Driving Detroit: by George Galster

This is my paraphrasing of George Galster’s presentation at Wayne State’s 2013 Meaning of Citizenship Conference.


Humans need physical resources, social resources, and psychological resources. Said differently, humans need respect. However, respect in Detroit has long been frustrated by an (1) economic engine of anxiety and (2) housing disassembly line.

Detroit’s “economic engine of anxiety” excacerbates economic instability in light of cyclical instability. Detroit is based on a durable goods structure in an economic world which is less and less based on durable goods. Long-term downward employment in light of volatile cyclical economic activity amounts to an engine of anxiety, which threatens Detroiters socially and psychologically. Add to this Ford’s “sociological department” (circa 1914); whom might stop by a worker’s house to see if the worker is violating Ford’s $5 a day plan: gambling, drinking, poor hygiene, buying on credit… to be disqualified from his job.

Detroit’s “housing disassembly line” creates excess regional housing in suburban areas, which are “free from urban problems.” This causes a chain of “moves” to vacate houses towards the suburbs, which does leave vacant / abandoned houses in Detroit—many thousands of them–as thousands more houses are built in the subrards than population growth demands. And this happens decade after decade! The City of Detroit cannot collect taxes on vacant / abandoned houses. Threats everywhere arise. Detroit has highest taxes in state of Michigan, while residents are surrounded by vacant / abandoned houses. Today, 30% of the lots in Detroit are vacant due to Detroit’s housing disassembly line!

Detroit deeply “disrespects” its citizens. And when thinking about citizenship—Detroit is not race neutral. Today, about 85 % of Detroit residents are Black, which is a higher concentration than any other metro area in the USA. Detroit’s schools are the most segregated in the country. Only 4% of all Whites in the region live within the boundaries of Detroit.

Oppositional identity formation: someone else is the problem. Detroiters can’t let someone else gain in a zero-sum mentality. This false zero-sum mentality corrupts the Detroiter as citizen because only same-race people are supposed to be a part of the solution. Your ability is not based on the content of your character, but the color of your skin–and in Detroit; the blacker the better. Councilman Bates, from Detroit, for example; said to a White developer who wanted to develop Detroit a few years ago that he wished there were Black developers seeking development….the White developer was castigated in a zero-sum mentality… if a White developer develops Detroit, then that is less for Blacks to develop. The White developer was denied the ability to develop Detroit.

Scapegoating: “space rape.” Races feel that the other race ruined Detroit. From Whites: Blacks let the City go to hell and keep it there. Helping Detroit is pointless. From Blacks: Whites left and abandoned Detroit and will only take it back to make Detroit a White city. In short, neither takes responsibility. Indeed, both blindly blame the other–the “other” is resposible for raping the space.

Chauvinistic racial politics: Dearborn (1940s-1960s) police cars say, “Keep Dearborn Clean” which meant “Keep Dearborn White.” Or, police cars would stay in front of Blacks’ houses and harass any new Black Dearborn resident; enforcing racial resentment. In a more recent example, Kwame played the race card against Freeman Hendrix in 2005—Kwame started calling his opponent “Helmut” who had White [Austrian] ancestry. The message was: Vote for the real Black man. Kwame soon pulled away from the horse race as the clear winner.

The consequences for this Detroit civic society have been a myriad of collective irrationality. Differentiated citizenship is almost ubiquitously negative as political probabilities for solving collective action problems are only caustic in nature. Horizons, bonds, and organizations in Detroit are not producing respect; rather, fragmentation, segregation, and unionization. The quality of life is eroding. Sustainability is constantly committing suicide.


Robust discussion follows (i.e. let’s figure out how to move Detroit forward! Here is a case study for all social scientists!). Read all about this in Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City by George Galster, Wayne State University.


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