By Bill McGraw is a reporter for Bridge Magazine, a Detroit Journalism Cooperative partner
Though their sprawling region had long wrestled with segregation, and racial violence has dominated national headlines this summer, about half of all metro Detroit residents say local race relations today are generally good, according to an exclusive new poll by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.
Seven-in-10 metro Detroiters say they believe race relations in the greater Detroit area are getting better or at least have stayed the same over the past 10 years, the poll found, a significant contrast from results of recent national polls, in which most Americans say race relations nationally are getting worse.
Despite the relative optimism, the poll also reveals a significant chasm between metro Detroit’s white and black residents, especially when it comes to the ways African Americans perceive how race continues to affect their daily lives, from suspicious looks directed their way to being unfairly stopped by police.
More than half (57 percent) of blacks interviewed said they have had an experience within the past year in which a person acted suspicious of them because of their race. Only 8 percent of whites reported a similar race-based incident. And one-in-three African Americans reported being unfairly stopped by police in the past 12 months, again, they said, because of their skin color.
Though generally positive on overall progress on race relations in the region, African Americans are slightly more pessimistic than whites in the local poll. While 56 percent of whites say race relations are currently good, 47 percent of blacks feel that way.
A region evolves
Reynolds Farley, a retired University of Michigan sociology professor and expert on the city’s racial demographics, said one reason local blacks and whites appear to be getting along better might be that metro Detroiters of all races and ethnic groups are increasingly working, living and socializing together.
“I think it’s easier for people in the Detroit area to have some familiarity with race relations than people in a state like Maine, where there’s virtually no black population at all and the information comes from seeing violent incidents on television,” Farley said.
“We have a higher degree of integration in metro Detroit, believe it or not, than a lot of metropolitan areas.”
Tama Smith, a 57-year-old white woman from Livonia who was part of the survey, said in a follow-up interview that she based her belief that race relations are improving on what she sees when she visits Detroit.
“The feeling I get in Detroit — it seems like a much closer community,” she said. “Black and white people hanging out together in the casinos, Greektown, sporting events.”
By large margins, metro Detroiters say the region has made progress in race relations since the violence of 1967, which devastated large swaths of the city 49 years ago this week, altering the course of Detroit’s future and changing the city’s image in the eyes of the world.
Dozens of cities across the United States were hit by disorders that summer, though Detroit’s was by far the most serious in terms of lives lost – 43 – injuries and damage. People in the poll are split on how Detroit has recovered from that summer compared with other cities; about four in 10 overall say Detroit’s recovery has been worse.
The poll, of 600 Macomb, Oakland and Wayne County residents, was conducted by the Lansing-based EPIC-MRA survey-research firm from July 14-19, during the ongoing national furor over police shootings of African-American civilians, and retaliatory attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
The survey’s sponsor was the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a major funder of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, which includes The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, Detroit public radio station WDET and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.
Metro Detroit residents were also asked about the progress (or lack of it) the region has made in housing, education and other issues that contributed to the despair and anger in the Detroit’s African-American community in 1967. The answer to those poll questions will be released in future DJC articles.
A long view on race
According to the poll, fewer than three-in-10 metro Detroiters believe race relations are getting worse in their region, a significant difference from a New York Times/CBS poll earlier this July, in which six in 10 Americans overall said race relations nationally were deteriorating.
Another national survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this summer also found Americans more pessimistic than metro Detroiters. Pew, like the New York Times, found six-in-10 African Americans believe race relations are generally bad; 45 percent of whites agreed.
In the local poll, fewer than three-in-10 African Americans and only three-in-10 whites said they believe race relations in metro Detroit are generally bad.
The poll found that while black and white respondents agree race relations are an important issue, neither group put race at the top of their societal concerns. By a wide margin, the people surveyed ranked two other areas ‒ education along with crime, drugs and violence ‒ as the region’s most critical issues.
Race joined the economy and jobs as issues on a second tier of priority, though African Americans, Arab Americans and Hispanics placed slightly more importance in bettering race relations than whites?
