Music, the soul of Detroit. The Supremes: Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross (1964). Image Source: Gilles Petard / Getty Images via HuffPo.
When Canadian philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "the medium is the message," he provided an elegant shorthand for our present and future realities.
Technology has revolutionized how we communicate. But does the change in how we communicate with technology really leave its stamp on what we communicate? Does the way we are using technology as a medium transform how we understand eternal questions, such as those of race, class, gender, religion, love, government or politics?
"Music is the missing link in Detroit's recovery." Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone (no. 962, November 25, 2004). Image Source: allposters.
As an example, take race and Detroit. I could have picked any topic in relation to tech communications: class in London, language in Quebec, religion in Saudi Arabia, human rights in China, the economy in Singapore. But given that today is a day of prayer to honour Nelson Mandela in South Africa, I chose race. In 2012, John K. Bennett wrote for HuffPo:
There is no way here to explain how huge race is as an issue in this bankrupting city and how it has related to other factors which contributed to Detroit's collapse: the economy, deindustrialization, globalization, class, corruption, drugs, crime, political and institutional breakdown, policing and education.It's no secret that southeastern Michigan for many decades stood as one of the most segregated and racially polarized communities in America.
But the focus of this post is not to get into all of that, and instead ask if technology, used as a communications medium, changes the understanding of that picture?
From a collection of maps on 'American racial segregation': "In Detroit, among the most segregated cities in America, 8 Mile Road serves as a sharp dividing line. (White: blue dots; African American: green dots; Asian: red; Latino: orange; all others: brown)" Image Source: Dustin Cable via Wired.
Glance at the comments on Youtube under videos on Detroit, and you will get a glimpse of how horrific the unofficial racial dialogue is, especially from the quarter that blames African Americans for what happened to this city.
The Detroit bankruptcy documentary (below) gives a history of the city's decline. It is also a good example of the apocalyptic 'Detroit story,' which has become set in stone. It is a story of out-of-control African American crime and a total failure of the white establishment as whites fled to the far-flung suburbs. It is also a story about race as an eternally polarizing factor. Beneath that, the reality is more checkered: a drug economy replaced the automaker industries. And that drug economy was managed by - and catered to - whites and blacks alike.
"Detroit Bankrupty Documentary on Crime" (2012). Video Source: Youtube.
Has technology changed how people tell that apocalyptic story? Yes. Below, see a typically Millennial private dashcam video. When used as one person's social media soapbox, a dashcam video brings an individual's private world to the level of global discussion. By being able to take a ride with the video's creator, the city becomes accessible. Even if (or especially if!) you have never set foot in the USA, with this video, you have traveled through some bits of one of America's most troubled cities. The function of this social medium is to make a particular circumstance universal and comprehensible. This is virtual travel - a virtual reality experience.
"When Entering Detroit," a right-wing oriented dashcam video. Video Source: Youtube.
DEMCAD, the Youtuber who made the video, "When Entering Detroit," takes an American right wing point of view. But he subtly - maybe unconsciously - uses the video to try to make that perspective convincing. The accessibility of his video is meant to correlate firstly to the accessibility of his subject matter, and secondly, to the accessibility of his opinions. In the first case, DEMCAD argues that his understanding of what happened to Detroit could be a preview of what is to come in other parts of America, and elsewhere in the world. In the second case, the video becomes a tool to elevate the videographer's message to the level of universal truth.
A political critic might say that DEMCAD would assume his opinions applied everywhere, with or without the dashcam video. Perhaps, but his video does modify how we hear what he is saying. He strives to come across as the sensible driver, who is speaking to the viewer as a receptive passenger. DEMCAD's tone is familiar, that of someone you know. The viewer is 'along for this ride' in a way that softens his or her perception of the political themes which DEMCAD is using to tell Detroit's story.
At the same time, the social networking video itself starts to break down DEMCAD's political platitudes, as well as Detroit's apocalyptic story. This dashcam video universalizes the city's streets, while making the city's story more complex.
Race, as an explanation of Detroit's problems, gets bumped into a debate among viewers in the video's comments. It does not overtly dominate the video itself. That is partly because of the stance DEMCAD takes on race. And it is partly due to the virtual experience. All the usual explanations around race in Detroit start to shift in this video and become less monolithic.
Perhaps this is because the very function of the video is to bring this local nightmare to the scrutiny of an international audience, who will have a much wider range of perspectives on the city than local, or even American, viewers will. By changing the audience, by internationalizing it, DEMCAD has changed Detroit's story.
