The Origins of the Urban Crisis

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas Sugrue

            Few questions about 20th century US history perplex and divide historians and social scientists more than the origins of white flight and urban decay. As Thomas Sugure points out, traditionally this question is addressed through three different – but sometimes interrelated – interpretative schemes. The first argues that these tragic outcomes are a product of the 1960s cultural and racial revolution. The various revolutions of the 60s – racial, sexual, etc. – and their excesses produced a “backlash” from the silent majority of Americans who saw things moving too fast and traditional values being challenged and thus fled in droves to the safety of the suburbs, leaving nothing but decay and economic ruin for those (mostly African-Americans) left behind. The second argument traces the origin of these problems to economic change and the financial disasters of the 1960s and 1970s  – stagflation, the oil crisis, globalization, and off-shoring – which divested the industrial heart of urban post-War economic explosion and left nothing but woe in its wake. The final scheme locates the decline of urban America in a “culture of poverty” that grew among the poor – especially African-Americans. This “culture of poverty” argument traces the origins of chronic urban poverty to the collapse of traditional family structure and values– i.e. increasing out of wet lock births, reliance on government support, etc.[1]

In The Origins of the Urban Crisis Thomas Sugrue seeks to cut through the intellectual knot that is “underclass” debate by plumping pre-history of urban decline. Urban decline and decay, in Sugrue’s telling, began not with the economic disasters of the 1970s but in the boom times that are often heralded as the high point of American industrialization and prosperity. Economic disinvestment in cities began as early as the late 1940s and was evident by the 1950s, yet was masked by the post-War boom. Thus the economic disasters of later decades only exasperated preexisting fault lines; they made a bad situation worse but did not create it. By the famously lean times of the 1970s the problems of the American industrial economy were structural, not contingent.

These changes created a new class of people – a “deproletarianization” which removed a growing number of urban people entirely from traditional labor markets. This “deproletarianization” of the poor was new in that in previous decades the lowest wrung of society were still connected to the labor market, despite occasionally giving up on looking for work. With post-war divestment even this tenuous relationship was severed. Large segments of urban society simply were unable to find work and gave up searching for it.

This story has an extra tragic dimension when Sugrue highlights the racial aspect of this story. The false spring of post-war industrial prosperity coincided with the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South to urban North in search for jobs. But those jobs were largely a phantom and newly arriving African-Americans faced preexisting Northern white racism. The fresh influx of African-Americans competing for increasingly scares jobs, along the drive for white ethics to ingrate themselves into “mainstream” Americana made racism worse and led to segregation and white flight to the suburbs. As Sugrue puts it, “[t]he combination of deindustrialization, white flight, and hardening ghettoization proved devastating.”[2] This perfect storm was not a product of the overreach of 60s reform but was present from day one – in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sugrue stresses the importance politics and policy to this story; federal highway policy encouraged investment in non-urban spaces, federal housing policy encouraged suburbanization for whites and segregated urban housing for blacks, government assistance programs favored whites. This racist, anti-urban policy landscape was not a product backlash in the late 60s and 70s but was present from the beginning – at the heart of New Deal reform. Later reform efforts worked along lines established in the New Deal and the post-war period. Despite real victories for anti-racism and the growing political clout of African-Americans, the backlash against attempts at equality was there at the start and, overtime, policy reinforced inequality. Politics and policy favored white and suburban and degraded the urban and black.

Overall, Sugrue successfully cuts the “underclass” knot. By pushing the narrative back, he causes us to think of the structural origins of urban decay and inequality and challenges the tired debate over the role of “culture.” There is a tragic sense of inevitability that is impossible to escape after putting down Sugrue’s powerfully argued book. If white backlash and urban disinvestment was present from day one, was there ever a hope for America’s urban spaces? The answer seems to be, perhaps not.

TIE-IN: Sugure shares much of his analysis with Judith Stein’s Running Steel, Running America. Despite their differences Sugrue & Stein share may core similarities (especially in the importance of politics and policy). However, Sugrue stresses the importance of white backlash to the story while Stein places the blame purely in the hands of policymakers and politicians. Any answer on 20th politics will need to synthesize the two.

[1] Sugrue positions himself in this debate in: Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detriot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 4.

[2] Ibid, 8.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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