Field notes on white supremacy and Detroit gentrification

Over recent years I tended bar at a few Detroit spots where a substantial portion of the clientele were neither suburbanites nor people from Detroit but new arrivals to the city, predominantly white or otherwise non-Black. They are colloquially known as New Detroiters. Like most bartenders I try not listen to customer conversations but it’s hard to tune out everything or you won’t hear drink orders. For me the goal was to get by in a Detroit job market with only slight opportunities for those with a high school or less education, not do unrigorous field work. Yet sometimes through engaging with customers or simply overhearing conversations I noticed patterns in how the new arrivals introduced and positioned themselves vis-à-vis the ongoing gentrification process. Further, I also observed patterns in their interactions with White Flighters (white Detroiters who left the city in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s) including how they bridge the New Detroit narrative with the past of Detroit as a white majority city and erase Detroit the Black metropolis.

What follows looks at these conversations among New Detroiters and contextualizes them in the ongoing and specifically anti-Black gentrification process. I’m confident in how I contextualize my observations but, as noted above with “unrigorous”, am not at all sure to what extent that which I observed is representative. The sample size is small and limited to just a few bars. The bars in question significantly overlap in clientele. Yet there is at least one, and probably two, other kinds of gentrification discussions taking place in other social spheres. The capitalist class – those financially driving large scale gentrification like Dan Gilbert, the Ilitches, John Hantz and ilk – did not frequent these establishments with regularity (and when they did, did not hang out at the bar). The crustpunk, artist and “progressive gentrifiers” too did not frequent these establishments with regularity, except as employees, and they are normally the first gentrifiers in a neighborhood. Both of these groups probably articulate the process a little differently and that is not represented here. And last, I’m a participant/observer in the conversations with exactly zero anthropological and sociological training. I frequently pushed back against gentrification cheerleading which makes it likely I rarely heard certain kinds of conversations, specifically those with cruder racist articulations. Alternately put, here my studied tribe is the gentrifiers and I am an antagonistic observer who frequently participated in and thus helped shape the observed discourse. That shaping must be considered into what follows.

Creating a new White Map for Detroit

This essay focuses on new arrivals that primarily relocated for social and economic opportunities provided by a Black city’s poverty and perceived malleability though they very rarely conceive of it in these terms. Other people move to Detroit primarily for family reasons and work. These categories are not mutually exclusive and some measure of blurring is common enough. The two bars I mostly draw from are located in West Village and Downtown. One, a bar/restaurant is on the site of a famous, Black-owned French restaurant and the other is the site of an old white-owned pharmacy. Neither the old restaurant nor pharmacy had been in operation for several years prior to the examined bars opening and the new bars are entirely unrelated to the old spots closing as in, the old was not pushed out for the new directly or indirectly though both are still part of gentrification. One opened in late 2013 and the other in mid 2016.

The bar located in West Village is frequented by a mix of locals, suburbanites and new arrivals with the latter two being a strong majority most nights. The bar Downtown had an even higher percentage of New Detroiters and suburbanites and is normally much whiter in clientele than Detroit is Black (well over 80% of Detroiters are Black). Many New Detroiters come from the sprawling suburbs across 8 Mile or to the city’s south and west. Others come from other parts of the state, country and globe. When they encounter each other they normally lack shared reference points from their past histories. Their only shared context is as gentrifiers.

New restaurants and bars are frequent topics of conversation. They have to be as schools, neighborhoods (apart from the small core of gentrifying geography they mostly don’t know Dexter-Davison from Conant Gardens) and local politics (they don’t know by appearance nor politics the difference between Saunteel Jenkins and JoAnn Watson though they do know Detroit’s current white mayor Mike Duggan) are mostly unknown or not held in common. “Have you been to Katoi?” “Have you been to Selden Standard?” “What do you like at Republic?” “Oh my friend is bartending there.” “We just came from Sloe’s.” “You’ve gotta go to Parks & Rec for brunch!” “I can’t wait for the light rail to go in!” “Have you tried the Two James bourbon?” “Oh my god Eastern Market was so crowded today.” These experiences form a shared basis for further interactions and grease the wheels of camaraderie. They also set up a shared set of cultural reference points, familiar objects and sites, destinations and how to get to them, all totaling a New Detroit geography. Once started the conversation can go anywhere but the gentrification process is the premise for the very sociality of New Detroiters. They do not have a way to be together with other people without it due to a refusal to meaningfully interact with the Black city they encountered when they arrived.