Notably, a majority of black and white metro residents said that black Detroiters have made progress on economic conditions and jobs since 1967. In fact, as the DJC previously reported, the city’s poverty and unemployment rates are worse today than at the time of the disturbances.
Farley, the demographics expert, predicted the lack of jobs will continue to be an obstacle to improved race relations in Detroit, a city whose downtown core is buzzing with new businesses and development as its overwhelmingly black and impoverished neighborhoods outside downtown struggle.
“We once had in the Detroit area a stable black middle class based on the auto industry jobs and other auto industry jobs,” Farley noted. “And those jobs are still around, but they are far less numerous, and as a result, the overall economic status of blacks has hardly improved in the last 30 or 40 years.”
“How do you create more jobs for people who have moderate level of skill?”
Two worlds, separate and unequal
But the hopefulness found in parts of the metro Detroit poll is tempered by the findings of how race continues to play a painful role in the daily lives of many African Americans.
Sixty-five percent of blacks polled said their race makes it harder to succeed in life, though slightly more than four in 10 of the African Americans said they had not personally experienced discrimination in recent years.
Still, large numbers of black residents say they have experienced negative encounters because of their race even within the past year, including people treating them as if they are not smart because of their skin color.
Seven-in-10 African Americans said they believe blacks are treated less fairly than whites while applying for a loan or mortgage, and a similar number said discrimination plays a role in restaurants, the workplace or in searching for a good job. Strikingly, and by large margins, whites were less likely to say blacks receive more negative treatment.
In keeping with Farley’s theory that proximity eases racial strains, metro Detroiters offered generally sunny views of workplace harmony. When asked to describe how people of other races treat them at work, nearly 70 percent of African Americans, 64 percent of whites and 75 percent of Hispanics and Arab Americans agreed that relations were very or somewhat friendly.
Epic-MRA President Bernie Porn noted several reasons for cautious local optimism generally on race relations – Detroit has emerged from bankruptcy, the central city is booming, and mostly black Detroit elected to look past race by electing a white mayor, Mike Duggan, in 2013.
“That speaks to a more positive view of racial issues,” Porn said of Duggan’s election. “Things have changed. People are very positive about the direction of Detroit in our surveys.”
Shirley Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit Inc., the racial justice coalition formed immediately after the violence 49 years ago, said she wasn’t surprised to see a different assessment of progress on race from Detroit-area residents.
“I think this community has really worked harder at getting to know people who are different and getting to know them. Worked harder at it because I believe folks have felt we needed to work harder.”
Another factor could be demographic trends: black Detroiters continue to move to the suburbs, which are far more integrated than they were 20 years ago, a development underscored by the establishment of an NAACP chapter this summer by black and white residents of the increasingly diverse Grosse Pointes, for decades a nearly all-white stronghold bordered by Detroit on two sides.
Add to that whites trickling into Detroit to live and work, a reversal of a 60-year-old trend of white flight that resulted in Detroit being more than 80 percent African American and 12 percent white. That flight produced the most unusual demographics in big-city America: All other major cities have a much more balanced mix of races and ethnic groups, with generally less acrimony between city and suburbs.
While many metro Detroiters in the poll said race relations have improved since the violence 49 years ago, it is difficult to compare sentiments today precisely with the way southeast Michigan residents felt five decades ago.
Sidney Fine, the late University of Michigan history professor whose 1989 “Violence in the Model City” is an influential book on the riot, wrote the difficulty arises because pollsters of that era used different samples of people and asked different questions.
In June 1968, one survey of Detroiters found that 42 percent of black respondents and 42 percent of whites thought the two races had grown “closer together” in the year since the riot.
Two decades later, another survey found 59 percent of blacks and 47 percent of whites felt the races were “closer together.”
Writing in the late 1980s, Fine concluded: “Detroit remained a racially polarized community twenty years after the great riot.”
With this new survey, there are signs that Detroit and the region that surrounds it has made halting progress in the ensuing years.
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.