Racial divisions certainly made Detroit's story much worse. But race cannot primarily explain what happened in this city. That's because Detroit is not just a shorthand for America's unresolved historic racial problems, or even America's socio-economic class problems. DEMCAD makes his point. Detroit could be a harbinger of things to come in any part of the post-recession world, where industry can suddenly migrate to another part of the globe. After unemployment hits, pre-existing sleeping social divisions come rumbling up (compare this to Germany during the Great Depression). In other words, what happened to Detroit could happen anywhere where industry has become a critical engine of prosperity and upward mobility (say, China). And that is why everyone should seek to understand this city and her potential for recovery. Detroit is ahead of the curve - not behind it.
Photo from Detroit race riot (1967). Image Source: Black Past.
Photo from Detroit race riot (1967). Image Source: Angel's Blog.
Comments on this Youtube video about Detroit show how the popular dialogue is evolving away from an older discussion about race and is moving toward a Millennial-recession-era debate about the role of government, free trade, and how America fits into a global economy:
- "The problem was during the ... 1967 riots, all the people with money (predominately white) left to live in the suburbs surrounding Detroit, where it was safe.The government is not at fault here, the problem is that once you scare people away they're not going to come back and neither is their money. My family left, Detroit isn't what it use to be..."
- "My college buddy who grew up in Macomb County said that the Detroit has never recovered from the 1967 riot. [Mayor] Coleman Young said something on camera revealing that he fully appreciated that the riots resulted in white flight, and that white flight impoverished the city. Young was not a stupid man, except that he believed that cutting off one's nose to spite one's face was a valid way to stick it to real and alleged racists. By the time Young retired, the city of Detroit was a terminal case."
- "I blame the extremely high black population of Detroit, but you know, that's because I think it practical terms and don't worry about things like political correctness when addressing a situation."
- "Take a city, infuse it with an industry that takes its population from 285K to 1.5M in less than 30 years, smack it around with a nationwide depression, spin it back up to 101% with a World War and let it go. Now, with a massive aging infrastructure and declining population, with nothing to jolt it back to life, hit it with a slow burn of civil unrest and crime. Now point your finger at one person, one type, one group responsible for it all. Yet, decade after decade, people still do."
- [In response to a comment that "negroes destroy everything they come in contact with":] "It was not a class of people that destroyed Detroit. It was government. A large part of the black population migrated to the north, from southern states, because of the opportunity created by the rapidly growing industrialization. There was a huge incentive to move there, and they did. They uprooted their lives. They took a HUGE chance on relocating to places like Detroit because of the hope of prosperity, and that is what they got. Detroit had the highest per capita income of ANY city in the U.S. in 1960. Then.......unionization.....increases in labor costs........regulations......pensions..........taxes.......all of that just gutted the city. So sad and tragic. I do not like using the term 'racism', because it is so overused, but, here it seems very appropriate for singling them out as the root cause. The mayors of that city were all white prior to the 1970s. The machinations for its decline were well under way at that point. I am not excusing anyone's behavior, as I believe EVERYONE should be responsible for their own. It is not only unfair, but, untrue and dishonest to lay failure at the feet of someone because of their race."
- "Much of Detroit is abandoned because it is impossible to live in the abandoned neighbourhoods without being at risk of arson, personal violence, and murder, and drug users and dealers. Where there is no respect for private property and the security of persons, civilisation and economic life are impossible. This is not a peculiarity of Detroit. Detroit is merely the largest of many cases in the USA of underclass disintegration. Camden NJ and East St. Louis are at least as bad, but much smaller. Things got so bad in Detroit that people fled without selling their houses. Or they sold their houses at panic prices to slumlords, who then rented out these houses at whatever rate the market would bear. Eventually, no one would rent the houses at a rental rate that would cover the property taxes. When that happened, the slumlords would simply abandon the property. Vandals and arsonists would then do the rest. Nobody squats in a slum, because squatters are at risk of murder by wannabe squatters or by slumlords. It is difficult for foreigners to appreciate how violent the American underclass is. The men carry handguns, and use them in response to mild real or imagined provocations."
- "Does anyone see a common denominator here? Everyone has left the city, and the government remains. Has it ever occurred to anyone that the problem is government? That GM, Ford and all of the other companies that used to reside here are now gone because of rules, regulations and policies implemented by government? I wonder what would happen if the Detroit government relocated somewhere? I can only imagine the industriousness that would return, once all of the barriers to entry were dismantled and free enterprise/free reign on ideas was allowed to flourish. Liberals wince and foam at the mouth at a notion like that. However, that is what this nation was founded upon. Maybe......just maybe.......we could create a 'private property/free enterprise zone' within Detroit.....ONLY Detroit.....and watch and wait to see what happens. If it fails, the city would be no worse off than it is now. If it succeeded, Michigan could slowly extend this zone out to encompass larger and larger areas and become a powerhouse. ... The regulations and taxes DESTROYED that place. Singapore and Hong Kong also recognize the utility in keeping business vibrant, competitive and easy to enter into. The barrier to entry here USED to be low. When the free market is truly free, the results are amazing.......our nation was built upon it. That was the real world."
