the only way to deal with these lingering housing restrictions is to ignore them.
If The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Saving the Neighborhood define the history of an American crisis and racially restrictive covenants, “From Rural South to Metropolitan Sunbelt” demonstrates that no matter what laws have been passed or how many years have gone by, the effects of deindustrialization and racially restrictive covenants have had a lingering effect on American cities.
Just as Detroit, Michigan experienced depopulation, deindustrialization, and white flight, Houston, Texas encountered a similar economic condition. Citizens fled to outlying Montgomery County not only to live an idealized Southern lifestyle, but also to avoid urban violence and integrated public space. Montgomery County, Texas is known for its annual “Go Texan” celebration. In the 1960s and 1970s, this celebration included a shootout and a reenactment of a lynching. Originally intended to exhibit the rural flair of Montgomery County as compared to metropolitan Houston, Texas, the Go Texan festival gave citizens an opportunity to display their Southern heritage.
In a line that could have been directly copied from Sugrue’s, The Origin of the Urban Crisis, Baker writes, “In an era charged with social tension, when the city of Houston was rocked with racial conflict and perceived lawlessness and urban whites fled to the safety of the countryside, this small-town performance (Go Texan celebration) reinforced the belief that, at least on the city’s metropolitan fringe, law and order persisted.” The since-excluded lynching scene reinforced Southern racism and racial segregation.
Unlike Detroit, Montgomery County has experienced continued economic growth and a steady stream of middle-class citizens looking for an escape from metropolitan life. Baker argues that even today, Montgomery County citizens are continuously attracted to “the county’s rural landscapes to those unwilling to live in a racially and culturally diverse global metropolis.”