This is not the same as settler colonialism with a separate, invading sovereignty (although because it happens inside the United States settler colony it is part of settler colonialism). That some gentrifiers use the language of pioneering and homesteading should not be conflated with the actual histories of pioneering and homesteading even though there are superficial similarities. Nor should the appeals to Detroit’s early history as a French fur and slave colony like the “Marche Du Nain Rouge” or new food companies named after French slave-owning families like the Beaubiens. It is not a new sovereignty but it is a new map that under construction. The New Detroit map largely lacks reference points to the Black city. It is so stark that even Nolan Finley, an apologist for everything awful for the right-wing Detroit News asks, quite incoherently, “Where are the Black people?”

The new map that includes solely gentrifying areas builds a new white geography for the city. The New Detroiters do not appreciate this map alone. An older generation of white Detroiters visiting the city to go to the new restaurants and bars shares this narration. In one example a roughly 60-year-old man narrated the following to one of the bar owners (a recent arrival):

20 years ago I’d be making a delivery downtown and it was a ghost town! There was nobody here. Then a few years back I saw a white girl on a bicycle in the Cass Corridor and thought, “There is definitely something wrong here!” That’s how I knew something was going on.

Discussions that include stories about how “it’s so nice to see downtown bustling again” and cursing the former “ghost town” – a phrase I heard time and again – form a narrative bridge between the old white Detroit and the new one that is examined further below. New Detroit businesses play up this bridge as with Detroit City Distillery and Grey Ghost invoking lineages to Prohibition era smuggling. The Detroit City Distillery menu reads, “In the roaring twenties, Detroit fueled prohibition and an entrepreneurial spirit that didn’t follow the rules. A century later, eight childhood friends started a small distillery to make alcohol the old fashioned way. […] The result is a drink of distinction made for the revolutionaries rewriting the history of a great American city.” These “revolutionaries” imagine connections to older Detroit narratives of criminalized river crossings to and from Canada but none connect with the actual revolutionaries operating the Underground Railroad’s criminalized river crossings despite large monuments honoring it on the riverfront itself. Huh.

A variant among White Flighters is a visceral white supremacist affirmation that comes when they say a version of, “They had their chance” in reference to Black people governing. Where I worked it was somewhat uncommon but it is a popular theme in the suburbs. I frequently heard implied versions with things like “We’ve finally got a good mayor again,” in reference to Mike Duggan, Detroit’s first white mayor in forty years.

Detroit’s anti-Black “revitalization”

Revitalizing Detroit as told by the media and gentrifiers at the bar is the increasing occupancy levels in housing Downtown, along Woodward Ave. from Downtown north to New Center, along Michigan Ave. west through Corktown and a little deeper into Southwest, in West Village, Eastern Market and the traditionally wealthier neighborhoods like Boston Edison, North Rosedale Park and Indian Village, in total amounting to around 5% of the city’s geography. The higher occupancy rates are paired with the opening of new restaurants and stores, Quicken Loans and other firms moving offices to the city and modest levels of new construction.

Detroit real estate prices are high for those living in poverty yet they are incredibly low compared to virtually every other US town and city. It is a city where someone can buy a perfectly inhabitable house for as little as one-tenth the price of a comparable house in most cities or even Detroit’s suburbs and less than one one-hundredth of comparable buildings in places like Manhattan or San Francisco. The low prices and lack of protections for residents make Detroit casually exploitable and underlay the “Detroit is a blank canvas” narrative that, if not as popular as it was from around 2008-2013, still has currency.

For decades Detroit has been a city with a very large Black majority. The former white majority started to flee to the suburbs in the 1950s, fled faster after the 1967 Rebellion and by the early 1970s Detroit was a Black majority city eventually peaking at over 85% Black. Normative narratives do mention white flight as part of the economic decline but rarely name Detroit as a Black city nor connections between increasing Blackness and increasing poverty even though capital and industry joined white in flight. These are simply understood and need not be spoken aloud.

