There has been a proliferation of romantic sentiment about Detroit in national media over the past decade, but what’s odd about much of this coverage is what’s missing from it. Surprisingly little (or not surprisingly little) general-audience news coverage has had anything to say about the loving but troubled history of Detroit’s relationship with the automakers, or about the manner in which the Big Three and their employees have been screwed over by vicious, treacherous Southern state governments whose economic development policy is to hack federalism in order to privatize the gains of “right to work” and tax incentives and to socialize the losses. General audiences are told little about how Wayne and Oakland Counties have evolved into a sort of joint powers urban planning nightmare, or more accurately a disjointed powers nightmare, mainly due to exceptionally serious racial problems that few Michiganders have dared honestly confront. We’re told Detroit’s economic and governmental troubles, but usually as part of some shitty human interest story about the city’s “grit” and “pride,” virtues that must be pretty scarce in the three-thousand odd counties in the United States that are located beyond the Detroit metropolitan area.
There must not be any of that kind of thing in Windsor, either. Canadians are rarely tested by fire, so they don’t have the opportunity to show that they can tough it out through a municipal train wreck that has been smoldering for a few decades, develop some of that American-made determination, and just plain make it work, the way Detroiters make Detroit work, 19.9% of the time. Canadians are moral failures. Obviously.
The official narrative about Detroit is really just a cool story. We’re being punked. Actually, it’s worse than that. It would be harmless, or maybe even edifying, if the narrative were, “Hey, you know the Detroit Police Department has a really good homicide squad? LOL. It takes an hour for patrol to respond to emergency calls, and nobody knows where any of the crime scene evidence is being stored at the forensic lab, but it’s all cool, since they weren’t about to test it anyway.” Being honest about the sheer dysfunction of the Detroit municipal government would be too much of a downer for the cheaper sorts of national mainstream media, and too intellectually demanding, so they pretty much leave that beat to paranoid racists on the alternative right. This way, the big media outlets can focus on the important stories, the ones about how the underfunding, featherbedding, embezzlement, and chronic shambling ineptitude of the Detroit city government isn’t really a problem for its constituents because their hearts are in the right place.
My bad, that link was about Whitey putting blockades on public roads to keep the Negro out of Grosse Pointe. The suburban transit system’s “no one on or off between Midtown and Eight Mile” policy has nothing to do with race, either, nor does the operation of overlapping but poorly coordinated city and suburban transit systems. But look: we got this one black guy a new car because he had such a long walk to work! Maybe James Robertson’s walk wouldn’t have been as long, and maybe he would have been able to get a full night’s rest on a regular basis for the previous ten years, if SMART weren’t capitulating to racist shitheads in the suburbs. It’s no exaggeration to say that metro Detroit is too racist to establish its own version of Sound Transit, but let’s not be Debbie Downers and think about buzzkills like that when we can instead feel all warm and fuzzy inside about the indomitable human spirit that kept that intrepid walking man on his feet 21 miles a day for a decade and the generous human spirit that finally eventually got him a new car.
Think about this. Urban planning and race relations around Detroit are so fucked up that reverse commuters whose cars break down either have to start hoofing it a dozen or two miles a day in order to keep their jobs, cutting dangerously into their sleep, or hope and pray that they’ll win the human interest story lottery and convince some sentimental goody-two-shoes to crowd-fund them a new ride. This is a deeply immoral way to run a society. This whole story about James Robertson, his commute, and his new car is a way to dog-whistle to the stupidly destructive and the maliciously destructive. For the stupid, it’s the latest Horatio Alger story about the dividends of hard work and determination (which, in fairness, probably are needed in larger quantities when one lives in the ghetto and works across the county line in a jurisdiction served by some of the most racist mass transit in the country). For Whitey, it tacitly signals that Robertson is one of the good ones, and that the good ones will always find a way to make their reverse commutes work, no matter how grueling, fully absolving Whitey of any moral responsibility to uphold equal protection under the law by providing non-racist mass transit. Whitey traditionally enjoys cool stories in the Horatio Alger tradition, so the Robertson story, as officially told, is quite coherent in its messaging.
