How Cities Became Kindling: Racism and the Decline of Two Once-Great American Metropolises, Detroit and Baltimore

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Ruble, Laura


Thorne, Susan

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*Designated as an exemplary master's project for 2015-16*

Baltimore, Maryland, and Detroit, Michigan, were once sparkling examples of postwar American progress. In the early 20th century, their thriving manufacturing industries and lively cultural scenes brought wealth and acclaim, attracting a steady influx of immigrants and southern Americans searching for a share of their offerings. Like other metropolises across the American Rust Belt, however, the cities have since suffered the effects of postwar deindustrialization. Unemployment and poverty trouble urban centers that once burgeoned during those pre-WWII swells. While the roots of their urban crises are complex, decline in both Detroit and Baltimore demonstrates the powerful impact of racist practices and policies that American cities developed and implemented long before the flight of industry. In this research I explore the role that racism—in both its informal, personal manifestation and its formal, systemic manifestation—had in the decline of both cities. Prewar records including court cases, government ordinances and informal documents demonstrate that Detroit and Baltimore pioneered groundbreaking discriminatory policies and procedures in response to their growing African-American populations in the early 20th century. African Americans were systematically excluded from all but the lowest-level employment positions, resulting in low wages, high unemployment, low work satisfaction and low safety. This discrimination created a grave disparity in wealth between white and black communities within the cities. Concurrent housing discrimination, which controlled the physical residency of black families and their access to wealth investment options via homeownership, further separated the status of racial groups in Detroit and Baltimore. When deindustrialization after the Second World War depleted urban centers of jobs and revenue, white residents of means were able to relocate. This flight of capital from Detroit and Baltimore cities served to concentrate African-American populations—with few resources at their disposal—into census tracts that became plagued with poverty, crime and a lack of opportunity. Detroit and Baltimore city residents—mostly African-American—have experienced continued employment, housing and environmental discrimination since, further damaging their capability to restore the cities themselves. By instituting racist practices in the decades prior to deindustrialization, both cities—in effect—crippled themselves to deal with its consequences.





Ruble, Laura (2016). How Cities Became Kindling: Racism and the Decline of Two Once-Great American Metropolises, Detroit and Baltimore. Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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