New Dealers, “Detroit Fatigue” and a Fake Presidential Quote

By Kim Hunter

This is the tale of one of the biggest, most powerful, most unlikely voting blocs the country has ever seen, the end of that coalition noted by a falsified but nonetheless true quote from a man thrust into the presidency and the effect of all of that on Michigan’s biggest city. The New Deal coalition, which elected President Franklin Roosevelt and consisted of labor unions, rural Southern working class whites, progressives, Catholics, Jews and African Americans was the voting bloc. The falsified quote has many iterations but, in a nut shell, Lyndon Johnson, thrust into the presidency with the assassination of John Kennedy is credited with saying: “I have just signed over the South to the Republican Party for at least a generation.” He is supposed to have said that after signing the Civil Rights Act in the mid ’60s.

The quote above, often repeated but never verified, is a true statement of what more or less happened. As the Civil Rights movement gained steam, the elected officials who championed it or who were merely associated began to lose support of a crucial chunk of the New Deal coalition. Like many such coalitions, it had always been fractious and contentious. But, when the nominal welfare state that it represented began to be associated with bettering the lot of African Americans, the whole thing fell apart. It’s important to note here that, while black people did benefit from the public sector investment that rescued the country from the Great Depression, racial discrimination was an explicit part of the New Deal.

But perhaps nothing exacerbated the wealth imbalance between blacks and whites more than excluding African Americans from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage program in the 1950s. This policy not only resulted in virtually all white suburbs and black and brown inner city ghettos, but it also kept African American families from acquiring the biggest single wealth factor for most Americans, home ownership. Add to this the legacy of slavery, apartheid laws of the South and job discrimination and you have the need not only for anti-racist laws but for anti-poverty legislation. All were part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, National Endowment for Arts, public broadcasting, in short, the world as we know it.

Though the New Deal was also an anti-poverty program, it was one that whites felt was needed and then there were those racist exclusions. Thus, there was no race based opposition to the nominal welfare state that was the New Deal. The Great Society was when the welfare state became explicitly linked to anti-racist outcomes and thus anathema to many white voters. To be clear, Lyndon Johnson’s imperialist debacle in Viet Nam sucked the money and much of the political lifeblood out of his domestic program. But, had the program been seen by most white voters as necessary, it would not now be associated with the end of the New Deal coalition.

Fast forward many years and convulsions to current day Detroit and what is, thus far, the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The collapse of manufacturing in general, the shrinkage of the auto industry in particular and all the racialized economics noted above create a perfect storm resulting in the most impoverished big city in the nation. All the factors that exclude the city’s mostly African American populace from a stable tax base, impoverished the schools and brought on what I call the “bank rupture” are connected to race.

The aforementioned wealth imbalance between black and brown families and whites is the result of an essentially racialized economy. People of color were the canaries in the coal mine with the “new normal” of reduced expectations. The emergency managers are harbingers of a racialized “democracy” as are the insane ideas of banning Muslims and claiming that being of Latino heritage marks you as a rapist or makes you too biased to be a judge. A racialized economy is shaky at best for anyone who has to work for a living. A racialized democracy is an outright contradiction in terms and a dangerous one to boot.

So, when Republican elected officials in Lansing express “Detroit Fatigue” at having to deal with yet another Detroit crisis (for which, ironically, they bear much responsibility), we have to stop and ask ourselves what’s really a stake when it comes to Detroit families? Moreover, how much better off would the entire state of Michigan be if people of color were seen as full-fledged humans who haven’t always been counted as such? Elected officials supported by corporate largess may have the temporary luxury of ignoring the living history of race and class, but the rest of us need to take up the struggles of all marginalized people because those struggles are our own.