James Robertson’s own comments are an important part of the messaging. There are plenty of people of all races who would react to a prolonged commuting FUBAR like Robertson’s by telling anyone within earshot, “Goddamn it I am sick of this bullshit.” By long-term, I mean weeks, maybe months, not years. Plenty of other people, again of all races, would react by calling their bosses and saying, “Car’s broken down pretty bad, and I can’t get to work any more. Sorry about that. I’m trying to find a different way to get to work, but it’s impossible.” On this much, a rainbow coalition of God’s people, not all of them but many of them, would in fact all just get along, belatedly fulfilling Rodney King’s plaintive wish.
Robertson has a different take: “You better go ahead and do it because your girlfriend don’t want to hear it, your coworkers don’t want to hear it and you got to get up and do it again the next day.” It, in this case, is the operation of industrial machinery on two hours’ sleep a night. Not just oh fuck I stayed up too late last night and now I am le tired, but a cumulative full night’s sleep over the course of a normal workweek. The amount of time that this guy has available to sleep is so limited and broken up that it would put him in gross violation of crew rest regulations if he were operating a train, truck, bus, or commercial aircraft. He’s well past the point at which it became reasonable to start telling people, “Tough shit that you don’t wanna hear about it. You’re gonna hear about it.”
It probably isn’t a coincidence that Robertson’s comments about the inviolable imperative of the work ethic resemble a Bill Cosby routine. It’s almost eerie. Whitey feels good about Robertson’s story for the same reason that crackas dig Cosby. These guys make other black people look disreputable for complaining about their bad lot. They have the same shaming effect on poor whites, too, allowing up-by-the-bootstraps asshats to aver that the poors are only complaining because they’re too lazy or use too much crack or PCP or meth or heroin or Oxycontin or whatever to just shut the fuck up and work. To quote esteemed Canadian Bryan Guy Adams, OC OBC, ain’t no use in complainin’ when you got a job to do. The difference is that stateside, especially in points south, this sentiment has historically been a popular adjunct method of reinforcing the work ethic at agricultural operations where the primary means of work ethic enforcement would have resulted in a massive raid by the Mounties once word got out. Also, this is a man who claims to have had a regular gig in a garage band and been dating girls he met at the drive-in by the age of ten. This tale is about as believable as the claim that a physiologically normal person would be able to survive 21 miles on foot and eight hours operating industrial machinery every day without serious ill health effects by getting some sleep on the bus.
It’s easy to see why the put-upon poor sometimes get sick of being told to stop complaining, and why the black manifestation of this disgust often leads to a community food fight that doesn’t last five minutes before someone cries “Pull your damn pants up!” or “Uncle Tom!” There’s a strong, if sometimes inchoate, sense of shanda fur die goyim among the conservative black middle classes. These are the preachers and the teachers, the bus drivers and custodians and home health aides who may be poor and uneducated but will be damned if they’re going to assent to their children and their neighbors’ children growing up to be thugs and teenage mothers on welfare.
Their worldview and tactics are often described by their critics as “respectability politics,” but they have a point. The rougher ghetto neighborhoods have a truly dire problem with black people treating other black people (and sometimes non-blacks who stumble into their field of vision) with an execrable level of menacing and violence. This behavior would provoke an immediate and overwhelming police response if it broke out in a middle- or upper-class white neighborhood, so of course many decent people who have to live around it are completely fed up. Few white people have a working idea of just how demoralizing and destructive it is to be surrounded by this sort of behavior day in and day out; listening to gangsta rap can convey the disorder on a shallow intellectual level, but not on the visceral level at which it is lived in the hood.
Even so, black respectability politics often ends up amounting to a demand that everyone completely ignore all the obvious problems with race and class that plague the ghetto in order to focus exclusively on self-improvement, or at least being widely construed that way. This attitude rings hollow. There’s no way that it couldn’t in a society operated for most of its history through the official and systemic repression of poor blacks for the benefit of a white aristocracy, and that to a frightening extent continues to be run in this fashion today.
So the sense of shanda fur die goyim runs into an angry countervailing sense of bitch please like I give a shit about that. Whitey endures, although perhaps more saliently as a partially color-blind form of Massa, but with the amount of racial bigotry that continues to manifest itself in the enforcement of the tacit American caste system, it’s easy to see why people from the ghetto might believe that the trouble is fundamentally racial in nature, and it’s easy to see why conservative black people who deflect attention from the racial AND class problems afflicting the ghetto might be regarded by their neighbors as sellouts, goody-two-shoes, busybodies, or charlatans.
