Thomas J. Sugrue: Sacramento gets it wrong at Detroit's expense





It was a shameful moment in Sacramento's Arco Arena on Tuesday night, when the Pistons walked onto the floor as the scoreboard flashed scenes of abandoned buildings and torched cars. At a moment when pro basketball is trying to bolster its image, such high-tech high jinks set all of us back.

Detroit, for sure, has had more than its share of problems. Since 1950, it has lost half of its population. It is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States -- but not much more so than Chicago or New York....

Detroit began to hemorrhage jobs in the 1950s, amid one of the most prosperous periods of U.S. history. It was a moment when, coincidentally, hundreds of thousands of African Americans flooded into the city in search of the good life, fleeing the violence of Southern Jim Crow.

The tragedy was this: Detroit began to lose its well-paying industrial jobs to the Sunbelt, just as blacks moved to the city in large numbers. At the same time, Detroit whites began to suburbanize -- fleeing the black newcomers to the city and taking their resources with them.

That process of job flight and suburbanization that remade Detroit was not just a coincidence. Job flight was fueled by federal policies that built highways and encouraged decentralization at the expense of cities like Detroit. And white flight was spurred by federal housing policies -- like the GI Bill -- that provided affordable mortgages to whites, but, because of pervasive discrimination, hardly ever to blacks.

More than that, because of the growing power of the Sunbelt in the U.S. Congress over the 20th Century, federal dollars -- defense spending, highway money, infrastructure supports -- flowed like water to the South and West. Among the major beneficiaries of this unfair redistribution of wealth: Sacramento.

The federal taxes of Detroiters paid for the rise of the Sunbelt. Today's California is largely a creature of massive federal subsidies. By contrast, today's Detroit is a creature of massive federal disinvestment.

It is not political correctness to point out that juxtaposition of the mostly black Detroit basketball players and the grim images of the landscape of a mostly black city reinforces the pernicious stereotypes that continue to hamper racial equality in the United States.

But all of this history is lost on the clueless fans and the Sacramento publicists who committed a cheap foul on the Pistons. Fortunately, Detroit is a gritty place where residents are fighting back -- and fighting hard. Although their battle is uphill, Detroiters are working to attract investors back into the city, they are rebuilding neighborhoods and they are fighting against the state and federal policies that have favored some parts of America over others.



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