Racial Liberalism: The Case of Interwar Detroit

Against the Current, No. 180, January/February 2016

Karen R. Miller

THIS PROJECT BEGAN in the Shaker Heights, Ohio of my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. A self-consciously liberal, affluent and integrated inner-ring suburb, Shaker Heights was known for its good schools, winding streets and anti-white-flight programs: low-interest loans designed to integrate neighborhoods, robust busing, and ordinances against blockbusting. But the city’s liberalism and its pro-integration policies did not eliminate segregation or stratification, even locally. In spite of busing, elementary schools in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods were majority white, and those that sat next to Cleveland were almost all Black. By high school, tracking by race and class was intense.

Available explanations felt inadequate: we were taught that racism was a relic left over from slavery, rooted in the American South, mostly a problem of the past, and already fading away. Or, it was a failing of individuals who had absorbed toxic ideas and needed them purged. Shaker Heights was certainly more integrated than neighboring towns, and as I later came to understand, its racial progressivism and limited residential integration were quite rare for suburban America. But contradictions remained between the racial liberalism it espoused and the persistence of inequalities in wealth and schooling, even very locally. Managing Inequality is my effort to understand why.

THE PARADOX AT the heart of contemporary racial politics is what sociologists and political scientists call “colorblind racism:” How is it that the United States is a country where racism is supposed to be politically, socially, and morally unacceptable yet simultaneously where inequalities are quite neatly organized along racial lines?

This is the racial system that we have now, where there are no formal legal distinctions among people based on race. Almost all of those are actually illegal (although as we well know, the civil rights victories of the 1960s and ’70s are being eroded). Racism is supposed to be morally and politically unacceptable, but somehow racial inequality persists.

I believe that colorblind racism has a history extending back further than we think and that understanding its longer history, and the ways it is connected to the history of American cities, can help us better understand the present. Turning to Detroit in order to explore when and how these ideas emerged, I found that, contrary to popular belief, colorblind language began to be used by white northerners in the early 20th century, as the northern cities were becoming interracial space. The political embrace of “colorblind language” was in part a tool for managing these spaces.

In Managing Inequality I examine the formulation, uses, and growing political importance of what I call “northern racial liberalism:” the notion 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.

This idea became popular among Detroit’s white liberal leaders during and immediately after the First World War and came to be consistently embraced by the majority of mainstream white politicians by the end of the 1920s. By the 1930s, as city leaders responded to the Great Depression and began to build the local New Deal infrastructure, northern racial liberalism had already come to shape their ideas, define their policies, and characterize their practices.

White northern leaders characterized the North as a place where modern forms of racial democracy could be and were already being practiced, in contrast to the backward and violent application of segregation in the Jim Crow South. At the same time, they supported and implemented policies that promoted racial inequality.

Although this may seem like an internal contradiction, it was not. Northern racial liberals certainly wanted to ease the political and economic consequences of racial stratification, but for many, their higher priority was to manage racial discord with an eye toward sustaining urban peace and building an urban environment conducive to “growth.” Theirs was a growth directed toward the expansion of existing corporations and thus their attendant relations of power.

The First World War is the beginning of significant Black growth in the city. The African-American population in Detroit was actually declining as a percentage of the overall population in the late 19th century, as global migration (principally from Europe, but also from Mexico, Latin America and the Middle East) significantly outpaced domestic migration to Detroit.

In 1914, all that changed. World War I cut Eastern Hemisphere migration to a trickle. Meanwhile, the demand for war workers in northern cities helped loosen some of the stranglehold that white southerners held over Black migration. By the end of World War I, a significant number of African Americans had moved to Detroit.

More than half a million African Americans moved from the South to the American North and West between 1914 and 1929. A significant number of southerners, both Black and white, ended up in Detroit during this period. This was also the era of the Roaring Twenties and onset of the Great Depression, which would be followed by the 1930s New Deal.