The unspoken part is because capital, prosperity and industry are naturalized with white in the US’s white settler discourse while poverty, crime and death are similarly naturalized with Black. This stems from what Orlando Patterson described as the “social death” of African Slavery. In this narrative, as expounded upon by Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson and others, Black, in anti-Blackness’ narrative, is not a human identity but instead a site of capital accumulation, property and location for gratuitous violence. Hence when the Guardian described the “death of a great American city” it described Detroit’s transformation into a Black metropolis. This is the “devitalization” of Detroit but that word is never uttered because, as noted previously, the racist connotations of “revitalization” would be too obvious.

Fred Moten says, “social death is a house party for smart people.” Indeed, why would Detroit, a city with a larger than usual number of residents undertaking transformative actions, with its own dances, music forms and vernacular, need an injection of life, vitality, revitalization? The fact of Black life doesn’t interfere with white imaginings and processes of Black social death. And why does revitalization refer only to young white people and major capital moving to the city? Because you can only revitalize something seen as lifeless. This is what I read in phrasings about Detroit formerly being a “ghost town”. The man quoted above saw a city of over 1.2 million people (at the time) to be, to paraphrase Moten, a zone devoid of human habitation with Blackness as the haunting spectre, the ghost.

What the “blank canvas” narrative exemplified was the nonexistence of Detroit’s Black population. Black Detroit could be overwritten with whatever fantasy one had. And since harm to Black people is unrecognizable as harm in U.S. discourse — in Saidiya Hartman’s concise phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize so such crime.” — one need not imagine that one’s actions have consequences.

At the more immediate, visceral level this plays out with property speculators buying houses at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction then offering them for sale on Craigslist or elsewhere noting that “property may be occupied” and that evicting the former homeowners or renters — a common event is a landlord being foreclosed upon without the tenants ever knowing — was the responsibility of the new owner. Or with suburbanites downtown visiting the new stadiums after a Lions, Tigers or Red Wings game walking around drunk and pissing in people’s yards and knocking over their trash barrels. I read this as basically a casually, completely unthought white supremacist negative of one of the most incredible direct action efforts I know of, Detroit’s 1943 “bumping campaign”. Black activists deliberately bumped into white people on sidewalks and in elevators as a means of protest and claiming public space in a city where Black life was restricted in a highly segregated geography. The everyday aggression of whiteness described is at least as laborious as the Bumping Campaign but it is completely unthought of as effort.

At the broader level you see it with bars and restaurants opening that serve and employ mostly white (or non-Black at any rate) people in both front and back of the house. Historic buildings in areas close to new jobs are rehabbed and then rented to mostly white tenants. Firms employing disproportionately, most often predominantly, white people move their offices to the city from the suburbs. In this latter example the functionings of racism are unusually clear. By the employers it is imagined as effortless, but the amount of labor it takes to employ a majority or exclusively white workforce in a in a city over 80% Black with high unemployment is tremendous. An entire infrastructure separate from the Black city must be built. But, as ever, anti-Black efforts aren’t seen as laborious at all, simply the way things are done.

Detroit’s gentrification appears a little different in Southwest – a Latinx majority neighborhood – which paints in relief the broader anti-Black processes. In the case of Southwest gentrification is no less harmful but gentrifiers described it differently at the bars. They would pass along recommendations about which restaurant has the best tacos or tamales and attempt to position themselves as arbiters of a fetishized, ‘authentic’ Southwest experience. The Latinx neighborhood is not a blank canvas. The population adds flavor – in the case of food quite literally through actual seasoning – to the gentrifying experience. This is different, not to say better or worse, than what is done in the rest of Detroit.

It isn’t just that the redevelopment schemes are largely leaving out Detroit’s Black population, it’s that in 95% of Detroit’s geography conditions are worsening. Unemployment is higher in 2017 than in 2010. Poverty is higher in 2017 than in 2010. And 2010 is considered the bottom of the Great Recession for the rest of the country. Detroit’s “revitalization” plays significantly into the national economic recovery narrative but there has been no recovery for Detroiters, not even a stabilization. This is happening mostly for the New Detroiters. And they are celebrating the process. Indeed it is the process itself that gives them meaning as a community. Or, at least, that’s how they tell it.

