Beyond the White-Black Binary


It is common knowledge that there is a dramatic split between black and white populations between Detroit city and its suburbs. Detroit is one of the most highly segregated metropolitan areas. Additionally, the Detroit metropolis has the highest Index of Dissimilarity and highest Isolation Index (Logan, 2010). The divide is hard to ignore with 70% of the suburbs predominately white and 80% of the City predominately black. Detroit was not always so racially polarized. Starting in the mid 20th century many Europeans, especially those from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Poland, immigrated to Detroit in hopes of job opportunities. Additionally, blacks from the South were persuaded by the economic prospects to migrate north to Detroit. Black residents and immigrants established enclaves in areas like Hamtrack (Polish), Paradise Valley (African American), Corktown (Irish), and Mexicantown. However, by the 1940’s federal subsidies, and red lining swayed whites to move out to the suburbs and left African Americans behind in the city. Middle class whites battled to preserve their home values and neighborhoods by preventing blacks into their suburbs through violence and intimidation. By 1967, racial tensions exploded in on of the most extreme racial uprisings in any major American city. Today, where violence and intimidation was once used to defend the borders between the City and suburbs, now institutions are used to preserve the racial divide between the city and the suburbs. Battles over infrastructure have been racialized along a black-white/city-suburb boundary marked by a persistent, ongoing, anti-blackness localized against the city of Detroit. This anti-black racism has manifested into infrastructure to produce and reproduce the racial binary racial divide. Moreover, nonblack communities of color and immigrants’ material and social lives are shaped by and subjected not only discrimination and stereotypes unique to their identity, but also to this black-white binary shaping. Likewise, those who can pass as white reap the benefits of the white suburban political elite. In both Detroit and the surrounding area Detroit has become a hub for immigration; creating a multifaceted population of mainly black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and Arabic persons.

The most common country of origin for both Detroit City and the Metro area is Mexico. Latinos have been present in Detroit since the 1920’s. However, over the last decade the number of Latino immigrants has doubled in Detroit. Approximately 400,000 Latinos are in Michigan, of which half lice in Detroit (Lara, 2012). Many of these Latino residents have congregated in Mexicantown in the West Vernor-Bagley Street Corridor. Asian populations are the fastest growing minority population within the tri-county area; however, they still remain a much smaller share of the total population than the state’s African American or Hispanic minorities. Chinese Asians started moving to Detroit as early as the early 20th century. At one point, Detroit even had a Chinesetown that was largely destroyed with the construction of the John C. Lodge Freeway. Asian Indians are the largest Asian group in Michigan followed by Vietnamese, Filipino, and Chinese populations. Population growing patterns stem more from child bearing by Asian population already in the country verse immigration. Almost half of the Asian population is living in Oakland Country. Within the City Asian populations are less clustered and more diverse with most of the populations in four separate areas. The movement of Hispanics and Asians is not unique to Detroit, Asian and Hispanic populations have become increasingly more mobile, less discriminated, and less segregated in recent decades (Logan, 2012). In a post 9/11 context, Arabs have not followed similar trends of Asian American and Hispanic immersion in Detroit.

Metro Detroit is home to one of the largest and most concentrated settlements of Middle Eastern people. According to the U.S. Census, there are about 210,000 Michiganders with roots in the Middle East. As Schopmeyer points out, Census numbers of Arabs may be significantly under representative. Arab-Americans have a long history that stretches back to the early auto industry when Henry Ford moved his plant in Dearborn. Despite significant discrimination and marginalization, Arabic populations started to become immersed in local and national politics by 2000 (Schopmeyer). However, the terrorist attacks of September 2011 and the following “War on Terror” linked Arab-Americans to an enemy status. As Schopmeyer points out, “The overlap between Arab Detroit and the Arab/Muslim threat the Bush administration sought to confront was minimal and largely imaginary” (2013). Although post 9/11 has created anti-Arab agenda, Arab Detroit is doing very well. The population is expanding into more places like Canton, Oakland, Macomb, and Hamtramck. In fact, about a quarter of Hamtramck’s resident’s are of Arab descent. According to Census data, the highest relative number of foreign-born people in Detroit and Detroit metro come from Yemen and Iraq. Arab business, cultural, and political involvement has increased in Michigan. Such involvement can be seen across ethnic groups and has worked to stabilize and reinvigorate the City and metro area’s economy and urbanity.

Detroit and metro Detroit areas are becoming increasingly more multicultural. Such diversity within Detroit and Metro Detroit has changed the economy and social dynamics of the region. For example, Mexicantown has created residential and small businesses throughout the area. Arabic populations have incorporated Mediterranean fruit markets and restaurants throughout the region. Asian Americans’ presence continues to grow in medical and technical fields as well as in small stores, restaurants and food related businesses. Both Jacobs and Wirth recognized the importance of such diversity and heterogeneity in city life and urbanism. Likewise to Richard Florida, Governor Snyder recognizes the importance in immigration as a creator of diverse jobs and population. He has called for the federal government to designate 50,000 employment-based visas for skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs in Detroit. This is just the beginning however, some important policy implication will involve how to provide social, educational, and health services to a rapidly changing diverse population. Likewise, urban coalitions must now be readjusted out of the white-black binary to address these emerging communities. When compared to the needs of highly segregated established black communities, one-size fits all approach will not suffice. This more globalized Detroit region brings the opportunity of a more diverse area and labor force; however, it also brings challenges of adapting policies and politics. The white-black binary context must be adjusted and expanded to accompany such change.




Jesus J. Lara (2012): Patterns and forms of Latino landscapes: southwest Detroit, a case of

incremental re-adaptive use, Journal of Urbanism: International Research of Placemaking and Urban Sustainability 5:2-3,139,156

John R. Logan and Brian Stults. 2011. “The Persistence of Segregation in the

Metropolis:New Findings from the 2010 Census” Census Brief prepared for

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LeGates, R. T., & Stout, F. (1996). The city reader. London: Routledge.

Schopmeyer, K. (2000)‘A demographic portrait of Arab Detroit’, in Abraham, N. and Shryock,

A.(eds) Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream. Detroit: Wayne State University

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The New Detroit: The Coalition, Kresge Foundation, & The McGregor Foundation. (2014, March). Metropolitan Detroit Race Equity Report. Retrieved from

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