July 21, 2013

Marilyn Salenger is president of Strategic Communications Services and a former correspondent and news anchor for several CBS stations.

An almost palpable sadness has swept across the country at the news that the city of Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. While the possibility of this had been discussed, the reality of what was once the fourth-largest city in the United States sinking to such depths is disheartening, a moment people will remember for years to come. To understand that the decline and bankruptcy represent so much more than dollars and cents requires a step back to a time that many would prefer to forget but remains unforgettable.

In the late 1960s,racial tensions engulfed parts of our country, at the cost of lost lives and abject destruction. Such was the case in Detroit during the summer of 1967, when one of the worst race riots our country had seen took place. Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote, “The heaviest casualty, however, was the city.”

It was the beginning of the ending we are now seeing for a city that once stood tall with head held high. And it was the beginning of what became a much more subtle social movement.

The term “white flight” has become less common in recent years because its huge waves appeared to have stopped as tensions eased. Younger generations may not even know the meaning of the term. But those who lived during that era remember the phrase well. It harks to the tumultuous period of riots, fights for civil rights and not-so-civil disobedience, when white people living in racially diverse communities began to sell or walk away from their homes. Their moves were often born out of fear and sometimes outright racial prejudiceas they watched their cities fall apart. As white people left their neighborhoods, minorities moved in. The words I remember hearing as a young woman to describe this societal phenomenon were, “The neighborhood has changed.” The implication was that the area had gone from white to black.

While the suburbs began to draw people out of our cities in the 1950s, Detroit’s neighborhoods and their demographics changed drastically and quickly after the 1967 riots. White residents fled by the thousands, affecting municipal infrastructures, tax bases and jobs. It set the stage for similar urban race-related exoduses around the country.

My home town of Gary, Ind.,was another thriving, though smaller, urban area before the late ’60s. Its eclectic mix of race and religion worked as a cohesive unit — until it didn’t any longer. After the Detroit riots and despite electing the second black mayor of a major urban city in 1967, nothing seemed to be able to stem the tide of white families moving out of the area. White flight threw Gary and its neighboring towns into an unstoppable tailspin. Today it stands as a city destroyed, left in large part to fall into ruin without the capacity to successfully rebuild.

White flight took hold and left a lasting imprint. The strength and importance of diversely populated business and housing centers declined. Racial divide has created too many broken-down ghost towns, devoid of the quality of life they once had. Some held on for a while but could not withstand the devastating economic conditions of recent years.

It’s not just the economic issues of Detroit’s bankruptcy that need to serve as a lesson but also the impact of dysfunctional urban race relations. The real challenge now for the once-great city of Detroit is to view its fallen stature as a great opportunity to rebuild communities by creating new and positive examples of recovery. Detroit has an opportunity to revisit the racial problems of the past and to build a strong foundation of fiscal responsibility as well as business and civic partnerships that cross the racial boundaries that have become one of the city’s most destructive elements. That would be the true victory. It won’t be easy to undo 46-plus years of decline, anger, fear and prejudice. But cities have to learn to embrace and thrive under racial diversity in order to survive.