Devastation

Mar 23, 2011

Detroit expected to get grim news from the U.S. Census bureau. But the results are, in fact, far worse than expected. They paint a picture of urban devastation unlike any in our nation’s history, a snapshot of the depopulation of a major American city.

Consider this: Since the Republican National Convention in 1980, Detroit has lost half a million people. In the thirty years before that, it lost even more -- another seven hundred thousand.

For years, the term “white flight” had been synonymous with what was happening.  Today, it’s mostly about black flight. The black population of Detroit declined by more than one hundred and eighty-five thousand people during the last decade.

What that indicates is that the middle class of both races has given up on the city, in large part because the schools are perceived as being so bad. There have been a number of stories in recent months speculating that, for the first time, the census would find that the percentage of Detroiters who are white was increasing.

Optimists believed that the city was attracting a new generation of young urban pioneers, who were returning to Detroit from the suburbs, living in lofts and creating an artistic and urbane lifetstyle.

The census shows that this was a complete fantasy. Sure, there may be a few kids doing those things. There are also a few people who vote for the Socialist Workers’ party. But both groups are statistically insignificant. Nearly half of what white population remained in Detroit in 2000 vanished over the next decade.

There are now only about fifty-five thousand people in Detroit who identify themselves as white. Sixty years ago, when the city celebrated its 250th anniversary, that figure was one point six million.

That means that more than ninety-five percent of the white population has disappeared.  That’s not to say that Detroit’s troubles are solely due to the fact that the whites left. In fact, one-quarter of the black population left over the last decade as well.

But the disappearing Caucasians and the census returns from the suburbs tell another story that most of us don’t want to hear: Integration just doesn’t seem to work, at least when it comes to where we choose to live. My friend, the columnist Desiree Cooper, wryly defines integration as that period of time between when the first black family moves in and the last white one moves out.

The census seems to indicate that is sadly true. Southfield, nine percent black in 1980, is seventy percent black today. Highland Park, once a mostly white enclave, is now ninety-three percent black.  Twenty minutes away are Oakland County communities like South Lyon, where blacks are still less than two percent of the population.

Michigan’s largest single city is now largely a ruin, with a population barely more than what it was a century ago. Economically, it is hard to see how Detroit can be viable on its own. Nor can I see how our state can prosper until we do something about this.

We need, plainly, some model for metropolitan government. Where we may choose to live doesn’t really matter. That we all have at least minimal functioning services does. That’s essential, if we are ever to be a prosperous state again.