How did metro Detroit get so segregated? David Freund has answers

October 5, 2011
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That Detroit is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country is hardly news. How that came to be is rarely explored. Or what can be done about it. Or the full extent of its ramifications.

David M.P. Freund

To that end, urban scholar David M.P. Freund speaks a Marygrove College on Friday. The title: “Marketing the ‘Free Market’: Public Policy and Racial Segregation in Metropolitan Detroit.” That’s a similar construct to the title of his award-winning* book 2007 book Colored Property: State Policy & White Racial Politics in Suburban America, which explores how the ground rules of racial segregation came to be coded in terms of markets, property, citizenship, etc.

In anticipation of his Friday talk, we asked Freund for a few thoughts on the relevance of that past to the present. By the way, he knows metro Detroit. The associated professor of history at the University of Maryland received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and used metro Detroit as a case study for Colored Property.

Here’s what he had say:

Regarding the importance of this history to metro Detroit: The Detroit region’s experience is part of a larger dynamic that is widely misunderstood and thus misrepresented in current debates about the ongoing economic crisis and its particularly devastating impact on communities of color.  In the popular imagination, the growth of an affluent and predominantly suburban middle class after World War II was simply a product of free market forces, and it was federal “meddling” with the market in more recent decades that led to the current crisis.  Fannie Mae is often cast as villain.  Yet the historical record reveals a very different story.

The federal government actively subsidized homeownership and suburban growth since the 1940s.  Indeed it was much more generous in its subsidies in the early decades than it would be later on. And in that earlier period it explicitly endorsed and promoted racial exclusion and segregation.  The result was that a generation of whites received significant federal help joining the “homeowning” class, and did so on very safe terms (stable, low-interest, fixed rate and federally insured mortgages).  It was only later, once the Civil Rights movement forced the government to promote fair housing, that federal programs actively supported widespread homeownership for minorities (as well as for single women).  But it did so just as it was deregulating the market for housing credit (for a variety of reasons), thus making that market far more prone to risk and instability.  And that’s the housing market that collapsed in the last five years, taking — not surprisingly — a disproportionate number of minority homeowners down with it.

In short, the history of federal involvement in metropolitan housing and development markets clearly documents federal culpability for the mess that we are in, but a kind of culpability that most commentators choose to ignore or simply don’t know about.  If federal programs helped create enormous inequities and contributed to risky behavior that undermined the economy, then there is every reason to call upon the federal government to help ameliorate the current situation. But, of course, its easier to blame supposedly “unsophisticated” or “unqualified” borrowers than to highlight a long history of federal subsidies for the middle class, subsidies that actively wrote generations of Americans out of full participation in the “American dream.”

Freund’s talk, free and open to the public is at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, in Madame Cadillac Building, Marygrove College, 8425 West McNichols Road, Detroit. It will be followed by a discussion and book-signing. The event is put on by the he Marygrove College Institute for Detroit Studies as part of the Defining Detroit series.

* Colored Property received the 2008 Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, the 2007 Kenneth Jackson Book Award from the Urban History Association, and the 2009 Urban Affairs Association Best Book Award.