On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

10 thoughts on “On Blaming Black Leadership”

  1. Yes — good, strong piece in IN THESE TIMES; thanks for the link. I’ve been thinking lately about how confusing and difficult it must be now to be a “Black leader.” Smiley & West on their weekly radio program relentlessly rant about the President’s failure to DO something about poverty in the Black community. A close second to that issue is the Prez’s apparent insistence on “talking down” to young Black men. I happen to live near a church where the congregants are predominantly Black; I noted yesterday, without judgment or even irony, the promotional signs up regarding an upcoming event, a “Showcase for Weddings of Elegance.” Nothing is clear except that Black people will find critics, no matter what they do or don’t do.

  2. I do think the racism in the FHA housing policies after World War 2 were huge. When you look at wealth disparities between black and white households, the biggest factor in it is that white households are far more likely to own their homes, with their “wealth” being the value of their house. That’s a direct by-product of the subsidization and push for suburban home-ownership after World War 2, and the racial exclusionism that was built into it by the FHA.

    I don’t really blame the auto companies. They didn’t “owe it” to Detroit to build auto plants within city boundaries.

    1. It’s not about “blaming” the auto companies. It’s about analyzing the cause(s) of the city’s decline. The fact that the auto mfrs could move with impunity and avoid the negative externalities of the real costs of the move is an indictment of the system, not the players. That Detroit suffered more than many other urban areas is an accident. With heavy reliance on autos, the area strikes me as hugely overspecialized. Also, you can’t move a port to the suburbs.

      This was a very good piece.

  3. Those federal policies were more or less the same across the nation, no? Yet some cities have fared worse than others.

    1. True, but not particularly helpful. For example, New York City was days from bankruptcy in 1975. That doesn’t get used as an argument that Jews (Beame) or WASPs (Lindsay) or Irish Catholics (Wagner) as a people are responsible for the city’s near-collapse.

  4. “Fueled by a population explosion during the late 1930s and 1940s when tanks and airplanes for America’s war effort rolled off the assembly lines, Detroit’s population grew from 1.5 million people in 1930 to 1.8 million in 1950.”

    Detroit Population
    1910: 465,766
    1920: 993,078
    1930: 1,568,662

    Apparently the 300,000 person rise over the 20 year period of 1930-1950 is the “explosion.” The tripling from 1910-1930 was insignificant, irrelevant, or something or something else. Like yeah, of course the problem is RACISM.

    1. While I think you have a very good point that the census data show the real explosion in Detroit’s population was earlier than indicated in the “In These Times” article (and you might want to start with 1900, when the population of Detroit was only 285,704), I have no idea what point you’re trying to make in your last sentence. The decline of Detroit is certainly attributable in significant part to federal and corporate policies that advantaged suburbs over cities, and distinctly disadvantaged African Americans, whether few or many of these policies were motivated by overt racism. Do you dispute that? The “In These Times” article stakes very little of its claims on charges of racism.

  5. In part, Detroit is suffering the consequences of no longer being the boom town it was for a relative short period of time.

  6. the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

    This whole business of “corrupt black leaders” puzzles me. It’s not as if we haven’t had ample cases of “corrupt white leaders” in our cities and elsewhere. Suddenly the color matters?

  7. Although I might quibble with some of the facts, the referenced article seemed generally correct to me. So if people actually thought that the bad leadership of the city over the last 50 years was to blame for all of or even most of Detroit’s problems, then they should look at the article and realize that this is not a reasonable idea. But the truth is, the leadership was and is bad, and the management of the city has been abysmal. For instance, the city’s worst problem, crime, had been made worse by an incompetent police department. A police department which, a decade ago, after 30 years under black mayors, was placed under federal supervision (where it remains) because of a pervasive pattern of civil rights violations. Not that its misbehavior actually enabled it to prevent or solve crimes, neither of which it does very well at all, as witnessed by the fact that it solves less than 10% of reported crimes, and only around 20% of homicides. Googling the reasons for dismissal of the previous five police chiefs (in the past ten years) may give some indication of the leadership problem, and one of the best things about the current emergency manager is that he has appointed a chief who looks capable and appears to be addressing some of the department’s problems.

    The public school system, run by different incompetent people, in 2009 produced students who managed to score worse on the 4th and 8th grade NAEP math test than any other district ever, scores barely different from those achieved by answering the questions randomly, with 0% showing advanced skills. Detroit’s children are unquestionably a difficult population to educate, but I would claim that there is little evidence that they are being educated at all.

    No fair-minded person can blame Detroit’s leadership for its decline, but I don’t believe any fair-minded person can deny that the leadership exacerbated that decline, and blaming them for making things worse is entirely appropriate.

    * For example, Ford didn’t abandon Detroit after WWII. As far as I know it hadn’t had a plant in the city after it sold its Piquette facility to Studebaker in 1910.

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