Throwaway Cities: Systemic Racism and Capitalism

October 2009
Creative Commons License photo credit: lessismoreorless
The British Guardian/Observer just did one of the better stories I have seen on US cities suffering greatly in this Bush depression–showing that in Detroit things are worse than in the great Depression of the 1930s. Much of Motor City is now “a ghost town.” The 1930s saw official unemployment reach about 25 percent. Today it is 29 percent in Detroit. This predominantly black city has lost more than half its population in recent years as U.S. capitalists have made many poor decisions, usually in the name of profit, including disinvestment in U.S. industry. Among other things they have sought cheap labor overseas, often at near-slave wages, and weak government regulation. Once the fourth largest city, Detroit has dropped to 11th in the country.

One summary of 2000 and 2005-2007 census data describes racial percentages in the city:

The racial makeup of the city was 81.6% Black, 12.3% White, 1.0% Asian, 0.3% Native American, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 2.5% other races, 2.3% two or more races, and 5.0 percent Hispanic. The city’s foreign-born population is at 4.8%. Estimates from the 2005-2007 American Community Survey showed little variance.

A city once overwhelmingly white, Detroit is now one of the least white cities, the probable reason mainstream national media have paid little attention to the economic depression firmly entrenched here. Journalist Paul Harris at The Observer describes severe conditions in Detroit thus:

Try telling Brother Jerry Smith [at a Capuchin brothers’ soup kitchen] that the recession in America has ended. . . . Outside his office the hungry, the homeless and the poor crowded around tables. Many were by themselves, but some were families with young children. None had jobs.

He adds:

There is little doubt that Detroit is ground zero for the parts of America that are still suffering. The city that was once one of the wealthiest in America is a decrepit, often surreal landscape of urban decline. . . . The birthplace of the American car industry, it boasted factories that at one time produced cars shipped over the globe. Its downtown was studded with architectural gems, and by the 1950s it boasted the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any major American city.

Then U.S. capitalists started aggressively disinvesting in U.S. cities’ industries, and whites had already begun to flee cities like Detroit for the suburbs. With the help of white real estate decisionmakers, White flight created the famous “doughnut” pattern of black residents at the center surrounded by mostly white suburbs. Manufacturing decentralized in the metro area, then started fleeing to the South and other countries — for cheaper labor and no regulation. The city dropped half its nearly two million population to about 900,000 now. And today even the suburbs are also in trouble:

Its once proud suburbs now contain row after row of burnt-out houses. . . . Now almost a third of Detroit – covering a swath of land the size of San Francisco – has been abandoned. Tall grasses, shrubs and urban farms have sprung up in what were once stalwart working-class suburbs. . . .
The city has a shocking jobless rate of 29%. . . . Recently a semi-riot broke out when the city government offered help in paying utility bills. Need was so great that thousands of people turned up for a few application forms. In the end police had to control the crowd, which included the sick and the elderly, some in wheelchairs.

To make matters worse the city has a huge government debt and is cutting major services like street lights and public transportation.

(For a boosterish story on Detroit, that barely touches on these issues see Wikipedia here)
We have summarized the significance of much of this capital flight from US cities here:

Capital flight—the movement of companies to locations with lower labor costs and favorable profit-making conditions—is now a threat to many U.S. workers. And it is distinctively racialized, with workers of color in recent decades often suffering disproportionately from it. Especially African American and Latino workers in blue-collar jobs in major US industries like the auto industry.

Many US corporations now routinely operate around the world. The global capitalistic market has made low-wage labor and unregulated working situations available to most big corporations which shift investments out of moderate-profit industries to higher-profit international ventures, abandoning U.S. industries. From the (usually white) corporate executives’ view, plant closings and capital flight “discipline” U.S. workers to accept lower wages—and to be docile in the face of corporate decisions. A variety of U.S. firms are using relatively low-wage, nonunion labor pools in poor countries to cut production costs. Computer and electronics industries, which many have counted on to provide jobs to replace the decent-paying ones lost in declining “smokestack” industries, have joined the corporate flight overseas. Many blue-collar jobs and, increasingly, many white-collar jobs are being exported overseas; they are often the jobs important for many new entrants into the U.S. work force, such as non–college-bound high school graduates. The U.S. government has aggressively facilitated the export of many decent-paying jobs to low-wage areas in other countries. Without some countervailing power, corporations with accountability to no country will go wherever labor is cheapest and most repressed, a process that has steadily eroded the standard of living for many U.S. workers and their families–of various racial backgrounds.