The northern urban histories that we had of those periods were often significantly segregated. I found that social histories of northern cities during this period often focused on their white ethnic residents or small African American enclaves. I wanted to see what it looked like to consider the ways that the city was becoming interracial, and to focus on struggles over the meanings of race and inclusion in this context.

The commonly held notion is that contemporary racial inequalities — those that exist today — are the legacy of slavery. In other words, racial inequalities are a remnant from our dramatically unequal past, where racial hierarchies were clear-cut and well accepted.* This popular story about the past has implications for how people think about race in the present.

This story suggests that things have been and will continue to get better because these old ideas are dying out, as old ideas do. It suggests that past systems of power relied on racial inequality, but the present political-economic system does not produce or reinforce racial inequality. Indeed, we believe that we value multiculturalism — and we do, in some ways. But the Detroit case shows how racial inequality persists because racism is always getting reinvented and repurposed for the contemporary world. In fact, it is this contemporary relevance of racism that makes it so powerful and so persistent.

Photos of industrial segregation in a Detroit automobile factory in the 1910s illustrate this point. While the North was supposed to be a haven for Black migrants — and in some important ways, it was — it was also a place that developed its own forms of racism and its own racial meanings. Industrial production was one realm where this really took hold.

Contradictions of Fordist Production

The introduction of the automated assembly line and its counterpart, an aggressive Americanization program for white workers by the beginning of World War I, was driven by the assumption that all workers were the same. The economic and political elite thought of workers as interchangeable cogs — indistinguishable pieces of a modern machine.

This Fordist ideology had a contradictory effect: it helped support the rhetoric of racial equality, since it assumed that individual workers should not be differentiated from each other based on their non-work-related identities. But in practice, while corporate leaders aggressively integrated their workforces by ethnicity in the 1910s as a strategy for disrupting workers’ potential for union organizing, they also sustained an equally passionate commitment to racial segregation, pushing Black workers into the worst jobs and into segregated areas of factories.

This important tension helps us understand the emergence of what I call northern racial liberalism, which is based on the same kind of contradiction: the language of sameness or equality, alongside the practices of segregation and hierarchy. So for bosses, workers were supposed to be interchangeable parts at the same time that racial segregation was still a useful tool for dividing workers and maintaining industrial power.

As illustrated here, inequalities are built on contemporary political and economic dynamics. My work is also an effort to show that the solution to racial inequality is not more tolerance. In other words, I reject the idea that racial outcomes will improve if we all learn to love each other. I argue instead that this is a distraction: The roots of racial inequality are not about individual prejudice, so our solutions cannot be about individual affect or structures of feeling.

Indeed, I argue that feelings about racial groups are often a product or effect of political economic relations within which racial ideas are embedded and from which they emerge. Promotions of “tolerance” can actually be tools for subduing real protests against inequalities. What we need is racial justice, not racial tolerance.

Let’s turn to Detroit and see how these questions play themselves out in the period that I’m interested in. How did people respond to this newly integrated terrain?

We know that African Americans worked to build community institutions. We also know that among whites, there were explicitly and violently racist responses to African Americans’ movement North. For example, the Ku Klux Klan became enormously popular in the urban North in the early 1920s, unleashing violence and terror directed toward Catholics, Jews and African Americans. Over 15,000 Klansmen marched through down Lansing’s Michigan Avenue on Labor Day 1924, many of whom made the trek from Detroit.

There has been a lot of great scholarship about these reactionary and explicitly racist responses to racial integration in northern cities. Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis focuses on a later (post-World War II through 1967) period, and there are a myriad of other examples. One of the premises of these narratives is that an aggressively racist conservatism undermined what was looking like a potentially racially progressive trajectory, one promoted by liberals.

But I have found two things: first, that white liberals — typified by Frank Murphy and Josephine Gomon, whom I discuss in the book — had far more ambivalence about racial justice than this premise suggests; and second, that retrogressive ideas about race were more embedded in the contradictory political economic ideology than we have previously understood.

