Detroit: Blacks out, whites in

The Census Bureau’s release of data from the 2009 American Community Survey showed clearly how hard this recession has been on Michigan and metro Detroit.   Our household incomes have fallen by 21 percent statewide, 25 percent in Macomb, 22 percent in Oakland, 23 percent out-Wayne, and 31 percent in Detroit.  Along with the income drop has come increases in poverty and food stamp usage.  

That’s no surprise to those of us who watch the numbers, much less to those who have lost their jobs, their homes or both. If there was ever any doubt, it’s now clear that Michigan has experienced a one-state depression.

But in the middle of that sobering news there lurked a fascinating statistic. I have been reporting on African-American movement from Detroit to the suburbs since it began to ramp up in the late 1990s.  However, the Bureau’s numbers demonstrated that there is a corollary movement of whites to the city.  While the African-American out-migration has been spearheaded by families with school-age children looking for schools, safe neighborhoods, and services, the reverse is true for whites moving into the city. For the most part, they are young singles and marrieds without kids.

 If you attended any of the five community meetings the city held in support of its Detroit Works Project, you would have thought Detroit was at least 50 percent white – not less than 10 percent.  The white population is showing a keen interest in the rebirth of Detroit by investing in neighborhood housing, opening restaurants and stores, and participating in the dialogue.

I was impressed by the observations of Darrell Dawsey, who blogs for TIME Magazine:

According to new studies, white people are moving back into Detroit proper in increasing numbers for the first time in nearly 60 years.

I’m sure the report will inspire any number of cynical sentiments, from the fear by blacks that whites are “taking back” the city to befuddlement by whites about why anyone (especially any white family) would want to move to Detroit. Me, I’m not sure what the real implications of the study are, if there are any at all. (I certainly don’t mean to turn a statistical molehill into some grand philosophical mountain.) Hell, it’s probably just reflective of how many more young white people realize how soul-draining suburbia can be — and just how broke many of these small municipalities are going.

But I do know that racial isolation and antipathy have done more to hamstring this region’s progress than all of our failed public policies put together. It is at the root of our uneasiness about everything from a refurbished Cobo Hall to an authentic, big-city public transit system. Sure, we give a lot of lip service to working across the lines that divide us, especially race, but concrete investments like relocating to the city or buying a home here put teeth behind those lips.

There’s one word that immediately comes to mind as an adequate response to the reports that, even in the face of our festering problems, a few more folks of any stripe are embracing life in the city.     Welcome.

I agree with him, but the welcome mat needs to be laid out everywhere in order for us to survive as a metro area. This region needs to say “Welcome” to the African Americans moving into Eastpointe and communities throughout the region.  We must say “Welcome” to the immigrants who are coming from all corners of the world and locating in city and suburb.  And we must say “Welcome” to the whites who are coming back to Detroit.

It is our diversity that will make us strong.  And it will be diversity – when the city and suburbs begin to look more alike – that will make us finally realize that we are all one.