Racial Liberalism: The Case of Interwar Detroit

Miller, Karen R.
Date Written:  2016-01-01
Publisher:  Against the Current
Year Published:  2016
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX21311

The paradox at the heart of contemporary racial politics is what sociologists and political scientists call "colorblind racism:" How is it that the United States is a country where racism is supposed to be politically, socially, and morally unacceptable yet simultaneously where inequalities are quite neatly organized along racial lines?



The commonly held notion is that contemporary racial inequalities - those that exist today - are the legacy of slavery. In other words, racial inequalities are a remnant from our dramatically unequal past, where racial hierarchies were clear-cut and well accepted. This popular story about the past has implications for how people think about race in the present.

This story suggests that things have been and will continue to get better because these old ideas are dying out, as old ideas do. It suggests that past systems of power relied on racial inequality, but the present political-economic system does not produce or reinforce racial inequality. Indeed, we believe that we value multiculturalism - and we do, in some ways. But the Detroit case shows how racial inequality persists because racism is always getting reinvented and repurposed for the contemporary world. In fact, it is this contemporary relevance of racism that makes it so powerful and so persistent.

Photos of industrial segregation in a Detroit automobile factory in the 1910s illustrate this point. While the North was supposed to be a haven for Black migrants - and in some important ways, it was - it was also a place that developed its own forms of racism and its own racial meanings. Industrial production was one realm where this really took hold.

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