Notes on a Rebellion

Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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47 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    Several, somewhat disjointed thoughts:

    1) A lot of your post seems to be along the lines of the “middle class people shouldn’t take their kids out of crappy public schools but keep them in, and lobby for improvements” argument that went around a while back.

    2) Either that or it’s “Whites where shitty and racists to blacks and then when the blacks rioted, they bailed from the city and punished them.”

    Maybe, as my GF has come to realize, is that the “white flight” also has to do with being tired of putting up with the crap from shitty city administrations and bureaucrats who can’t keep the roads paved, can’t keep the street lights fixed, charge outrageous user fees for water (10 times what the suburbs charge-and get the water from the same damn place), etc. that make living in the city more of a PITA than it’s worth vs moving 10 miles in any compass direction? Maybe the “riots’ were the last straw?

    But let’s assume that 2 is true. I doubt most of the whites back then went around actively oppressing blacks. So while they bear SOME responsibility, most were probably just trying to get along with life. Then the riots happen. Now they decided “f this” and “have to move” away from dangerous riots. Is payback, in the terms of “you made your bed, now lie in it” so surprising?Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

      Of course they were actively trying to oppress blacks. White folks got FHA loans, black folks got to move to high rises. This was systemic, legalized discrimination and oppression (fun fact: to even get into the high rises, you needed to be married).Report

      • Damon in reply to Kimmi says:

        Fun fact!

        The gov’t mandated discrimination in loans and construction and HOAs. Reference “The Rate Movie”.

        “This was systemic, legalized discrimination and oppression ” Yes it was. You can thank you’re gov’t for that. You can also thank them for a whole host of other atrocities they committed…or are you going to blame the whole of white people for that?Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

          Honestly? depends on the atrocity. The marianas? Not so much, as it wasn’t a Topic of Interest, and nobody really voted about it. Vietnam? Oh, hell yeah, I’m blaming all us Americans as a group.

          White folks? Well, I’ll blame them when they deserve it. Sometimes it’s broad based culture as implemented by the government (and I do think the housing discrimination was part of it, you can see it in the redlining), and sometimes (giving illegal drugs to black kids as part of a psych study in the 1990s) it’s just someone being stupid and idiotic and hoping not to get caught.Report

          • Damon in reply to Kimmi says:

            I take no blame for Vietnam. I was a youngling.

            I am not to blame for the actions of prior generations. And I don’t support employees of a gov’t that abducted people and put them in camps, that conducted medical experiments on people, etc.Report

          • George Turner in reply to Kimmi says:

            What’s the problem with Vietnam, other than that we abandoned them to totalitarian communism, causing millions to flee and hundreds of thousands to drown at sea?Report

            • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

              m16s. We fought a stupid war using stupid ideas, and lost a ton of lives for no real purpose.

              BTW, I’m still awaiting your vocipherous denoucement of the Vietnam Memorial as “government funded NEA bullshit”Report

              • George Turner in reply to Kimmi says:

                I agree that we fought the war using stupid ideas, which is why we quit.

                Harry G Sommers covers most of them in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, which became required reading at the Command and General Staff College.

                The book applies Clausewitz and shows that we did pretty much everything wrong, from not having a unified command, to not knowing whether we were on the offensive or defensive (strategically or tactically), to not striking the enemy’s critical point, etc, etc. His conclusion is that the war could have been easily won with far fewer casualties on both sides by maintaining a DMZ and threatening the North with a seaborne invasion if they rolled south. Basically, Korean War reprise II.

                Another recommended read is A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.

                The author listened to all the tapes from MACV headquarter from 1968 to 1972, when Creighton Abrams was in charge. That period of the war was conducted so differently from the McNamara/Westmoreland period that it should be considered a different war, one that we were winning, or rather one that the ARVN and Ruff Puffs were winning. It was only in this second period that the Army realized that perhaps the 500,000 or so militia members should have decent rifles.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

                That book’s way too old to be hitting most of what West Point would critique nowadays.
                We completely retooled our military after Vietnam — and if you can’t explain the difference between large squad tactics and small ones, then you’re missing a great deal of what was wrong.

                *Some people might say “but they didn’t know any better”. To that I say fie! You lose that many lives, and I’m going to hold you to standards.Report

              • Slade the Leveller in reply to George Turner says:

                America ultimately left Vietnam because it lost the home front. Trying to explain why our 18 year old kids had to travel halfway around the world to fight an enemy that posed no threat to America just was not possible.

