These days, only a handful of Detroit residents work in the auto industry. Once home to about a dozen car factories, the city now has only two auto plants. When car companies announce that they’re hiring, the jobs are often elsewhere. For example, when Ford said in 2011that it would add 4,000 hourly workers, nearly half of those new jobs were in Louisville. The health of the auto industry now has little bearing on the daily lives of Detroiters, 16 percent of whom are unemployed.
2. Unions destroyed the auto industry — and Detroit.
At its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, the UAW was a powerful force in labor and national politics, and it continues to be a strong advocate for its members. This is the function of a union. Or a trade association. Or a chamber of commerce. Unions, and the UAW in particular, helped create the American middle class by elevating assembly-line work into steady, well-paying employment that provided economic stability. Without unions, Detroit would not have risen to the heights it did.
The real culprit in the city’s decline has been federal policies that put corporate health ahead of community health, such as free-trade agreements that sacrifice U.S. jobs for foreign trade. President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA treaty is particularly reviled among auto workers. Such agreements have made it easier for car companies and others to leave their communities for lower labor costs elsewhere.
Yet scapegoating corporate leaders shifts responsibility from where it belongs: on us. We’ve voted for leaders who endorse policies that require corporate brass to make decisions based on their responsibility to stockholders. Blaming corporations for maximizing profits is like blaming a dog for barking. If we want businesses to behave differently, we need to change our laws and our expectations.
3. The city began declining after the 1967 riot.
Those five bloody days in July 1967, which began with a police raid on an illegal after-hours bar, resulted in 43 people killed and more than 1,100 injured. The riot has been seared into Detroiters’ collective memory. Yet it was a symptom, not the cause, of one of the city’s ills: pervasive racial tension, particularly between an aggressive and nearly all-white police force and black residents. It’s easy to forget that Detroit had rioted for the same reason in 1943.
The 1967 riot only abetted radical changes that were already underway. Detroit’s population had been in flux since the 1950s, when white flight accelerated and Southern blacks came in increasing numbers. In the 1960s, as the city’s population dropped by more than 9 percent, the black population increased by 37 percent, partially offsetting the exodus of some 385,000 whites.