 

 

 

A side note on revolting service

Beyond the specific critique, this essay also aspires to connect together my laboring hours with my ethical and political ideals. As workers we fight for pay, benefits, hours and more. This essay aspires to go beyond that towards an older labor goal: shop control. Shop control is the idea that workers should not only receive fair pay and work in safety, but should also be able to define exactly what our work is. A rivethead shouldn’t be compelled to assemble any old thing. Those who work in aerospace assembly or design should, for example, have the power to not make missiles or combat aircraft when they really want to build a craft to Mars. Both antagonizing gentrifiers while they socialize in ‘their’ spaces and critiquing and reporting on their conduct can play a small role towards shop control in a service economy. To the degree it changes customer behavior or, better, keeps certain customers out altogether it improves the work environment for laborers and gets out of the servile “the customer is always right” paradigm (that is, if the laborers ourselves are not gentrifiers which, in these types of bars and restaurants in Detroit is depressingly rare). Further, if service industry venues are not places safe to discuss and celebrate the dispossession of a Black metropolis for fear of public disclosure or confrontation then the work itself has become more friendly to the citizenry and is a small corner of the requested Hoodlum Intelligence Agency. As service industry professionals we hear and see so much. Why do we not report on it more?

France->Detroit->Algeria->Palestine: A spectre of settler colonialism

Detroit organizer, scholar and beloved comrade Kristian Davis Bailey is en route to France to discuss/further Black-Palestinian joint struggle and solidarity. French settler colonialism runs deep through both Turtle Island and Palestine and this little essay is inspired by his trip and efforts.

 

Settler colonialism and imperialism have linkages and traces across the globe. What follows shows linkages between Black people in the U.S. and Palestinians (and others) through the the spectre of French settler colonialism and imperialism, with various sites in France being host to discussions of Black-Palestinian solidarity during Israeli Apartheid Week this year.

 

Starting in Detroit where I’m writing, French colonization of Turtle Island was no less catastrophic than the British or Spanish, even if circumscribed by other imperial powers over time. Locally in what the settler society calls Detroit, the French under the leadership of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, started the destruction of Ojibwe society through the commodification of furs, introductions of European diseases, frontier homicides (though less common than the British later), and introduction of alcohol (a colonial history of alcohol is yet to be written though is direly needed).

 

Early French settlers brought African slavery with them during conquest. Alternately put, French settler colonialism built an anti-Black world as it destroyed a native world. As Bill McGraw writes for Deadline Detroit, “In 1750, for example, toward the end of the French regime, more than 25 percent of Detroit residents kept slaves.” He continues,Many roads, schools and communities across southeast Michigan carry the names of old, prominent families that owned slaves: Macomb, Campau; Beaubien; McDougall; Abbott; Brush; Cass; Hamtramck; Gouin; Meldrum; Dequindre; Beaufait; Groesbeck; Livernois and Rivard, among many others.”

 

The wealth from French colonialism on Turtle Island did not match the profits of French slave colonies in the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Yet the French fur and slave empire in Detroit is part of the colonial and imperial power that, over a century after France left North America after being expelled from Haiti in modernity’s most important revolution, brought France together with the U.K. to create the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up Southwest Asia between the U.K., France and Russia. Sykes-Picot created the basis for British colonialism in Palestine, a regime that facilitated Zionist settler colonialism. Without the wealth from selling African people as property and colonizing Turtle Island, France would have never had the power to participate in and shape Sykes-Picot.

 

Another key French settler colony, Algeria, began again to face decolonial opposition and organizing shortly after Sykes-Picot (though not because of it).  Over the ensuing four decades the French regimes brutally, but unsuccessfully, suppressed Algerian decolonial agitation and revolt culminating in the Front de Libération Nationale-led rebellion that ended French rule in 1962.

 

Israel has always needed a powerful sponsor and France played that role beginning in 1954. According to Michael Laskier, the Mossad created underground paramilitary units in Algeria that were active in fighting decolonial FLN actions against Algerian Jews (whom anti-semitic French colonialism had positioned as a privileged native caste, one ‘closer’ to European-ness than Algerian Muslims). Israel also supported French rule at the United Nations, repeatedly siding with France during votes on Algerian independence and nuclear weapons tests in the Sahara.