                That said, this is one of the more beneficial side effects of the draft. Not like the low-level nonsense we’ve been involved with in the Middle East for the last decade and a half. The all volunteer army has become a tool of American adventurism, to no good end.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

                Leaving Vietnam wasn’t the same as losing. After we left, South Vietnam stood longer than Iraq did from Obama’s withdrawal to the capture of Mosul by ISIS. Abrams felt that he needed two more years to get the ARVN ready to stand on their own, and it was two years we wouldn’t let him have.

                South Vietnam still probably would have won in ’75 but we’d put them under an arms embargo and their troops simply ran out of ammunition. One ARVN division that was completely surrounded by four NVA divisions utterly decimated them – and then shortly after that ran completely out of ammunition.

                And of course Ford refused to provide air support to stop the ’75 invasion. We’d used air support almost entirely to stop the ’72 invasion and the North Vietnamese had to spend three years rebuilding their army and getting resupplied with foreign weapons before they could try again.Report

      • Freeman in reply to Kimmi says:

        Anecdote: When my parents white-flighted from a suburb on the edge of the city (not Detroit) that was getting “too dark” to an exclusive gated community on a private lake in the ’80’s, I recall being disgusted by how proudly they related that their contract included a clause allowing the HOA first dibs on any property going up for sale in order to “keep out the riff-raff”. It was probably a decade after they moved in that the first black family bought a house there, but everyone was cool with that because the new homeowner played for the local NFL team. To this day it is still almost exclusively all-white.

        I live in a (way) predominately black neighborhood in the city proper. I have great neighbors who smile and wave hello while walking their dogs past my house, or pause their yard work to chat across the backyard fence, just like any other neighborhood. But my poor parents are scared to death to visit me at my house or join me for lunch at a favorite local “soul food” restaurant (Soul food – don’t you know what that means? Yeah Mom, it means there will be black people eating there too, get over it. No – it means we’ll be the only whites there! In my experience, probably not, but if so, why should that matter?). I am saddened at how their “soft bigotry” has clouded their judgment and limited their options.

        And that “systemic, legalized discrimination and oppression” that Damon says is all the government’s fault? Who does he think the government is in a democratic republic? “We have met the enemy and he is us”, indeed. One thing my parents have always done with unfailing consistency is vote. If more people were half as vigilant about voting there’s no way we would be saddled with the government we have now.Report

        • Damon in reply to Freeman says:

          “Who does he think the government is in a democratic republic?”

          Yeah, because the public endorsed and demanded from the elected representatives, entry into WW2, the syphilis experimentation, the the legislation mandating builders not sell to blacks, the transfer of census data so jap/americans could be rounded up and put in camps, the forays into Korea and Vietnam, the overthrow of Iran’s elected gov’t and the installation of the shah, the destabilization of Ukraine, the Bosnian war…

          Yeah, the american public was all over insisting the american gov’t do that stuff. You want me to continue?Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

            I lived in what used to be a Sundown town. It’s disingenuous to say that folks didn’t want blacks to live there, and weren’t using every tool, including the government, at their disposal.

            The public endorsed entry into WWII just as much as they did our fight in Kuwait. Public endorsing something just means there’s enough PR to make that happen.Report

          • Freeman in reply to Damon says:

            “Yeah, the american public was all over insisting the american gov’t do that stuff”

            I seem to have forgotten the part where the American public threw the bums out that did all that stuff instead of re-electing them like they did.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Damon says:

      White flight is a complicated policy. Federal and state governments did a lot to encourage the suburban boom in mid-twentieth century America by giving White Americans a lot of incentives to move out of the city and into single-family homes in the suburbs. Highways were built, public transit disfavored for decades, and federally guaranteed mortgages were given to White Americans easily. It turned a nation of renters into home owners. These were very popular with the electorate though. It was probably the most popular example of social engineering in American politics.

      Whether the cities were badly administrated were a different question. By the mid-20th century, most of the old style political machines were dead and replaced by more modern style politicians. The old style political machines weren’t necessarily bad administrators though. Tammany Hall knew they had to deliver efficient services to get elected. The mid-20th century politicians also seemed to do well. Cities went south when they got deliberately screwed by federal and state anti-urban politics.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “White Flight” is a coordination problem.