These are not things that Whitey enjoys contemplating. Really, any decent and thoughtful person observing this bum fight from the sidelines would cringe, and any sensible person caught up in it who truly wants to do something constructive will try to bring about a truce between the warring parties, since it’s obviously a diversionary hot mess that plays directly into the interests of overclass shitheads, just as they have been orchestrating the American racial nightmare since the late seventeenth century. Whitey needs to understand the war for the soul of the ghetto in terms of hood rats being immoral, not in terms of various structural problems that do in fact make life in the ghetto really fucking hard, which would be a big buzzkill, what with its forcing privileged white people to recognize that, yeah, it looks like those places are really troubled in a way that’s hell on the decent locals, too.
There’s something else about respectability politics: it turns out that Whitey doesn’t really practice it. More aptly, almost no American of any affluence practices it when push comes to shove. Privileged whites tend to support respectability politics for other people, but the moment something affecting their own neighborhood or their own class is up for discussion, their respectability flies out the window at warp speed. These are the classic practitioners of nimbyism, starve-the-beast tax revolts, don’t-you-dare-defund-our-schools revolts in support of targeted big government, and any other practicality that comes to mind for the steadfast defense of their every privilege. Try getting elected to public office in Newport Beach or Costa Mesa on a platform that the public schools in South County are overfunded and that John Wayne Airport needs an extended main runway without cumbersome noise abatement procedures. They’ll be calling you names you never imagined, and you’ll never hear the end of it. The truth is that the affluent and the wealthy, who in the United States are rarely black or indigenous Latino, are louder and more effective than anyone else at shouting down proposed inconveniences or annoyances. Their shtick is to scream bloody murder at the top of their lungs and vote out any official who dares cross them. Politicians who have them as constituents know better than to challenge their prerogatives.
Students of American politics are familiar with this behavior. This includes activists from the ghettos who pay attention to people from wealthier neighborhoods. They see crackers tripping the fuck out over minor quality-of-life nuisances while their own neighbors are resigned to being slowly poisoned by major industrial operations that the regulators don’t seem to really regulate. You may not understand black people, but this doesn’t mean that black people don’t understand you.
Am I, Cracker, allowed to say that? Yes, Mr. Sharpton. Similarly, whether I’m Whitey or merely one of Whitey’s hereditary constituents is a matter of personal conscience.
The James Robertson human interest happy horseshit is more than just a cool story for Whitey, although it’s certainly that. It’s also about Detroit without really being about Detroit, the latter option being a national embarrassment.
Like many Detroiters, Robertson worked a local booster angle into his happy ending: “This is Detroit. We’re the comeback city. Forget Los Angeles. Detroit is the real city of angels.” Well, isn’t that nice for a city that has lost well over half its peak population, is continuing to hemorrhage residents, and is now well over a hundred thousand shy of the population of Columbus. Nobody gives a shit about Columbus. Even lifelong residents of Columbus can’t be bothered to express an opinion, or in any event aren’t bothered to express an opinion. Or Indianapolis. Unlike Columbus, Indy has major-league sports, which are often a sign of civic wankery, but it’s roughly the same size and roughly as invisible to the rest of the country. An argument can be made that Detroit deserves more national attention since it’s sited on an excellent natural port while Columbus and Indianapolis are sited on glorified creeks, but none of the human interest reporters who cover spurious stories from Detroit know a thing about that. I know more about the Scioto and White Rivers than they do: for one thing, I can name them. But in more general economic and civic terms, such as not being shambling municipal horrors with neighborhoods that look like postwar Cologne, why shouldn’t Columbus and Indy get some of the national attention showered down on Detroit? As Midwestern cities go, they’re larger.
Notice, too, that this story was an opportunity for craven fuckheads in the media to take another cheap shot at Los Angeles without personally going on the record as believing Los Angeles to be morally degenerate. James Robertson probably doesn’t know shit about Los Angeles. He’s a factory worker from Detroit who never gets out of town, so I can’t expect him to have a nuanced understanding of California just because it’s my home state. I can and do, however, expect national reporters and national news outlets to do better than that. CBS, NBC, ABC, and NPR all have major West Coast bases in Los Angeles. No national news outlet that I’m aware of has more than a small local office in Detroit.