White northern leaders increasingly embraced egalitarian ideas about racial difference, at the same time that they participated in managing cities that were becoming enclaves of racial segregation and inequality. Indeed, many of the social and political practices they implemented, in some cases counter to their intentions, promoted racial inequality.

We know less about this story, even though it has a lot to tell us about how race works now. So, the questions I pose are about how white liberals (both self-identified liberals, and those who absorbed the ideology of “northern racial liberalism”) responded to and managed their relationship to Detroit’s African Americans during the time when the city was just becoming an interracial space.

The language of racial equality became more and more popular during this time period. First white liberals, and then whites more generally, responded to the demands of Black activists who were putting pressure on prevailing ideas about race. Snow Flake Grigsby was one of the young Black activists I examine who participated in building a movement against segregation in Detroit’s workplaces and neighborhoods. Local activists like Grigsby pushed white leaders to embrace the language, if not the principles of equality.

Overall, there was a move in this period toward what we would all recognize as the language of racial liberalism. Racial equality as an ideal came to be embraced by a wider spectrum of Detroiters than we would expect. Sometimes whites’ embrace of these ideas was quite earnest and other times downright cynical.

Even those white men and women whom we identify as aggressively racist often denied that their segregationist impulses were rooted in negative ideas about African-American people. David Freund (Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America, University of Chicago Press, 2007) makes similar observations about the postwar period. He argues that the logic of economic rationalism (discourse about markets, property etc.) allowed whites to embrace racism without feeling personally culpable for it. I found something similar in this earlier period.

Racial equality came to be embraced as an abstract ideal, but what that meant remained hotly contested. For a majority of African Americans, claims about racial equality were synonymous with arguments for racial justice and full inclusion — although even justice and inclusion remained contested.

One part of my book explores debates among African-American men and women over these questions. Grigsby, for example in his 1933 pamphlet “An X-Ray Vision of Detroit,” worked hard to push African Americans toward a politics of confrontation, one that rejected alliances with white city leaders in favor of mass action.

Northern white liberals cast themselves as modern, progressive and forward-thinking, and used their support for African American rights and for racial equality to confirm this vision. Indeed, quite a few joined organizations like the NAACP and worked on building a language of interracial alliance. But for most white leaders, racial equality was more of an aspiration, something that they did not believe was realizable.

Indeed, they developed a language of gradualism to describe race relations. As growth liberals, committed to the capitalist expansion of the city’s economy, they were very interested in maintaining urban peace, which they saw as impossible if they supported challenges to racism too openly. This ambivalence put African American activists in a complicated position, because many wanted to ally themselves with white liberals, but remained skeptical of white gradualism. They were also unwilling to settle for a second-class citizenship, as junior partners for example in the New Deal coalition.

Race and Housing Policy

I want to turn to a discussion of two housing projects, one Black and one white, and explore how the federal promise that “better housing makes better citizens” played itself out in Detroit and contributed to the production of ideas about race and of the kinds of dynamics I am describing here.

On September 9, 1935 the Detroit Housing Commission began tearing down condemned buildings in the heart of the city’s largest Black neighborhood. The 15-square blocks, which were 95% African American in a city that was only 7% Black, had the highest proportion of Black residents in Detroit.

I used a map of Detroit from the 1930 election commission to show how the city made decisions about the siting of its first two housing projects: Brewster, which was exclusively Black, and Parkside, which was all white. Housing commission planners identified what they called the “East Side Blighted Area,” which overlapped perfectly with African-American residency. This identified the contours of the slum clearance project, which was sited on top of the most densely populated Black area.

The first 15-block section targeted for clearance had the highest proportion of Black residents; more than 96% of the 800 families who lived there were African American. Ten black families owned their own homes, and eleven white families did (an ownership rate of 1.2%). One-third, or about 250 of the Black families, and two of the white families, were on welfare.

This area included a high proportion of single men and women, as well as couples without children. While the average family size in the city was 4.4 people, it was only 2.8 among families in the “blighted area.” Almost no residents displaced by the slum clearance would be eligible for the low-income housing that would be built on the site. To qualify, families had to have at least one child and be headed by a married heterosexual couple.