 

For its part, France provided Israel with advanced arms and helped it build an aircraft industry and nuclear weapons. France supplied the aircraft Israel used to invade Sinai during the Suez Crisis, the October 1956 joint British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. In 1959 France permitted Israel to build the Fouga Magister jet under license while over the decade, selling Israel even more advanced fighters like the Mystère. It was with French arms that Israel attacked Egypt and Syria in June 1967. Jordan joined Egypt and Syria and in the end Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Occupied Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Occupied West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

 

Israel quickly built settlements in the Sinai hoping to prejudice any future talks by creating facts on the ground that would bind parts or all of the peninsula plus Gaza Strip to Israel. Israeli colonization led to inevitable Egyptian resistance. Surface-to-air missile systems took a heavy toll on Israeli aircraft during the War of Attrition. To confuse the anti-aircraft radars, Israel bought its first drones from the U.S. These were both decoy and spy drones. Drones at the time had still photography so returning drones had to be unloaded, the film developed and analyzed, before any intelligence was gained. Egyptian resistance combined with advances in data processing led Israel to modify the drones to deploy real time surveillance. The new drones provided real-time video thereby collapsing the time between reconnaissance and attack, allowing for on-the-spot battlfield adjustments. These new drones didn’t see much use in Sinai which was returned to Egypt in 1981 under Egyptian and international pressure. But all modern drones everywhere in the world can be traced to the Israeli colonization of the Sinai. It is there that drones became real-time surveillance platforms. It is the drones Israel developed there that led to the U.S. reinvesting in a technology it had largely abandoned.

 

France instituted an arms embargo on Israel after the 1967 war. Yet France today uses weapons Israel developed during the Sinai occupation (and deployed in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza). France uses a modified Israel Aerospace Industries Heron drone under the name ‘Harfang’ in the imperial ‘Global War on Terror’ and in unilateral and multilateral French invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, Mali and Libya.

 

In the latter two cases the technology Israel – a settler colony whose existance is partially dependent on the Sykes-Picot Agreement France helped create and implement – developed as a result of its French-armed attack on African soil reverses course and flows from former client to patron for its own invasions of African countries. In this way France profits immensely from actions it supposedly embargoes.

 

These are some of the entanglements of settler colonialism and empire that flow through France, Palestine, Detroit and Algeria.

The Anti-Black Geography of Revitalizing Detroit

The following essay leans heavily on—though cannot be blamed on—the works of Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson despite me citing only one directly. Thanks to Kristian Davis Bailey and Lester Spence for critical feedback towards making this screed coherent.

It seems that every day brings a new story about Detroit’s “revitalization”. The Huffington Post, New York Times, Washington Post, NGOs and others point to new construction, new restaurants opening, the rehabbing or demolishing of old buildings, foundation and capitalist investment in the city and gentrification as starting a new chapter in Detroit’s history. Mayor Mike Duggan even has a “Housing and Revitalization Department” and Wayne State University hosts “Detroit Revitalization Fellows”. The narrative goes something like: “Until recently Detroit was an urban wasteland left destitute by deindustrialization, corrupt and incompetent governance, neglect and white flight but all that is changing. A new Detroit is being built and you can be a part of it!” Both this narrative and the processes it describes contain a fundamental anti-Blackness. They are premised on interrelated white capitalist accumulation, the commodification and erasure of Detroit’s Black geography, and Black social death.

The Revitalization of Detroit

A major part of ‘revitalizing Detroit’ is creating spaces for white fantasy. This is commonly done through describing the existing, living Black geography as a “blank canvas” for white gentrifiers, capitalists, politicians and academics to make of what they may. Leading gentrification figure and author Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times in 2009 that “Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished.” Dan Gilbert, Lebron James’s boss and owner of predatory lending firm Quicken Loans, is lauded as a champion of revitalization for moving Quicken’s headquarters to downtown Detroit and bringing so many newcomers to the city to work for him. Gilbert both markets subprime mortgages then chairs the “Blight Task Force” that demolishes empty houses, many of which are foreclosures caused by his firm. He can both blight and fight blight. Gilbert maintains a detailed model of downtown Detroit which only lights up buildings after he purchases them which more or less embodies this entire essay. His actions with the Blight Task Force mostly take place in Detroit’s low-income neighborhoods but he also played a role in the 2013 mass eviction of working class Black seniors and disabled people from the Griswold building downtown. With the removal of Black tenants perhaps Gilbert can now light up the Griswold building on his model. It has been ‘revitalized’.