- "It doesn't cost a dime to save Detroit. Just eliminate the Laws and regulations that prohibit growth and competition. It also wouldn't hurt to knock off a few union bosses along the way. ... Unions were created before Labor laws existed. They are a leech on business now, and all it does is make a worker report to two different bosses. A union lazy fat cat (mafia) that wants to keep him on payroll no matter how bad he sucks, and the CEO, that needs to turn a profit but can't because of all the lazy usless workers they cannot fire."
- "The auto industry failing won't be the end of Detroit. It will be gentrified like any major urban center. We just held on long enough in Motown that we now need to reach out to foreign investors ... . I've recently retired to Southwestern Ontario, my wife is a Canadian girl, but would happily jump back on the work force to see Detroit drive America again, in whatever form that may be."
- "to[o] funny the guy bitching about the decline of detroit is driving around in a honda, oh the irony"
- "it looks like a zombie city :("
- "I have been telling the people that I have the solution for Detroit: Lease Detroit to the chinese for 99 years. They would transform it into an emporium of manufacturing, financial mecca and a mega distribution neural center... USA ? USA lost the stomach and will to do something like it..mega projects ? only the chinese now, who would convert this ex-city into a vibrant western Hong Kong."
- "The Chinese would not agree unless they could hire and fire at will, and unless they could use harsh methods against law breakers, including capital punishment for drug dealers. Detroit would soon have the worst race relations in the USA. The trouble makers in Detroit would either leave and make trouble elsewhere, or things would get so bad in the new Detroit that the Federal govt. would step in. The Chinese would then threaten to leave."
- "I went to Detroit last month; the downtown is lively and awesome but omg the suburbs are such a mess."
- "I will buy american when american products are of good quality. The reason dodge and gm and such did and still aren't doing that great are because they make vehicles that are behind others in longevity, style, and they just aren't a reputable brand name anymore. For those reasons we will continue to buy Japanese."
- "I completely agree that conservative princip[le]s have caused the auto industry to fail, and I think that's a good thing. People will buy a good product, and they weren't making a good product (and still aren't really). What are we supposed to do, have companies that can't sell products be payee for by the government?? I mean its a joke.. What good is a company that can't sustain itself in the free market which is what this country was founded on."
- "The whole country is going the same way and the people don't have enough common sense to realize it. One of these days we are all going to be walking down the street with no place to live, no job and no income and wondering what the hell happened."
- "Last January I drove through CINCINNATTI on my way from Detroit to Southern California.
CINCINNATTI looks like a shithole with about 4 totally rusted out bridges right in the middle of town where the freeway takes you South."
- "Americans seem to continue living in denial, whoever brain-washed you to the point of actually believing you could spend like there's no tomorrow and becoming lazy and ceasing to being creative and innovative. Stop being so arrogant and come down from your pedestals, this is reality NOT hollywood."
"The Truth about Detroit's Bankruptcy," a libertarian-styled powerpoint lecture (July 2013). Video Source: Youtube.
While the new Millennial dialogue mostly dispenses with visceral 19th- and 20th-century terms like 'race,' there is a danger that the broader, detached - and now foreign - view of Detroit can lose sight of the city's human experience. Witness above, a libertarian video from blogger Stefan Molyneux, who presents online podcasts at Freedomain Radio. True to the upsurge in popularity of libertarianism among a section of his Gen X generation, Molyneux is a Canadian anarcho-capitalist who uses technology in novel ways to broadcast his ideas. Can his barrage of statistics, which so mirrors the mechanistic positivist thinking of a computer-influenced mindset, really explain something as tragic and complex as the fall of Detroit, much less its ethnic and class history?
Private dashcam video: "A visit to Eminem's east 8 mile neighborhood in Detroit. Infested with crackheads, drug addicts, and burned out houses." (November 2012). Video Source: Youtube.
