I’ve developed a theory over the past five-plus years based on hundreds of conversations with folks on both sides of 8 Mile Road.
It has to do with why — as a prominent sociologist recently said during a lecture at Wayne State — race relations are arguably worse in Metro Detroit than anywhere else in this country.
Consider the following quote from the movie “Batman Begins:”
“What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”
Now replace Gotham with Detroit and go back to the 1950s and 1960s, when auto plants were thriving. This created an unprecedented middle class of blacks and whites who worked side by side on the assembly line — and a false sense of racial harmony. Heck, not long before the city erupted in violence during the hot summer of 1967, Detroit was being touted as a model city for race relations.
But the situation wasn’t rosy at all for African Americans. Blacks and whites left work, then went home to their mostly segregated neighborhoods and schools, which — because of written and unwritten Jim Crow laws — were historically better for whites.
The mostly white police force was notoriously brutal with the black population. And black workers, who often had less seniority and lower-job grades than whites, were feeling the brunt of an industry that had begun automating and outsourcing.
Which brings me to a story that a white tool-and-die man in his late 60s told me not too long ago. It was real “ah-ha” moment for me.
He said that on the afternoon the riots broke out, violence also erupted in the shop he worked in. He said that initially he felt safe because he was always friendly with everybody.
“Then some of them turned on me,” he said of the black workers. “I thought they were my friends.”
I bet many of the white shop owners who watched in horror as black looters ravaged and burned their stores felt the same way.
“What did I do to deserve this and why didn’t anybody stop it?”
Because many of you did nothing — probably out of ignorance, indifference or both — and let the conditions that led to the riots continue, fester and finally explode.
Which didn’t sit well with the good black people, who simply couldn’t understand why the good white people didn’t stand up to the thugs.
Conversely, the good white people couldn’t understand — like the man in tool-and-die shop — why they had become targets and the good black people didn’t stand up to the thugs.
Suddenly, we have good-on-good crime — which apparently is unforgivable.
I truly believe that’s why there’s an inordinate amount of mistrust between blacks and whites in Metro Detroit.
We all understand there’s a thug, hateful minority in all cultures. We don’t like it, but we could deal with that.
But what chance does Detroit have when the good people do nothing?
Frankly, no chance at all.