Very few families that were large enough to qualify for the Brewster housing project would have been able to afford it. Rent in the new apartments would far exceed what residents of the area had been paying. Designers and supporters of the slum clearance project thus suggested that the way to eliminate blight and reduce poverty in Detroit was to remove the poorest African Americans from the center of the city.

Josephine Gomon, director of Detroit’s Housing Com­mission, explained that the federally funded apartments were “being put up for the benefit of industrious, low-income families, not necessarily for the people now living in the slum areas.”

By replacing slums with low-cost housing, housing commissioners promised that they would help uplift and beautify the majority-Black area. For them, the key to urban renewal was the removal of these undesirable elements, replacing them with a clean built environment that housed the best kind of working-class African Americans.
African Americans, as a group, were cautiously optimistic about the program although many had deep reservations. Theodore Barnes, for example, a regular columnist in the Black weekly Detroit Tribune, concluded that the program could only work if Black Detroiters were vigilant about ensuring that their rights were respected. Others agreed, cautioning that the project would only benefit African Americans if “put into effect without racial discrimination.”

Working-class African Americans were far less sanguine, especially those who faced eviction to make way for the project. Their lives would be turned upside down with no clear benefit to them.

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 five-minute speech in front of the vacated home of Mrs. Rosella Jackson.

Mrs. Jackson provides a good example of someone who was not enthusiastic about slum clearance. Since the home she rented was tapped to be the first destroyed, she received support for her move, which was covered in the newspaper. But she was not enthusiastic about it. When asked by a reporter whether she felt a sense of pride about her participation in a historic event, she responded tepidly.

Mrs. Jackson wasn’t sure that she would be able to find suitable housing in another neighborhood and worried that her rent would go up significantly. She was also, she reported, not looking forward to the disruption in her and her small family’s routine.

Clearly, in her remarks, Eleanor Roosevelt did not highlight such concerns. Instead, she 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, and a group of African-American children from the Brewster Community Center performed a dance.

Five-year-old Geraldine Walker, whose home was also going to be torn down in the slum clearance, presented Roosevelt with a marigold. A photograph of Geraldine Walker and Eleanor Roosevelt circulated widely throughout the nation. (In fact, it hangs on the wall at LaGuardia community college, where I teach in Queens). It captures this well-intentioned but ultimately problematic dynamic.

It portrayed a young, small Geraldine Walker holding Roosevelt’s hands and listening intently to the First Lady. Roosevelt, who had bowed down to Walker’s level, seemed to be imparting kind advice to the young girl. In this image, Walker was cast as defenseless, sweet, innocent, and inactive — someone who absolutely deserved help and would graciously accept support. Although handing Roosevelt a marigold, her gesture was lost in an image that emphasized Roosevelt’s activity and generosity, and Walker’s passive gratitude.

At ceremony’s end, Roosevelt waved her handkerchief, signaling the destruction of the first condemned house on the fifteen-block site.

The message in this staged photograph implied that white liberal leaders and African Americans should sustain a clearly imbalanced relationship whereby white leaders provided vulnerable African Americans with the resources they needed and African Americans were grateful recipients. This image erased the protest that African Americans had been waging for years as they fought to get the city to address their needs.

Black Detroiters were not receiving these resources simply because white liberals intuitively recognized and acted on social need. Instead, their victories were a product of Black political power, built over years of struggle against persistent, state-supported inequality. African Americans had helped to push white liberals to respond to some of their concerns.

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.

Black activists’ protests over the inequities at Brewster Homes interrupted the white liberal narrative, exposing the limitations of liberal policies guided by a logic of magnanimity. Instead of accepting resources as passive recipients, they recast themselves as political participants with a self-conscious project aimed at building a racially egalitarian city.

