Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit

Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit

Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit

Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit

Synopsis

In the wake of the Civil War, many white northern leaders supported race-neutral laws and anti-discrimination statutes. These positions helped amplify the distinctions they drew between their political economic system, which they saw as forward-thinking in its promotion of free market capitalism, and the now vanquished southern system, which had been built on slavery. But this interest in legal race neutrality should not be mistaken for an effort to integrate northern African Americans into the state or society on an equal footing with whites. During the Great Migration, which brought tens of thousands of African Americans into Northern cities after World War I, white northern leaders faced new challenges from both white and African American activists and were pushed to manage race relations in a more formalized and proactive manner.
The result was northern racial liberalism: the idea that all Americans, regardless of race, should be politically equal, but that the state cannot and indeed should not enforce racial equality by interfering with existing social or economic relations. In Managing Inequality, Karen R. Miller examines the formulation, uses, and growing political importance of northern racial liberalism in Detroit between the two World Wars. Miller argues that racial inequality was built into the liberal state at its inception, rather than produced by antagonists of liberalism. Managing Inequality shows that our current racial system--where race neutral language coincides with extreme racial inequalities that appear natural rather than political--has a history that is deeply embedded in contemporary governmental systems and political economies.

Excerpt

On September 9, 1935, the Detroit Housing Commission began tearing down condemned buildings in the heart of the city’s largest black neighborhood. the fifteen square blocks, which were 95 percent African American in a city that was only 7 percent black, had the highest proportion of black residents in Detroit. Before the clearance began, the city held a “Demolition Ceremony” and invited Eleanor Roosevelt to be the principal speaker. Between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators, a mix of white and black Detroiters, listened to the First Lady deliver a fiveminute speech in front of the vacated home of Mrs. Rosella Jackson. Roosevelt declared that the Depression had piqued Americans’ interest in poverty and inspired magnanimous public efforts like this one. the crowd cheered and applauded for the First Lady. a group of African American children from the Brewster Community Center performed a dance. Five-year-old Geraldine Walker, whose home was going to be torn down in the slum clearance, presented Roosevelt with a marigold. At ceremony’s end, Roosevelt waved her handkerchief, signaling the destruction of the first condemned house on the fifteen-block site.

Three years later, after the condemned buildings had been cleared and the Brewster Homes, Detroit’s first public housing project, stood in their place, a crowd of African Americans convened in front of the new buildings, this time as protesters. These demonstrators were pushing city officials to hire an all-black staff for the new, segregated facility. Brewster Homes would accept only black tenants, but the city had hired white staff to work at the complex and allowed white business owners to set up shops in its storefronts. Across town, the Parkside Homes, which would open the same day, were entirely white. Black staff would not be hired, and black proprietors would not be permitted to open businesses in its storefronts. the Afro-American Institute, a black protest . . .

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