Caught In The Black Undertow: Detroit—And America?
Print Friendly and PDF

This week’s Detroit headlines:

DETROIT — Kwame M. Kilpatrick, a former mayor of Detroit, was found guilty on Monday of a raft of charges, including racketeering, fraud and extortion, capping a five-month public corruption trial against him and two co-defendants.

The jury found Mr. Kilpatrick guilty of 24 of the 30 charges against him, including the most serious charges of racketeering and extortion, which each carry maximum sentences of 20 years.[ note: This is Mr. Kilpatrick's  conviction  on Federal charges. He's already done time under Michigan law for perjury, etc., and then again for violating probation

Governor Rick Snyder named Washington lawyer Kevyn Orr as emergency manager to lead Detroit out of a financial crisis that threatens to make it the largest municipal bankruptcy in the U.S.

Orr, 54, previously a partner at Jones Day who worked on the 2009 bankruptcy of the former Chrysler LLC, will tackle a city in a downward spiral of shrinking population and revenue, whose municipal government opposed a state takeover. Detroit’s deficit hit almost $327 million last year and its long-term obligations have grown to more than $14 billion, according to a recent state review.

When I purchased Charlie LeDuff's new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, I assumed from the cover that I was buying a fearless examination of the causes of Detroit's decline by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, which has been highly rated by Amazon and the New York Times Sunday Book Review. [Breakdown, By Paul Clemens, February 22, 2013]

Normally in an "autopsy," a forensic pathologist will dissect a body in an attempt to determine its cause of death. But, unfortunately, LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy is more of a montage of his reportage at The Detroit News, personalized by weaving the story of his own family into the arc of Detroit's demise.

In the course of this book, the reader will learn a lot about Charlie LeDuff, his staunchly Catholic mother who worked at a now ruined flower shop, his wife who was born and raised in Detroit, his dead sister Nicole (a streetwalker), his dead niece Ashley (a heroin addict), his three brothers who are high school dropouts (one of whom sold thousands of subprime mortgages for Quicken Loans), and his great-grandfather Henry LeDuff (aka "Frenchie"), a Louisiana mulatto who crossed Jim Crow's color line and reinvented himself as a white ethnic in Michigan. (LeDuff reportedly is also a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa tribe).

LeDuff is at his best in sketching vivid, compelling portraits of Detroit's power elite, its beleaguered public employees, and the ordinary people who are living and dying among the blighted ruins of a city that used to be called "the Paris of the West": Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (just convicted…again) and Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who were both indicted and sent to prison amid sex, corruption, racketeering, and bribery scandals; Walt Harris and Mike Martel, a black firefighter who lost his life fighting arson, and a white homicide detective caught on the front lines of senseless gang violence.

We are introduced at the outset to Jonnie "Dollar" Redding (a cousin of soul singer Otis Redding), a black homeless man who died "frozen in indifference" at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned warehouse while "urban explorers" played hockey around his body, and later we learn the stories of Je'Rean Noble and "Little Martha Burnett, “who are just homicide statistics on the Forbes list of the most miserable city in America. [Detroit Most Miserable City In America: Forbes Ranking,  Reuters, February 21, 2013]

It is clear that Charlie LeDuff cares about these people. He cared enough about Detroit to throw away his career as a big-shot journalist in Los Angeles so that he could return home and report on the "losers" who are left behind there. He wants us to care about them and succeeds with this series of hard-hitting anecdotes and vignettes in pulling our heartstrings for people like "Big Martha" who couldn't afford to bury her baby.

LeDuff doesn't shy away from dropping bombs on individuals. He goes after incompetent GM executives whose corporate offices in the GM Renaissance Complex face Canada so they don't look down upon the ruins of Detroit. He goes after the brass in the Detroit Police Department for fudging homicide statistics. He put his own life in jeopardy by getting involved with an informant in the Deandre Woolfolk case. He systematically went through financial records to expose the corruption under black  Fire Commissioner James Mack who was ultimately fired as a result of his reporting.

Similarly, Charlie LeDuff has no problem offending the small enclaves of Disingenuous White Liberals (DWLs) who are always complaining about Detroit's negative publicity and the lack of coverage of positive developments like the opening of their new Detroit Whole Foods store:

"But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it."

Later in the book, LeDuff serves up his definition of "normal":

“My wife and I loaded up the baby in the SUV and drove to my aunt’s funeral in a rural corner of Oakland County, where the land rolls like a ship on the swells. A boat, a house, a lake, a foreclosure sign.

“Jesus, it’s Whitey McWhiteville out here,” my wife said distractedly, noticing a white-faced lawn jockey. My woman is a white girl who grew up in Detroit—not the suburbs—which makes her a special kind of white person. …

The funeral for my aunt was weird in the fact that it wasn’t weird. It was normal. It was white. It started on time. Everyone wore a tie and jacket. Aunt Marilyn, my father’s sister, had raised the ultimate American family. A husband of forty-nine years, seven children, twenty-two grandchildren or something like that. No divorce. No death by misadventure. Catholic to the point of evangelical. Her progeny lining up single file to each place a rose in a vase. It was simply odd in its normalcy, its clean-scrubbed sweetness. Who were these people? Where was their bitterness? Their whiskers? They couldn’t possibly belong to me. …

"It was normal. It was white.

"This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren't covered in ash. We were alive. ...

Detroit, I am sure, will continue to be. Just as Rome does. What will be and who will be here, I cannot say. The unnecessary human beings will have to find some other place to go and something else to do. The Great remigration south, maybe."