        I’d be willing to bet that the majority of the white flight stories out there are sympathetic. “I got a job offer at a great place!” is the story behind why my family moved, for example. The problem is that any given story is sympathetic, all of them together lead to a city where the only people left are the ones who cannot move.

        Then time passes and rents are cheap. Next thing you know, you’re dealing with “gentrification”.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

          One family moving out of the city isn’t bad but millions of families moving to the city makes at a place for the very wealthy, the very poor, young people without families, and Bohemians. That tends to be a problem. Some cities did fine or relatively fine for the golden age of suburbs, San Francisco thrived more than Cleveland or St. Louis and New York took until the 1970s to go into temporary decline. Most did not.

          Another thing was that suburbs had a lot of cultural propaganda promoting them. There were movies whose plot were that young couples with kids should live in the suburbs and not in the city that started appearing immediately after World War II ended. Mr. Blathings Builds His Dream House is the big example. It Happened on Fifth Avenue’s plot involved a bunch of veterans building suburbs.Report

      • notme in reply to LeeEsq says:

        So the failure of Detroit is the fault of whites who left and the federal gov’t? That’s a nice liberal fantasy. The citizens of Detroit don’t bare any fault do they?Report

        • Kimmi in reply to notme says:

          I’m sorry, are you now not going to blame the subsequent impoverishment of the south on the Great Northern Migration???
          Like it or not, people move. The people who do things get blamed more than the people UNABLE to do things.Report

          • notme in reply to Kimmi says:

            subsequent impoverishment of the south

            What are you babbling about? You make it sound as if the south was rich before the Northern Migration and then became poor. The south has always been poor rural and agrarian.Report

  2. J_A says:

    Three years ago I visited Detroit. I wanted to look at the Detroit Institute of Arts murals (and truth be told, wanted to see in real life the images we have all seen in countless photos)

    I’m a keen tourist. I walk, I drive, I go everywhere. I want to see everything.

    Two things shocked me:

    Other than (a) around the baseball park during a game; (b )inside the DIA; or (c) inside the GM building at Renaissance Center, I saw ONE white person within Detroit City limits that was outside a car. I also don’t recall a single white person staying at the hotel I was, near downtown. Conversely, I saw zero black people in the several small cities (the Grosse Pointes ) around Detroit. Not even the grocery bag packers at the supermarket were black.

    The city limit between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park goes through the middle of the block between Alter Rd. (Detroit) and Barringron (GPP). You could have imagined a tornado had ravaged the west side of block after block. The East side (GPP) had beautiful, well kept, upper middle class houses full of (white) children playing in the garden. The West side was full of empty lots, boarded houses, and squalor. And the few people around are all black.

    On one side of the fence you have happy (upper) middle America. On the other, you have our local version of Mosul.

    It’s worth the plane ticket to see this. I wish we had a new Diego Rivera to paint it in a mural for all of us to understand, and remember.

    PS: Detroit is a beautiful city. I trust it will be reborn soonReport

  3. notme says:

    As Detroit starts a turnaround, I pray it can become a place where there is racial reconcilation that will bring justice for the city’s African Americans and the city they call home.

    Can you be more specific by what you mean when you say “racial reconciliation” and “justice”?Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    My family was from the Detroit suburbs (know where Plymouth is?) and, a couple of years after my father died, we moved to New York (officially “upstate” but, in this case, that meant “40 miles from NYC”).

    We went back to Michigan to visit relatives from time to time, and we heard nothing but how things were getting worse. We moved out in 1986. “Roger and Me” was released in 1989. We watched that documentary with a mixture of “oh, our poor Michigan” and “Jeez, am I glad we got the heck out of there!”

    I suppose that makes us part of the “White Flight”.

    Friends of ours (like, last *MONTH*) went to Detroit for some Tae Kwon Do thingy that was going on there. We saw them just last Sunday and they came back with stories about how awesome Detroit was and how revitalized the downtown is. The dad even told a story about how they were walking back to their hotel after a rough day with the boys and they stopped by a pub and they saw the hotel three blocks away and told the boys “hey, you guys walk on back, text us when you get there”. This boggled my mind because, when I was a kid, walking to your hotel in Detroit was not something that you would do in the first place, let alone let your kids do it.

    He also told us the story about how their Uber driver told them “yeah, three years ago, Detroit wasn’t so nice”.