Gilbert, the Ilitch family, and other billionaires are leading the charge but white petty capitalists and merchants are also joining in. Numerous on Crain’s Detroit’s annual “20 in their 20s” lists view Detroit as a “blank canvas”. Some new arrivals found small capitalist enterprises like the Parker Street Market that replicate what Black Detroit social movements have been doing, except reimagined for accumulation purposes rather than community prosperity. Typical to how white supremacy inverts relations, community prosperity is often imagined as white accumulation through ‘socially conscious’ capitalist enterprise. The Parker Street Market is emblematic of the small scale ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring fantasies in Detroit they could not realize at such relatively low expense in wealthier, whiter geographies. Enterprises like the much ballyhooed Whole Foods Detroit do like Parker Street but on a vastly larger scale. The Black social movements are scarcely noted, often erased entirely, while white capitalists are toasted. To the degree that Black Detroiters are acknowledged it is as Jon Moy wrote about Shinola. Shinola is an extraordinarily expensive retail and assembly shop located in the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood now marketed as ‘Midtown’, and is itself part of turning the Cass Corridor into Midtown. Moy writes, “Shinola and other entrepreneurs market themselves as white knights, swooping in to save the noble savages.” Here one’s politics might be positioned by whether one can tell the difference between shit and Shinola.

When former Governor Jennifer Granholm convened a panel to restructure Detroit schools she asked them to treat schooling children in a district around 90% Black like a “blank canvas”. Detroit’s schools were at the time, as they continue to be, under Emergency Manager (EM) rule, run by a technocrat with extraordinary powers appointed by the governor. EMs replace the decision making power normally allocated to elected officials (leaving the actual power of U.S. elections for another time). Democrat and Republican governors appoint Emergency Managers (EMs) to run the schools and city no matter decisions made by Detroit’s Black electorate (as they’ve done with most majority-Black cities and towns in Michigan). Black people make up around fourteen percent of Michigan’s populace and nearly half have been subjected to Emergency Manager rule, compared to less than one percent of white Michiganders. Detroit’s schools or city government have been under EM rule for over fifteen years now. The decisions of Black Detroiters simply do not matter and are erased. Emergency Management is a more politically palatable action than the phrasing used in 2004 by a white suburban politician describing a need to “suppress the Detroit vote.” Detroit politics are a “blank canvas” for the state’s white political leadership to inscribe their Emergency Management experiment upon. The ‘blank canvas’ term is now less in use than in past years due to push back from Detroiters continually emphasizing that they actually exist but the concept persists largely unperturbed.

Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to outside real estate speculators, a new petty landlord class (a place where there is a significant measure of Black capitalist participation), the fantasists and the property hoarders like John Hantz, Gilbert and others. They buy up houses, buildings and plots in any low-cost neighborhood. They know nothing of the neighborhoods because Black neighborhoods do not matter to them apart from a vision of capital accumulation. The speculators seek a quick turnaround anywhere and future profits around the current periphery of gentrification. The landlords seek higher rents (more easily accomplished with white renters who receive higher wages). The hipster fantasists do their entrepreneuring (gag!) while bringing a higher police presencethey want Detroit grime but not Detroit crime. The hoarders seek to create an artificial scarcity so as to drive up all prices. Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to white capitalist accumulation and it is explicitly the city’s Blackness that makes it so.

