I am a sucker for decline-and-fall narratives, mostly, I think, because I am endlessly fascinated by how things that seemed permanent and invincible lose those qualities — and, specifically, the choices people make that hasten or slow the winding-down, which is inevitable in all things human.
The Latin words speramus meliora and resurget cineribus mean, respectively, “we hope for better things” and “it will rise from the ashes.” They are inscribed on the flag of the City of Detroit. One thinks of them while reading Jon Chait’s post-bankruptcy analysis of his hometown’s catastrophe. Chait, who’s from there, says that Detroit’s rise and fall tells the story of 20th century America. Excerpts:
Everything that happened in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century happened in and around Detroit, but moreso. The enormous mobilization of industry during World War II (“Detroit is winning the war,” said Joseph Stalin in 1945); that industry’s creation of the world’s first mass-affluent working class, a place where families lacking high school diplomas routinely had nice things; and finally the collapse of that economic paradise and the racialization of American politics that split the New Deal coalition.
Ze’ev Chafets, a native of the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, borrowed “Devils Night” for the title of his 1991 book about the city and its political culture. He compared Detroit to a liberated colony, whose politics was defined by continued resentment of the departed white occupier. White and black politics were locked into mutually reinforcing pathologies. Whites fled the city, blamed blacks for its destruction and, in many cases, gloated in its failures. Hostility toward the white suburbs shaped Detroit’s politics, which frequently amounted to race-to-the-bottom demagogic contests to label the opposing candidate a secret tool of white interests, with the predictable result on the quality of government. The worse Detroit got, the more whites hated and feared, fueling black racial paranoia, which made the city worse still.
Chait goes on to say that nearly all the whites left the city, and were followed by the black middle class. You will remember the AP story from not long ago about how frightened and angry black middle class residents of Detroit suburbs are now that the poor black people they left Detroit to get away from are moving their way. Stories like that do not fit the preferred narrative, because they reveal that the fissures in American life are not only racial, but related to class, and to culture. The three are inextricable.
The fact of post-1960s American life seems to be that nobody who can afford to move will live around poor people, because too many of them are violent, anti-social, and ruin the schools. You can call it racism if you want, but what do you call it when black people who want a safe, stable, boring place in which to raise their kids move away from those who would deny them that? What do you call it when white people who want the same thing move away from poor white people who are lost in a world of broken families, drugs, petty crime, and aimlessness?
The thing I don’t understand is that it wasn’t always this way. Both of my parents grew up in rural poverty, as did most of their friends of their generation. To hear my folks talk about those times, things were hard — much harder than today — and they suffered. But most people still had a sense of order, and the kind of moral chaos that is so closely associated with poverty today was much less prevalent back then. People were poor, but they had a sense of respect for themselves and a moral code that they internalized, and that kept things from falling apart. Understand, I’m not trying to romanticize this time, and certainly not trying to romanticize poverty. What mystifies me is why people in those days were so much more oppressed by poverty and lack of opportunity than the poor of today, but they didn’t seem so morally and spiritually impoverished.
Anyway, Chait concludes:
It’s hard to imagine any plausible way to pull the city out of its death spiral. New jobs would help, but there’s nothing compelling the workers who got those jobs to reside in the city. The conventional urban policy solutions never intersected with the reality of Detroit’s crisis. As Ed Glaeser points out, urban renewal centered on furnishing housing and transportation, both of Detroit had in excessive quantities. The city needed better governance and education.
So, why is Detroit so badly governed? Why are the schools so bad? Please don’t talk to me about how the Detroit schools lack for money. The city has recently spent at least $12,000 annually, and possibly as much as $15,000, per pupil — and still has one of the worst public school systems in America. Nearly half the population of Detroit is functionally illiterate, and only a quarter of the Detroit public school students graduate. You cannot have a modern American city with a population like that, at least not one that anybody who doesn’t have to live there wants to live in. Chait’s right: if you had a good job in Detroit, why would you choose to raise your family there? Would you really bet your future on Detroit? Would you sign a 30-year mortgage on a house in a city like that? It sounds harsh to put it that way, but these are the decisions individuals and families make that contribute to the rise or fall of a city.
Yes, the auto industry collapsed, but a purely materialist explanation for the collapse of Detroit can’t possibly suffice. What happened? What cultural factors are in play? I’m not asking rhetorically; I really want to know, because I sense that Chait is right about the rise and fall of Detroit telling the story of our nation in the 20th century. Something, or some things, made those middle-class white and black people lose confidence in the city, and leave the city to people unable to govern themselves. What?