That's the closest Charlie LeDuff gets to telling the truth about what happened to Detroit in the entire book.

You won't find an "autopsy" in Detroit: An American Autopsy. . LeDuff simply shrugs his shoulders, floats all the familiar theories, and fails to engage any argument or provide any compelling thesis that would account for the decline and fall of the city.

The book is divided into three sections—"Fire," "Ice," and "From The Ashes"—which serve no analytical purpose.

Consider LeDuff's historical analogies: Pompeii, a Roman city that was destroyed by a volcano, Mount Vesuvius. Rome, a city that sacked by the Vandals and Goths and withered under barbarians.

Although LeDuff never explicitly says it, Detroit is analogous to Pompeii in that it was the explosion of violence in the 1967 Black Rebellion which drove whites out of Detroit, and it was the Great Migration of blacks from the South to Detroit (like the Huns and the Völkerwanderung which overwhelmed the Roman Empire) which snuffed out white American civilization there.

Financial panics like the 2008 stock market collapse can't explain the present condition of Detroit. Manhattan is thriving and Wall Street has fully recovered. Detroit weathered the Great Depression and emerged as the "Arsenal of Democracy" in the Second World War.

Besides, Detroit was in its present dilapidated tailspin long before the housing bubble popped in the Bush years, when Detroit was losing a quarter million residents and property value in much of the city was already below zero.

"Deindustrialization" can't explain why Detroit's white suburbs and the rest of Michigan continues to thrive. As's own Paul Kersey points out in his Escape From Detroit: The Collapse of America's Black Metropolis, it can't explain why cities like Pittsburgh continue to thrive after losing the steel industry or why Southern textile mill towns like Charlotte became major financial centers or why Western boom towns like San Francisco and Denver continue to thrive.

Even LeDuff himself implicitly dismisses this theory by noting that Detroit used to thrive on making stoves and buggies long before it became the center of the automobile industry.

Chicago, Birmingham, Atlanta, Memphis, and Detroit became great cities and peaked in population ... before restrictive covenants were outlawed by Congress and the Supreme Court. Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, and Birmingham have lost residents and economic dynamism since the Justice Department began to enforce the civil rights laws against housing discrimination.

Detroit's plight can't even be pinned on a government controlled by liberal Democrats (who also manage Portland, Seattle, and Vermont) or on the existence and/or non-existence of LBJ's welfare state, as Conservatism Inc. likes to argue. Detroit became one of America's largest and most dynamic cities before the Great Society. The same American welfare state that exists in Detroit also exists in places like Salt Lake City, Boston, and Phoenix. But they haven't descended to that level.

There are, however, plenty of other recognizable "Detroits" that have been gestating in our midst: for example, New Orleans under Ray Nagin, Birmingham under Larry Langford, Baltimore under Sheila Dixon, New York City under David Dinkins. Each of these American metropolitan areas has been caught in a stranglehold by black political machines that were empowered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Great Society spending on welfare and public housing.

So what happened to Detroit? MLK's “Dream” came true…America's founding principles of liberty, equality, and democracy came true for black people, and full citizenship and civil rights were extended to millions of African-Americans, who had previously been marginalized and excluded from the mainstream of American life.

And the result was Detroit as it exists in 2013.

As the blue-haired bartender at the VFW hall tried to explain to Charlie LeDuff: "The blacks wanted out of the ghetto and now the whole city's a ghetto." The living conditions of those black ghettos—whether they were in Detroit, Chicago, or Philadelphia—were extended by black empowerment over entire metro areas until the abnormal in those cities became the new normal.

Charlie LeDuff's account of Detroit could easily fit within the pages of Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since IndependenceIt would be familiar to anyone who has ever read Ian Thomson's The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica. In post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, we see all the familiar trademarks: violent crime, corruption, ethnic nepotism, failing schools, low property value, racial chauvinism, "marooned skyscrapers," blighted homes, ruined train stations, religious cults, the demoralization of the white minority, white businessmen in search of public contracts bribing the black Establishment, and a decaying and cannibalized infrastructure which have characterized Detroit's decline and fall.

Black people have wielded more power in Detroit for a longer period of time than anywhere else in America. As a result, they have reforged Detroit into the closest approximation in North America to black civilization as it exists elsewhere in the world.

Detroit's experiment in racial democracy just hasn't been allowed to descend yet to the level of Kingston or Johannesburg only because of aid and supervision from the federal and state government.

In the final analysis, I don't suppose you can blame LeDuff for failing to provide his readers with a real autopsy of Detroit. Here’s a phone message he recounts in the book:

"Beep: "White men like you, Charlie, sowing discontent, Charlie. I bet you're feeling real comfortable in that little castle you built, Charlie. Well, we coming from the neighborhood and we gonna burn your castle down, white man. It's gonna be a long, hot summer, Charlie. Watch your ass."[P. 164]

Detroit: An American Autopsywas written from the perspective of a man who is caught in the Black Undertow—the same undertow that cows and intimidates white reporters who live in African countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, and that erodes the fabric of civilization wherever it touches.

But Charlie LeDuff is probably right about one thing—especially if the Obama-Rubio Amnesty/ Immigration Surge bill passes and America’s post-1965 immigration disaster continues: Detroit may prove the harbinger of America's future.

William L. Houston (email him) is a graduate of the University of Alabama.

Print Friendly and PDF