Two left-liberal views, posted at HuffPo's blogs on Detroit's racial issues, reveal how another social medium has eroded old themes used to describe Detroit. At HuffPo, John K. Bennett complains that race has become a loaded term which has been exploited for decades. He objects to how politicians used race cynically and opportunistically to build their careers. He also dislikes how race has altered perceptions of the city and its problems, which were, and are, viewed in terms of opposing groups and power hierarchies. Race as a concept has destroyed solutions proposed by the US Government, corporations, the state of Michigan and the city itself, and makes the city's concerns nearly impossible to solve:
Another HuffPo contributor, Theresa Tran, the Michigan Roundtable's Youth Program Specialist, blogs about her personal experience growing up in Detroit's well-off suburbs. After living a life that profited from irreconcilable division, she now reappraises her perspective. Her story is one of former oblivion, a denial that the misery at the heart of Detroit could have anything to do with the wealth at its outer reaches:Forty years later Coleman Young is still an easy scapegoat for Detroit's racial problems. But the ownership of the problem belongs to many, not just Detroiters, not just Young who we all know wasn't opposed to using race as a political tool in his toolbox. Coming into office as Detroit's first black mayor, Young swore to outlaw S.T.R.E.S.S (Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), the unit of the police department most identified with the violation of rights of black citizens. He promised to desegregate the Detroit Police Department and he followed through on those promises which obviously didn't go over well with the white power structure or some in the police department.This had a lot to do with Young being called a racist. When the issue of race is talked about today it's only done as a means of boosting newspaper sales or TV and radio ratings. Detroit News editorial writer Nolan Finley asked in a recent editorial "Is Detroit ready for a white Mayor? He wasn't serious about addressing an old problem of racial distrust that has existed for decades; his sole purpose was to fan the flames of racial disharmony while drawing readers to his newspaper. ...For many decades now there has been anti-Detroit legislation put forth and passed in Lansing. Many Detroiters' view the abolishment of Detroit Recorder's Court, the outlawing of residency for city workers and the takeover of the public school system as racist attacks; outstate politicians have consistently run on anti-Detroit issues to get elected to office. The city's recent financial problems caused Governor Snyder to demand that Detroit enter into a consent agreement or risk takeover by the state. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson in response to a stupid and racist tirade by Minister Malik Shabazz said "You had that black minister a couple days ago saying we're not letting the governor take this city over -- we'll burn it down first. That's what you're gonna see, I think, people fomenting that kind of disorder," he said. Patterson called Detroit a "tinderbox" facing the prospect of civil unrest given the opposition to the state's involvement.Keeping a divide between Detroit and Oakland County has been job #1 for Patterson for decades and for him it is done for economic reasons; keeping the businesses in Oakland County and out of Detroit. He, like Coleman Young does not mind using the race card from his toolbox; it doesn't make either of them racist, it just says they are very skilled at playing to a willing audience. And Detroiters too at times have been a willing audience. Race has been used as a divisive tool in order for some to achieve a certain end. Some black folk in Detroit's business community and in the pulpit will scream racism if it will help them get a piece of the pie as we saw when casinos were first introduced in Detroit.People that hold positions and are respected in the community pimp their constituents and their flock for mere crumbs for themselves. This kind of rhetoric hurts any possibility of southeastern Michigan ever getting past the racial division. For progress to be made all, not just Detroiters, will have to be full participants in starting a new conversation. Unfortunately there are so many who have made a living playing the race card. They win but we all lose.
I'm the product of the Detroit suburbs. For most of my life I had heard horror stories about Detroit; how my father had been robbed and his car stolen several times. But those things seemed distant to me. Hell, what did I have to worry about on the mean streets of 23 Mile?! ...
My parents left the city in search of safer neighborhoods, better education, and ultimately a better life for their children. ... [T]he growing anti-Asian sentiment ... did nothing to convince them to stay, especially after what happened to Vincent Chin. My dad recalled feeling unwanted and afraid of what could possibly happen if they remained in Detroit. Tragically, because of their lived experiences, I had learned to internalize a fear of Detroit and for many years never stepped foot in the city. ...
I eventually landed a job in Detroit at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion. I get to work with some of the most amazing youth in our region and in the past year, they've taught me a thing or two about Detroit, real talk. Instead of finding the despair that was synonymous with Detroit in my childhood, I found hope, innovation, and a sense of community that I have yet to see anywhere else. My fear is gone.
We are all in this together. Charles Booth (1840-1916) discovered this fact when he mapped poverty in Victorian London. He, too, documented wealthy areas which were removed from festering slums mere miles (sometimes only a few streets) away. Children who grew up in the wealthy areas were barely aware of the horrific disease and suffering that was common so near to where they lived. For them, Booth's studies were a revelation, which spurred on a generation of London-born philanthropists and social welfare activists around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Those who understood the connections between divided worlds realized that there was something wrong with the entire system. You cannot have the leafy suburbs without the rotting core - they are one and the same - and therefore the problem is one of the whole, not of its parts.
And this is why blogging, in this final case of liberal commentators, becomes important. Here, technology provides a window on the connections between Detroit's core and her periphery. As with personal videos, individuals use blogs to make their private experiences widely understood. If Tran's readers journey with her from 23 Mile down past 8 Mile, so much the better. And if Bennett's site, Detroituncovered, can hold everyone accountable (no matter who they are), then perhaps the word 'race' in this story will be reevaluated. The concept, in its 19th and 20th century sense, begins to crumble. In his blog post, Bennett hit upon the startling conclusion that talking about race does not automatically have to imply hostility and division. And even when hatred and difference are part of the picture, that will not be Detroit's whole story.
See my earlier posts on Detroit, here and here.