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Managing Inequality

Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit

Karen R. Miller
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Managing Inequality
    Book Description:

    In the wake of the Civil War, many white northern leaders supported race-neutral laws and anti-discrimination statutes. These positions helped amplify the distinctions they drew between their political economic system, which they saw as forward-thinking in its promotion of free market capitalism, and the now vanquished southern system, which had been built on slavery. But this interest in legal race neutrality should not be mistaken for an effort to integrate northern African Americans into the state or society on an equal footing with whites. During the Great Migration, which brought tens of thousands of African Americans into Northern cities after World War I, white northern leaders faced new challenges from both white and African American activists and were pushed to manage race relations in a more formalized and proactive manner.

    The result was northern racial liberalism: the idea that all Americans, regardless of race, should be politically equal, but that the state cannot and indeed should not enforce racial equality by interfering with existing social or economic relations. InManaging Inequality, Karen R. Miller examines the formulation, uses, and growing political importance of northern racial liberalism in Detroit between the two World Wars. Miller argues that racial inequality was built into the liberal state at its inception, rather than produced by antagonists of liberalism. Managing Inequality shows that our current racial system-where race neutral language coincides with extreme racial inequalities that appear natural rather than political-has a history that is deeply embedded in contemporary governmental systems and political economies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-0363-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    On September 9, 1935, the Detroit Housing Commission began tearing down condemned buildings in the heart of the city’s largest black neighborhood. The fifteen square blocks, which were 95 percent African American in a city that was only 7 percent black, had the highest proportion of black residents in Detroit. Before the clearance began, the city held a “Demolition Ceremony” and invited Eleanor Roosevelt to be the principal speaker. Between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators, a mix of white and black Detroiters, listened to the First Lady deliver a five-minute speech in front of the vacated home of Mrs. Rosella Jackson.¹...

  5. 1 African American Migration and the Emerging Discourse of Northern Racial Liberalism
    (pp. 24-63)

    In May 1918, Detroit police officers began to stop African American travelers arriving at the Michigan Central Railroad station to inspect their bodies for smallpox vaccination scars. If no scars were found, the new arrivals were lined up, taken into a common room, and required to submit to a vaccination shot. The Board of Health had instituted these shots to prevent an epidemic but targeted only African American travelers as carriers of disease.¹ White male police officers inspected black migrants in a room “where both sexes [were] present” and in a manner that intimidated and humiliated them. One woman protested...

  6. 2 Protecting Urban Peace: Northern Racial Liberalism and the Limits of Racial Equality
    (pp. 64-96)

    In April 1921, Walter White, an official at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, published an article titled “Reviving the Ku Klux Klan” inForum, a liberal journal popular among politicians, social workers, and other self-styled progressives. The new Klan, according to White, had adopted its name from the white supremacist militias of the 1860s and was led by self-proclaimed “Imperial Wizard” Joseph Simmons of Atlanta, Georgia. It got its start in 1919, the same summer that race riots swept through American cities and the nation fell into a recession. By 1921, the Klan had gained considerable...

  7. 3 Between Ossian Sweet and the Great Depression: Tolerance and Northern Racial Liberal Discourse in the Late 1920s
    (pp. 97-128)

    In March 1927, members of the Mayor’s Interracial Committee delivered addresses at both African American and white YMCAs and churches across the city to discuss “race relationship[s] and race prejudice, [their] cause and cure.” These lectures were part of the MIC’s attempt to promote interracial tolerance among the city’s residents. They were conducted a year and a half after Ossian and Gladys Sweet faced an angry mob of white rioters on their front lawn, and just eight months after all charges were dropped against the defendants for killing a white protestor. During their visits, representatives of the MIC administered surveys...

  8. 4 “Living Happily at the Taxpayers’ Expense”: City Managers, African American “Freeloaders,” and White Taxpayers
    (pp. 129-162)

    In June 1931, a year and a half into the Great Depression, the city of Detroit was strapped for cash. The public outcry against its relatively generous welfare benefits was mounting. In response, the welfare commission started reducing city services for indigent residents, cutting cash assistance, and ordering the Department of Public Welfare to slash its relief rolls. In a move both cruel and symbolic, welfare commissioners attempted to eliminate all sixty-five beds and sixty-five bassinets on the maternity ward at Herman Kiefer Hospital, a downtown public hospital devoted to the treatment of “communicable diseases, tuberculosis and indigent maternity cases.”...

  9. 5 “Let Us Act Funny”: Snow Flake Grigsby and Civil Rights Liberalism in the 1930s
    (pp. 163-204)

    In February 1934, African American movie patrons prevented a white theater owner from firing a black ticket seller by threatening to boycott his cinema. The theater, located in the middle of the city’s largest black neighborhood, had a majority–African American clientele. Its owner, unwilling to face a boycott, capitulated to moviegoers’ demands within a few hours. “Colored people,” he exclaimed, “are getting funny.”¹ He thus suggested that the black protesters he encountered were part of a larger movement of African Americans newly willing to participate in collective fights for equal rights. Indeed, during the 1930s, African Americans mounted unprecedented...

  10. 6 Northern Racial Liberalism and Detroit’s Labor Movement
    (pp. 205-236)

    In a hotly contested mayoral election in November 1937, Richard Reading beat Patrick O’Brien in what turned into a referendum on the power of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in Detroit. Reading, who railed against what he called the “Communist dominated” CIO, was a friend to business and hostile to New Deal programs. He promised to clamp down on welfare cheats and support the law-and-order police department, which was notoriously antagonistic and aggressively brutal toward both union activists and African Americans. Although the elections were officially nonpartisan, Reading was clearly aligned with the Republican Party. O’Brien, aligned with pro-labor...

  11. 7 “Better Housing Makes Better Citizens”: Slum Clearance and Low-Cost Housing
    (pp. 237-261)

    On a warm Saturday morning in October 1938, fifty black families moved into their brand-new apartments in the Brewster Homes. Brewster, which was built exclusively for African American occupancy, was one of two federally funded housing projects to open in Detroit that day. Most of its tenants would pay higher rent than they had for their previous apartments, but they were attracted to the housing project because of its promises of cleanliness and stability, alongside central heat, private bathrooms, electric stoves, new plumbing, and other modern amenities.

    Parkside Homes, an all-white project, opened its doors to considerably more fanfare than...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 262-272)

    In 1940 and 1941, “pressure groups, in and about the City of Detroit, particularly those representing the colored elements,” were pushing government officials to open an additional Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp for African Americans in Michigan. The CCC, a New Deal program, provided work relief to young men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. It ran racially segregated camps in rural areas across the country. In Michigan, the CCC focused on reforestation. Youths planted trees, fought forest fires, diked flooding riverbanks, strung telephone wire, laid down truck trails and roads, and built bridges and fire towers. According to...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 273-304)
    (pp. 305-316)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 317-330)
    (pp. 331-331)