Black activists presented this alternate image to passersby by holding picket signs and petitions as they fought to reconfigure their relationship to white liberals and their place within the urban political sphere. These protesters were challenging the unequal distribution of resources at the same time that they were calling into question the basic assumptions upon which that allocation was premised: northern racial liberalism.

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 organization, had attempted to negotiate with local authorities to hire only Black workers and restrict businesses to Black ownership at Brewster. When negotiations reached a stalemate, the institute collected hundreds of signatures and called for daily protests, demanding that the city either open up jobs and stores at Parkside to African Americans, or to restrict jobs and store ownership at Brewster to African Americans.

Facing considerable pressure from the African American activists, the city’s mayor Richard Reading endorsed the plan to hire an all-Black staff to work at Brewster. However, Detroit’s city council vetoed the proposal. Black residents continued to fight for an all-Black staff and guarantees that Black merchants would have priority for Brewster’s storefronts.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s demolition ceremony promoted white liberal leaders’ understanding of the promises of the New Deal for African Americans, whom they saw as passive, if deserving. The Afro-American Institute’s protests three years later illustrate the limits of liberal sympathy and good intentions in the face of ingrained social structures and material inequality.

The Hastings Street Business District was Detroit’s main African-American shopping street, and this held up the project for at least a year. Assessed valuations on Hastings Street were much higher than city officials wanted to pay, so the area was not exactly the low-valued slum they imagined. Storefronts were often white-owned, but businesses were valuable and some of them owned by African Americans.

The other housing project that was opened literally on the same day, Parkside Homes was all-white, and unlike Brewster, sited in an area of the city that was not very developed. Only whites could own stores at Parkside, and they would not hire African Americans. So while the housing program provided African Americans with important access to new resources, it did so under the conditions of segregation, and in a manner that extended and defended segregated urban geographies and even workspaces — since the projects themselves were sites of employment.

Slum Clearance and Josephine Gomon

Upon acting mayor John Smith’s recommendation, housing commissioners in 1933 hired Josephine Gomon to direct the commission and oversee its daily operations. Gomon, one of the city’s most vocal supporters of slum clearance and low-cost housing, believed that the success or failure of the project “as far as public opinion is concerned” would be based on how well it maintained residential segregation.

Gomon felt “a personal responsibility . . . that the character of no neighborhood in Detroit will be changed as a result of this shifting of population.” Successful relocation, she explained, meant moving African-American residents out of the cleared area and into other Black neighborhoods. Thus, she believed that the only way that African Americans would be able to get the resources they deserved was through a program that encouraged, rather than undermined, the increasing residential segregation of the city.

Josephine Gomon was a northern racial liberal with a genuine interest in the welfare of Black residents. She believed that the state could participate in providing a more equal playing field for African Americans in northern cities, and she worked to ensure they received public resources. By the middle of the 1930s, she was one of the city’s most prominent liberals. She first became active in local politics in the 1920s when she helped found Planned Parenthood and became president of Detroit’s chapter, a position that brought her into close contact with Black and white social service providers.

Like many of Detroit’s prominent white liberals, Gomon was comfortably middle-class and circulated in a largely segregated world of educated white professionals. She majored in engineering in college and taught math and physics before she had children with her husband, an engineer and businessperson. Her most important political connection was to mayor Frank Murphy, with whom she became close friends when they were both undergraduates at the University of Michigan.

Gomon, a Democrat and opponent of Prohibition, sustained close ties to some of the city’s prominent politicians, including the liberal Republican senator James Couzens, with whom she kept up a correspondence. She was an enthusiastic supporter of racial tolerance and African-American inclusion, which she saw as centrally important to her politics and as a marker of her true commitment to liberalism.

For example, she was quite active in the Ossian Sweet defense (the Black homeowner charged with murder in fending off a white mob in 1925). A regular fixture in the courtroom during the Sweet trials, she became close friends with one of Sweet’s attorney, Clarence Darrow. African Americans, Darrow claimed, would recognize her as someone who “has a thorough understanding of the negro, has no race prejudice, and they could rely upon her as they could on few people.”

