Anti-Racism Austerity Economy Housing & Community

White Supremacy and the Looting of Detroit

By Mike Kolhoff

The court has ruled, so the legalized looting of Detroit will go ahead as Governor Snyder has planned. The Emergency Manager has ordered the DIA to provide him with a list of the values of the many artworks in the institute. The city water works are also probably going to be sold, as well as city parks and anything else they can get a nickel for. We’ve heard they have even discussed selling all of the animals in the zoo.

But the people set-up by this ruling for the most egregious screwing are the city workers and retirees. The offer on the table is to pay retirees about.30 cents on the dollar. From the Detroit Free Press:

“But for a retiree counting on a modest annual pension of, say $30,000, the proposed cut would leave him or her with $4,800. Of all the once-proud city’s creditors, including banks, vendors and bondholders, retired workers are the least able to take the hit.”


“Orr already created a tsunami of controversy when he acknowledged late last month that billions of dollars worth of art that the city owns and has housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts are vulnerable to creditors. But he potentially could sell or privatize numerous other city assets, too, from public parks to operations of the city’s Water and Sewerage Department to sundry treasures found in some of Detroit’s other cultural institutions.”

Baltimore, Providence, Chicago, all are in financial situations similar to that of Detroit, yet no one is even considering bankruptcy. What’s different about Detroit? Detroit is in a state ruled by rightwing racist Teapublicans. The destruction of Detroit is a political project of these men, and their end goal is to strip the city of anything of value, to the point where they drive off the remaining population, and are then able to replace them with people more to their liking. In fact, the city that Detroit most resembles today is New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the same sort of shifty thieves and con artists did everything possible to drive off the population. The difference is between one catalyst being a storm, and the other being a storm of pure racism.

No one can appreciate the disaster unfolding in Detroit without addressing the fight against white supremacy and the struggle for social equality that provides its background. The assertion of white supremacy in Detroit is the underlying cause of the current economic and social destruction of the city.

The history of racial conflict in Detroit is traced by many politicians to the insurrection of 1967. In fact the events of 1967 were the crescendo of inter-racial warfare that had been burning hot and cold in Detroit since before World War One. The riot of 1863 was caused by racism and opposition to the military draft. But the 20th century began the real blood-letting. It was at this time that Detroit became a key destination for African-Americans leaving the Jim Crow south in the Great Migration.

In 1910 the black population of Detroit was 5741 people (1% of the total population).By 1920 that number had increased to 40,838. By 1930 that number had doubled, with African-American residents making up almost 8% of the city population. At the same time thousands of white southerners also migrated north to escape the endemic poverty of the rural south, as well as thousands of European immigrants fleeing the class system and oppression of the Old World.

In the 1920s the KKK made Detroit a stronghold (50% of the 40,000 members of the Michigan Klan lived in Detroit). In the 1930s, the white supremacist Black Legion made Detroit its headquarters. The increase in industrial production in the late 30s and early 1940s brought an additional influx of black Americans to Detroit, and likewise produced murderous race riots over housing and white workers objections to working with black workers on the assembly line. The 1943 riot lasted three days and resulted in 34 deaths, 25 of them African Americans, 17 of them killed by the police. 43 people died in the 1967 Detroit Insurrection, 33 of them African Americans, at least 26 killed by the police or the National Guard.

The struggle to maintain white supremacy in Detroit has been an ongoing project. White flight after the 1967 insurrection had a different character than similar events in other cities. Where whole neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities suffered from loss of economic investment, the entire city of Detroit was subjected to disinvestment. The primarily white suburbs were the obvious beneficiaries of white flight and the relocation of capital. Meanwhile the city of Detroit was left on its own to absorb the de-industrialization of the American economy. Disinvestment and capital fight inspired by racial hatred have made Detroit what it is today.


  1. This analysis has pretty much zero class struggle in it, pretty much zero on how the WHITE working class has been hammered by the collapse of Detroit and auto, pretty much nothing on the progressive history of UAW and others in the city … its a pretty “liberal” race-reductionist analysis and its links to syndicalism are less than zero. As an example: “he assertion of white supremacy in Detroit is the underlying cause of the current economic and social destruction of the city.” Really? How about the relocation factories to Mexico, to push down the wages of white as well as black? Who are these united classless whites we keep seeing here? What about the working class folks whose jobs, families, unions and communities were destroyed? Where is the **class**, for goodness sake? Even the revised edition of Lorenzo Ervin’s “Anarchism and the Black Revolution” engages withe the reality and fact of white workers AND how they are harmed by the current order. If you have race-based analyses like this, and can’t deal with the very real problems the majority of whites face, don’t be surprised if you keep losing to the radical right which at least knows a white working class exists.

  2. Yes, white workers in Detroit also suffer as a result of white supremacy. The effect of the ideology of white supremacy on the city of Detroit was the point of this (short) article. The suffering is across the board, but the cause is specific. The institutional control of Detroit has been transferred from the people of Detroit, of all races, and into the hands of rightwing white politicians from the suburbs and rural areas. All manufacturing cities have suffered from the de-industrialization of the American economy, but there is a specific reason Detroit has suffered more than others. The struggle to maintain white supremacy is that reason.

  3. Mike, come on. You have not addressed the issues raised in the criticism. There is pretty much zero class analysis in this piece, and your response is the same: “rightwing white politicians from the suburbs…” who want “want supremacy.” The article: a “storm of pure racism.” Right so the explanation is that “racism” done it.And Teapublicans. This is the “underlying cause.” This is crude identity analysis, completely delinked from processes of class struggle. Something called “white supremacy” has its own inherent logic that leads to closing down cities… Why would this not benefit equally from, I don’t know, a large cheap black labour force in an inner city? If you want to bring in race, you should at least try and keep some of your syndicalism in, because what this article does is present an analysis that could come straight out of a Princeton “whiteness studies” liberal class.

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