    I wonder at the extent to which the revitalization of Detroit will involve “gentrification”.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Jaybird says:

      Better gentrification than roving thugs who want to “recruit” you.
      (That’s the rep I had from the last time someone sent an agent into Detroit. Got some nice pictures too).Report

    • J__A in reply to Jaybird says:

      I wonder at the extent to which the revitalization of Detroit will involve “gentrification”

      My personal guess? Over 93.82%

      Three years ago you could already see the first sprouts of gentrification two or three blocks around the baseball park. There were some restaurants and pubs that was clear catered (or tried) to the young and hipster. The Alter Rd. area is full of gorgeous old houses that would command millions (even in their current dilapidated state) if magically the city limit moved 200 yards westward. Sooner rather than later, someone will start buying those houses and bringing them back to market.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to J__A says:

        TOOO LAATE!
        Wall Street crashed the market on Detroit real estate a while back — then they bought everything they wanted, and now they’re cashing in their chips by creating a positive feedback cycle.Report

      • LTL FTC in reply to J__A says:

        What is revitalization without gentrification? Where is that tax base without people coming in from outside the city limits and increasing property values? Where are those good schools without the PTA raising money for new lab equipment?

        “[R]acial reconciliation that will bring justice for the city’s African Americans and the city they call home” is rather specific as to who calls it home, and presumably who would call it home in the future. Though white flight was bad for many reasons, reversing it is also unacceptable. Sometimes, you hear someone talk a good game about residential integration, but it seems to me like nobody wants the “other” to move in, in either direction.

        What remains?

        There’s annexation. Pull those white dollars into city coffers without anyone moving anywhere. As it might challenge the dominance of the black political establishment (and the white political establishment in the suburbs), it’s unacceptable to all. Suburbanites can withstand some pundit calling them racist if it means they don’t have to settle for Detroit-quality public services and no politician wants their carefully-designed district lines challenged.

        The other option is the suburbs and states conducting helicopter drops of cash on the city, without asking for anything in return. No gentrifiers to interrupt the blocks and blocks of dilapidated houses interspersed with overgrown empty lots. No demands that the money be used for something other than a city administration that has been siphoning cash from city coffers for decades. Even if the money is spent well and Detroit improves, how are you going to stop white people from wanting to live in it?

        The truth is that if you make anything nice enough, people will compete to live in/near it on the basis of price. The best guard against gentrification is to keep things crummy and dangerous. This is a case where you have to pick your battles.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to LTL FTC says:

          Agreed. I suppose it is possible to have a ‘nice’ neighborhood where the people who live there are not upper SES, but I think that only happens when the neighborhood stayed ‘nice’ as things grew up around it. Once a neighborhood stops being ‘nice’, getting it back to nice will require money, and that money will have to come from somewhere.

          Sure, a city could spend tax money to bring a neighborhood back to ‘nice’ without evicting everyone, but that’s a hell of a lift without a lot of buy-in and investment from people in the neighborhood and outside players, and even then it’s a political mess (e.g. How come that neighborhood gets all the love, what about our neighborhood!?), and you have to make sure the people who live there are willing and able to keep things nice for long enough to make the investment worth it.

          Allowing gentrification solves so many of those problems, at the cost of basically pricing the current residents out.Report

          • LTL FTC in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Pricing current residents out of some places. In many cities, gentrification takes place on former industrial/warehouse districts, where raw space in sturdy buildings is a big draw, as opposed as poorly-maintained houses built for poor people in the first place. In other cities, it’s the white-ethnic neighborhoods that gentrify first.

            I’d add to this the fact that non-native-born people are driving population growth in many cities we consider to be gentrifying. A poor incumbent is more likely to experience rent pressure from a Salvadoran, not a suburbanite.

            Point being, Detroit has only so many levers to raise the money required to support infrastructure designed for a much larger population and tax base. The rest of the state sees it as a money sink, not an economic engine, so the legislature can’t be counted upon to pay for improvements. It’s great (I think?) that we are past the point of discussing how to let things go to seed in a more organized way, but natural population growth won’t bring the city back to where it can support an acceptable standard of government services. Someone will have to move in, and it probably won’t entirely be rich African Americans from Atlanta and Prince Georges County, Maryland.Report

    • aaron david in reply to Jaybird says:

      You know, @jaybird, my wife was born in Dearborn Hights. Her parents were both born in the D.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Sort of the same with Newark.
      One of the worst places I’ve ever seen, though I hear it’s pretty nice now.Report