In the late 1920s, as Gomon and Murphy worked to build a liberal political core in Detroit, they saw African American inclusion as an element of their politics. In 1929, for example, Gomon organized a club for Detroiters interested in The Nation and invited white and Black liberals to attend events. One enthusiast described the club’s interracial dinners as a “crystallizing point for liberal opinion.”

Like the white urban liberals with whom she organized, Gomon embraced the language of race neutrality, invited African Americans into the liberal coalitions she was building, and won respect from Black activists. In 1930, Gomon worked on Frank Murphy’s campaign for mayor. When he won office, she became his executive secretary, chaired the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, helped the administration establish its emergency relief programs, and developed plans to apply for money for slum clearance and low-cost housing from the federal housing program.

Gomon built connections with Black leaders and visibility among politically engaged Africans. For example, when she ran for Common Council in 1933, John Dancy, the executive secretary of Detroit’s Urban League, enthusiastically supported her candidacy and spoke highly of her interest in Black Detroiters. In November 1934, Gomon called on Dancy for advice about how to manage “some problems facing the Housing Commission” and invited him to a private meeting to discuss her concerns.

As head of the Housing Commission, Gomon was well respected by Black leaders for hiring both skilled and unskilled Black workers into a range of jobs and for making sure they received fair wages. She spoke at the “Economic Life of the Negro” conference in 1934 at the Lucy Thurman YWCA, highlighting the role of the Housing Commission in hiring otherwise unemployed African Americans.

However, Gomon saw direct engagement in battles over residential segregation as something that would weaken her legitimacy and, by extension, her program. For her, tolerating segregation as a necessary expedient that would allow resources to flow to an under-resourced community was not the same as promoting it. Thus, she believed in race neutrality at the same time that she helped implement segregation because she saw this Faustian bargain as the only option.

To Gomon, African Americans’ ability to access urban resources was a move toward racial equality. Addressing segregation simultaneously could undermine those successes and thus jeopardize the allocation of resources to Black people. Gomon believed that fighting for integration would cost her political leverage and thereby exhaust her ability to help African Americans in housing altogether.

White liberals’ unwillingness to confront segregation — even though it was rooted in their fears that disrupting the racial order would undermine their ability to extend benefits to Blacks or to build a more just state — would have important political and ideological consequences. Northern racial liberals distinguished between the material needs of African Americans and their needs for autonomy, respect and meaningful political power.

These liberals understood and sometimes fought enthusiastically for a more equitable distribution of state resources, but simultaneously shied away from a confrontation with the culture of racism that helped shape these material inequalities. In spite of their best intentions, this approach meant that white liberals were inviting African Americans into the New Deal coalition as passive recipients of state resources, relegated to separate quarters and isolated in the city’s increasingly segregated neighborhoods.

Northern racial liberals’ tolerance of segregation and simultaneous embrace of race-neutral discourse were rooted in a theory of race which assumed that white racism was destined to decline over time as Detroit became progressively more modern and cosmopolitan. For them, racism was a premodern and southern practice that northern cities would shed as they developed.

Thus, they believed that they could win segregated resources for African-American residents without contributing to the maintenance of racial disparities, since those disparities were in the process of eroding. But as we all know, this is not what happened.

Racial attitudes have shifted, and iron-clad racial exclusion has been significantly eliminated. We have Black presidents, generals, CEOs, anchormen, billionaires, models, superstars, journalists and so on. But comparative racial outcomes in the aggregate have generally not improved nearly as much. Tremendous racial wealth divides persist, and racial segregation is arguably more extreme than it’s ever been. Sites of integration are often transitional spaces.

So we saw in the 1950s, as white flight reshaped metropolitan areas, zones of transition could allow for integration. And now that largely white gentrification is refashioning urban space and desirability once again, the same real estate and governmental interests that promoted segregation in the suburbs are creating the conditions of possibility for majority-white and wealthy populations to push African Americans out of newly desirable urban neighborhoods.

January-February 2016, ATC 180