By an overwhelming margin Black Detroiters bear the brunt of these and related oppressive actions. The population embodies the Detroit purportedly in need of vitalizing, of adding life to, for anti-Blackness dictates that Black people are socially dead. It is mostly Black people who are being foreclosed upon and evicted, who are having their votes invalidated by EMs, who are having their water shut-off and then their kids removed due to no water service, whose neighborhoods become playgrounds for real estate speculators. But Black suffering as a negative is a rare topic of discussion in such matters and condemnation of these actions outside of Detroit too is rare. For how can the socially dead suffer? Indeed in most conversations it is the Black working class and the, in Frantz Fanon and Huey Newton’s positive understanding, Black lumpenproletariat who are said to be responsible for the consequences of white supremacist capitalist policies rather than racial capitalism being the cause. Inside racial capitalism it can hardly be otherwise. It is official policy so it is as Saidiya Hartman said, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.” There is no more telling example of Hartman’s phrasing than the 2010 collaborative reality television and police murder of Aiyana Stanley Jones on Detroit’s East Side. She was a young girl sleeping in her bed when police and a reality tv crew burst through her door and killed her while exercising a warrant. There has been no accountability and the cop that murdered her is back at work disciplining Black bodies for the state.

The Devitalization of Detroit

Large scale disinvestment and the underdeveloping of Detroit began in the 1960s after highway construction helped facilitate white flight to the suburbs. Highways constructed for the imperial war effort in the 1940s paved the way for white relocation to suburbs ever further north across 8 Mile road and to the city’s west. The population shift was triggered by accumulation from industrial production during the war, the automobile industry and the arrival of vast numbers of Black migrants from the South. In the case of the construction of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75 and I-375), this was accomplished by paving over the remains of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, neighborhoods comprising the cultural, political and economic core of Black Detroit demolished by Mayor Cobo. Alternately put, white flight was in part realized in driving over an intentionally dislocated and disoriented Black civil society and geography. The erasure described above is not new. It was tried through physical demolition as with Black Bottom and with real estate redlining from the moment Detroit’s Black population began rapidly expanding.

Industrialists, CEOs and boards of directors closed and relocated manufacturing plants away from the increasingly Black city. Others used automated production not to enhance the workforce but instead to deskill (so as to pay lower wages and reduce bargaining power) and replace (so as to pay no wages and face no bargaining power) workers. Many did both. With the removal of jobs came the removal of the sector serving those employees and employing others. The managerial and most of the white working class followed those jobs and fled the rapidly arriving Black population that, for a few decades, continued to grow. Whites increased their flight in response to the 1967 Rebellion, commonly called ‘the riots’. In the late 1980s the Black population started to leave too, this not counting the disappeared tens of thousands continually sent off to prisons all over the state. Meanwhile successive neoliberal local and state administrations have sold off and given away control of city assets, most recently Belle Isle.

The ‘revitalization’ narratives note some of the above but do so with minimal critique of the racist, capitalist policies that made it this way. Detroit’s problems didn’t simply happen, they were and are being engineered and are the predictable results of both corporate and government policies (to the degree that it is useful to separate them). Further, they note these problems but ignore positive action by Black residents and every solution not offered by the elite. This is due to another aspect of anti-Blackness, the social death of slavery.

Rather than being a blank canvas the actually existing Detroit is a canvas painted over and again, beginning with French and later British settlers killing and expelling the local Ojibwe population and establishing a slaveholding settler colony. How is today’s Detroit, a near inverse of the original settler colony, with its block parties, vibrant social movements, mosques, churches, restaurants, clubs, numerous annual festivals, its own dances, musics and other cultural production in need of revitalization? Of needing an injection of life? Because it is Black metropolis. As Hartman, Orlando Patterson, Frank Wilderson and others have illustrated, Blackness to White America is social death, is a marker of a fungible commodity rather than humanity. For White America adding ‘matter’ to ‘Black lives’ is almost redundant as it disavows Black life in the first place.

Black life in Detroit is unrecognizable to the planners of the New Detroit. Detroit the existing, living city simply isn’t to the elite, so long as it is a Black city. Revitalization is the influx of young white people and investments by white capitalists. Devitalization—a geography of social death and an unuttered word—is the process by which Detroit became a Black metropolis. Detroit is said to be in need of revitalization and that revitalization imagines a geography devoid of humans, a “blank canvas”, because the social death of Blackness imagines Black residents not as individual people but as fungible markers of white accumulation. These narratives show a total and aggressive contempt for the Black metropolis, its people and social movements. But “revitalization” is not treated as problematic no matter the massive harm it’s causing because, to repeat Hartman’s phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.”