The insincerity of it is amazing. CBS News let some local yokel aggrandize his decrepit and failing hometown, a city in which it has made negligible investments as a network, by impugning the moral character of a much larger, much more functional, city in which CBS has been making significant investments for decades. As a Californian, I could do without this bullshit. There are plenty of scathing things that can be said about Los Angeles, and I support critical national news reporting about these problems, but there’s no legitimate reason to use some ignoramus who apparently has never visited California to voice a crude, broad-brush complaint about the poor character of Angelenos.
It must play well in Peoria. The LA metropolitan area has a stronger, more diverse industrial economy than any urban area in the Midwest today, including Chicago, but few people from out of town are familiar with it. Instead, Americans’ relationship with Los Angeles is an incoherent mixture of awe, envy, admiration, and resentment, all informed by a series of cheap, derivative stereotypes about Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, and a string of mostly wealthy beach communities. For out-of-towners with more catholic tastes, South Central and Compton may have a place in this tableau, too, but neighborhoods like these are rarely integrated into any sort of holistic understanding of what Los Angeles really is, as opposed to what Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan are.
Even people who have lived there fall for this nonsense. Charlie LeDuff, who worked for the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times, told Terry Gross that he moved back home to Detroit (actually, the suburbs, although he was a bit vague about this detail) in part because he didn’t want his daughter getting prematurely sexualized by Southern California as she entered her teens. This was nuts. There may have been some neighborhood peculiarities at play, but at the regional level, Angelenos are not nearly as sexually precocious or forward as they appear on trashy TV programs. Day to day, teenagers in the more affluent parts of urban Southern California are actually more sexually cautious than their peers in any number of struggling Midwestern industrial towns. The big disappointment in this, or the big encouragement for puritanical twits, is that LA was the nerve center for Gen X cool but has lately had many neighborhoods overrun by neurotic cocooners. Pop culture hasn’t gotten around to chronicling this change, but it’s been happening. The disinhibited freaks who make the tabloids aren’t really representative of anyone but themselves. Their lessers theoretically want to be like them, but few in the Southland who have other options are ready to live that hot mess.
Where LA is a crude journalistic shorthand for the unhinged individualistic excess that reporters pretend to abhor, Detroit is a crude shorthand for quasi-communal virtues that reporters pretend to admire. They insinuate that Detroit was great because of the automakers and the factories they built, not a company town that put too many eggs into one basket and got hosed when the American auto industry started failing. People who are eager to drop everything and abandon their hometowns in order to move across the country or halfway around the world for a job promotion wax eloquent about Detroit’s great community spirit. They confuse the raving of Detroiters with survivor bias, or more accurately too damn stubborn to leave bias, with a functioning polity. They claim, or have other people claim, that Detroit is “coming back,” when demographically it more closely resembles a looted and failing provincial dump of a mining town in post-Soviet Eastern Europe than it does any other major American city. Detroit is a convenient excuse for people who never worked an hour in a factory to moan about the decline of American manufacturing and the virtuous working-class values that it instilled when they could be looking for vocational training in some place with lots of factories, like the LA Basin.
Maybe what’s really most all-American about Detroit is that it is apparently being run on the faith that endless boosterism alloyed with more than a dash of charlatanism and outright lying is an adequate and appropriate substitute for a functioning local economy, a hostile state government, and a municipal government that isn’t a partially failed state. Detroiters, or at least the ones who go on the record to talk about these things in sunnyside news stories, are apparently a people who believe that they and their neighbors can bullshit their city back into prosperity. Camden is in similarly dire straits, and the local consensus is holy Jesus we are screwed, but Detroiters, they have heart. And Kwame Kilpatrick, he has a long-term bunk.
There’s speculation in the comment thread on the CBS piece that the James Robertson story sounds fishy and may be a con. All I can say is that, against strong odds, it wasn’t narrated by Steve Hartman. Had that smarmy shit done the story, I would have had to point at him, turn up my nose, and say, “She doesn’t even go here!” This is a small mercy.
It’s a greater mercy than the city of Detroit can reasonably expect.