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  • Ellen Bassett

Structural Racism and Black Lives Matter

One of my favorite bloggers is an urban planner named Pete Saunders, who has a blog called “The Corner Side Yard” located here: http://cornersideyard.blogspot.com/. He lives and works in Chicago but writes a lot about the upper Midwest and its cities. Part of my admiration for him (or perhaps why I find his blogging so compelling) is that he and I lived parallel lives and might have met at some point—if we hadn’t lived in the hyper-segregated metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan. (I had one black woman in my high school graduating class.)

I figure we are about the same age—but he lived in the city and I lived in one of the quite white suburbs located in Oakland County. One of the reasons I went into planning was growing up in those suburbs in the 1970s—the racial tension was palpable and often came to nasty barbs exchanged between the elected leaders of the city, particularly Mayor Coleman Young, and the leaders in the suburbs. As a young driver—heading into the city along Woodward Avenue (see about any song by Bob Seger about cars)—I was really taken aback by the fortifications in commercial strip malls and really floored by burnt out houses in the neighborhoods. I started to understand this city by reading a classic of urban studies, The Origin of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Segrue. If you want to read a book that reveals the struggle African Americans faced when moving north—perhaps over optimistically thinking they were leaving behind the constraints of the Jim Crow South—this book will show you much more subtle, but equally disempowering, forms of discrimination. Segrue takes on a common view in Detroit, namely that the five days of rioting in 1967 were the beginning of the end. He shows instead that they were the culmination of decades of oppression. The raid on the blind pig bar by the Detroit police (who had at the time a pattern of police brutality toward communities of color) was simply a spark igniting combustable grievances. (Nice reflection on this from 2017 in the Los Angeles Times at: https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-detroit-riots-20170721-story.html.)

A classic image of the riots is below.

Source: https://allthatsinteresting.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/detroit-riots-67-crop.jpg

This summer, given what was happening on the streets of America (and right now in Kenosha), I suggested to incoming students in an urbanism reading club that we read Segrue. In the midst of that, Pete Saunders published a blog in which he personalized the dynamics of the city and the intergenerational impact of structural racism. It can be found here: http://cornersideyard.blogspot.com/2020/06/repost-personal-segregation-story.html. What he discussed were the aspirations of his family, the impact of a discriminatory real estate industry and how practices (like redlining, blockbusting and steering) reduced demand for very solid housing, gutted market values, and set in motion a cycle that destined these neighborhoods for deterioration, disinvestment, and reduced public services. But when we talk about cities like Detroit in America, rather than identify and try to rectify the system, we have blamed the people—turning urban decline into a politicized debate over morality, willingness to work, class and underclass, rather than an informed discussion about how America structures opportunity—denying some and enabling others.

I often feel despair about this. After all, the state in which I grew up (Michigan) still has the dubious distinction of having some of the most segregated metro areas in the USA. There are a couple of measures for this, but often we (planners) rely on the “dissimilarity index.” This index measures the distributions of two groups across neighborhoods in a city or metro area. If we were perfectly distributed the score would be 0; if completely segregated the score is 100. (Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California has been providing this data and analysis for ages. See: http://censusscope.org/.)

Michigan is bad. (Apologies this is 2010 Census data—let’s see what we learn from 2020, if we get reliable data.). I just grabbed the top 10 cities in the ranking. Flint (remember lead in the water, a crisis under former Governor Snyder) has a dissimilarity index of 76.8; Saginaw 76.4, Detroit 63.3. Complete segregation is 100. These are highly segregated places.

In my planning classes, I try (as do my fabulous colleagues) to ensure our students really grapple with this and the role that planning has played in perpetuating inequality.

Sometimes you do wonder if you are getting through. And then a student sends you something that makes your pessimism fall away.

That happened this year when Alexandra Poses, one of our undergraduate planning students who just graduated in Spring 2020, sent me the following essay. She said she wrote it to explain to her family why people were on the streets for BLM.

Alex, thank you. You make being a professor a joy. Follow link.

Last Updated:  14 September 2020