  5. Joe Sal says:

    I’m kind of curious Dennis, most of problems I see in impoverished areas have a lot to do with capital formation and velocity of exchanges. Do you think inner city Detroit struggled with those two problems (for decades) more so than areas outside the zone? Do you see signs that solving those problems is/will lead to revitalization?Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Joe Sal says:

      I dunno, maybe giving white folks FHA loans (a prime way of gaining middle class wealth) and deliberately sending the blacks to high rises mighta just maybe had something to do with the impoverishment…Report

  6. gregiank says:

    I ran the Detroit Marathon last fall. Very good race, well organized. All the parts of the city it went through were either nice or just a basic business district. There were black people running so it wasn’t’ just a “white thing.” The burbs were a mixed bag of some very upscale and some that seemed sort of sketchy but that is any city.

    You mention that people like to blame the South for racism and give the North a pass. There is definitely some of that. But there is also very much a racism is endemic to US society and affects everybody vibe. That seems to piss people off just as much.Report

  7. George Turner says:

    The problem with Detroit has nothing to do with America or race relations. It is the normal result of a city founded by the French. See St Louis, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans for more examples of how that works out. Instead of looking at Detroit for any kind of narrative about race or white flight, the locals would better spend their time blaming the French for their problems, and coordinating with other French-founded cities on real solutions.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

      Is pittsburgh also a french founded city, by your hogswaggling definition?Report

      • George Turner in reply to Kimmi says:

        Pittsburgh is a burgh (it’s supposed to be pronounced like Pittsborough – see Edinburgh) named after William Pitt, so no.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

          So, um, what? North Versailles is now French, Duquesne is french, but pittsburgh ain’t?

          • George Turner in reply to Kimmi says:

            The French fort was burned and replaced by a British fort (Fort Pitt), which is why Pittsburgh is still a nice place. Had they not burned the French fort, Pittsburgh would be in the same shape as Detroit. You can’t build a great city on rotten foundations.

            Even the French know this, so most all of their great cities were founded by earlier hunter gatherers, wandering tribes, Gauls, Romans, or other invaders, and their original names weren’t French. For example, Marseilles is actually the Greek city of Massilia.

            For a genuinely French city, see Port au Prince.Report

    • gregiank in reply to George Turner says:

      Yeah what have the French ever done for the US!!!Report

  8. Dark Matter says:

    Racism was part of the problem but trying to claim it as the entirety is way too easy.

    It’s reasonable to move because you’re threatened with…
    – your home/business being burned down
    – bad schools
    – much higher taxes for much lower services
    – absurd levels of political corruption and incompetence

    It’s reasonable for the rest of the state to look at high levels of corruption and incompetence and question whether more money would fix anything. For example Detroit’s schools are terrible but better funded than most; That paradox is probably best explained by absurdly high number of non-teachers they employ per teacher. If memory serves from the last time I did the math, a good school district has roughly a 1:(0.6) Teacher:Non-Teacher ratio, Detroit is more like 1:4

    Detroit had challenges, it needed brilliant political leadership, what it got was a series of incompetent and/or corrupt leaders whose main skill was playing the race card.Report

  9. Les Cargill says:

    Detroit in ’67 and everything else of an apocalyptic nature thru 1968 was a great boon to George Wallace in 1968. It undergirded additional racism and made Nixon’s election as close as you could get to a slam dunk. Nixon was able to construct the Southern Strategy in 1972, picking off the bloc Wallace had created.

    It’s impossible to explain the effect of seeing a war zone in an American city on television, complete with tanks. There was very real fear. It was roughly akin to in direction if not in magnitude, 9/11. After all, we’d seen Vietnam on television night after night. It was the beginning of the end of the Johnson Presidency, which was the last of the FDR equilibrium that had held for 40+ years at that point.

    As with most things like this, the larger picture was lost once the footage began. And if you read George Wallace’s campaign rhetoric from ’68. it should sound familiar. As racist as Wallace’s message was, the message is much more of anti-elitism than of pure Lost Causer segregationism. If you listen to Nixon’s oval office tapes, he’s beyond blunt about “the blacks” as scapegoats for any unrest on his watch.

    The shock, the hypocrisy, the flammable nature of lost illusion and abortive cognitive dissonance that is racism in America seems to be self-latching. Throw in the rise of some real hardcase radicals and it’s a perfect agar for the thing.Report