When I moved to Detroit in 2012, I came to think about gentrification in the city and settler colonialism together because the metaphors were unavoidable. Newspapers called new residents “urban pioneers” (e.g., this article that describes new restaurateurs as “urban pioneers”) or “urban homesteaders” (this 2010 Time article suggests a new Homestead Act to give away Detroit land) who were settling in a city called frequently an “urban frontier.” Art and other media produced about Detroit frequently depicted this city (despite its population being greater than either the city of Portland or Washington, DC) as totally abandoned and empty—and thus open for any takers.“Longtime Detroiters—particularly Black Detroiters, who constituted more than 80 percent of the city’s population—were losing their homes and access to life-giving water at terrifying rates.”
I lived in Detroit from 2012 to 2016, a time of enormous change—both in terms of the way the city was narrated and the ways in which longtime residents experienced the practical details of their lives, particularly as related to housing. The city is perhaps best known for population loss in the 1970s and 1980s, as white residents moved to the suburbs and as the automotive industry closed factories. But in fact, proportionately the period of most dramatic population change occurred from 2000 to 2010, when Detroit lost fully 25 percent of its residents.1US Census, “2010 Census ” (United States Census Bureau, 2010). This time frame coincided with the national foreclosure crisis, which both lasted longer and was more dramatic in Detroit than in the country as a whole, due at least in part to the fact that the city had one of the highest proportions of subprime mortgages in the country.2Jacob S. Rugh and Douglas S. Massey, “Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis,” American Sociological Review 75, no. 5 (2010): 629–51. These predatory mortgages specifically targeted Black and Brown communities like Detroit.3Jacob W. Faber, “Racial Dynamics of Subprime Mortgage Lending at the Peak,” Housing Policy Debate 23, no. 2 (2013): 328–49. From 2005 to 2014 more than one-third of Detroit’s homes were either mortgage or tax foreclosed.4John Kruth and Christine MacDonald, “Volume of Abandoned Homes ‘Absolutely Terrifying’,” Detroit News, June 24, 2015, online edition. From 2014 to the present, about 40 percent of Detroit residents have been threatened with getting shut off from running water through an aggressive water shut-off program.5 We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit (Detroit: We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, 2016). Longtime Detroiters—particularly Black Detroiters, who constituted more than 80 percent of the city’s population—were losing their homes and access to life-giving water at terrifying rates. Black neighborhoods in Detroit (which constitute most of the city) were in a state of increasing trauma and anxiety.
And yet in this same period, national and international media hailed the city as making a “comeback.” Detroit, long in crisis, was newly on the upswing (we were told). New investment was coming in, and new residents—whose personal productivity would make the space of the city itself more productive. The city was coming back. Or even more dramatically, the city was about to be saved. The racial subtext of this narrative could hardly be ignored, particularly when articles about comeback and salvation were populated largely by white faces; the city was “coming back” because white people were coming back.
How, I asked, is it possible that this moment of unprecedented displacement in Detroit could so consistently be narrated as comeback and not disaster? What does it mean that narratives of the city with the largest Black population in the United States increasingly echo settler colonialism and Native American dispossession?
Broadening the theoretical and analytical framework
Land in the Americas was categorized by the British Crown as terra nullius—nobody’s land—thereby discursively erasing Indigenous people themselves and legally eliminating their claims to land and territory. And Indigenous people themselves were continually literally made to disappear through displacement and genocidal campaigns, which were driven by white settler desire for land. Since colonization, Native Americans’ racialization has largely been geared toward disappearance, which has been crucial for both the justification and logistics of white occupation of Native land. By contrast, Black Americans historically have been racialized as hypervisible.“Black people in the United States have been largely racialized first through the social and economic institution of slavery, and then through a stratified economic system that continued to extract labor from them in exploitative ways.”
Critical race theorists like Patrick Wolfe posit that the particular racial schemas that develop for any racial group—e.g., the stereotypes, racial positioning—develops largely in accordance to what white capital has sought to extract from them. Black people in the United States have been largely racialized first through the social and economic institution of slavery, and then through a stratified economic system that continued to extract labor from them in exploitative ways. This has led to specific forms of racism and racialization. For example, the one drop rule, a racial “common sense” which categorizes anyone with any visible African ancestry as Black, has its origins in chattel slavery. This categorization benefited slave owners who frequently engaged in rape and sexual violence against enslaved women. The one drop rule meant that children from these violent encounters continued to be considered Black, regardless of how much European ancestry they had, and therefore inherited the enslaved status of their mother, increasing the wealth of slave owners. The one drop rule continues to influence who in the United States “counts” as Black.
By contrast, a logic of elimination6Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387–409. that Wolfe describes as structuring Indigenous racialization continues, both in various forms of denial of Indigenous claims to land and in an invisibilization of Indigenous people themselves. One example of this that I have bumped up against in my own research is the fact that while the US Department of Labor publishes a racial breakdown of its employment statistics, these almost never include numbers for Native Americans.7For an example, please see this Employment Situation Summary Table for household data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.a.htm. They are simply not acknowledged as a group. The fact that Native Americans as a group are not included in the particular statistics on labor underscores not only Indigenous invisibilization, but also Yellowknives Dene scholar, Glen Coulthard’s contention that Native Americans, while being dispossessed from their land, have tended not to be proletarianized;8Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014More Info → that is, while Black people in the United States have tended to be racialized as low-wage workers, Indigenous people have tended to be racialized as nonworkers.
Displacement, surplus labor, and the invisibilization of Black Detroit
It is striking then that Black Detroiters, unlike the historical racialization of Black people as hypervisible, are increasingly invisible in mass media discourse about Detroit. The stories of revival still reek of long histories of anti-Blackness, particularly an implied sense that the lives of the individual Black people whose homes were being taken, who would no longer have access to basic life necessities like water, are fungible,9New York: Oxford University Press, 1997More Info → outside of the norms of “universal” rights,10Denise Ferreira Da Silva, “Towards a Critique of the Socio-Logos of Justice: The Analytics of Raciality and the Production of Universality,” Social Identities 7, no. 3 (September 1, 2001): 421–54. and ultimately irrelevant to the broader goals of the city. But what was happening in Detroit also seemed to me about something else: property and land. In development discourse, Black Detroiters are increasingly racialized in ways that more closely resemble the racialization of Native Americans than the historical racialization of Black Americans. What are possible explanations for this?“Many of the industries in which Black people had historically labored have shifted toward hiring labor that is even more exploitable.”
I believe that we can look to the shifting place of Black people in the economy to think through some answers to this question. The shift toward the invisibilization of Black people in Detroit, a city previously racially coded in many ways as the epitome of Black cities, has taken place in a historic moment in which the structure of the US economy has been experiencing dramatic changes. Many of the industries in which Black people had historically labored have shifted toward hiring labor that is even more exploitable. Agricultural and domestic work has increasingly gone to immigrants, whose labor is made extremely exploitable through precarious citizenship statuses. The manufacturing work which had previously employed Black workers in Northern cities like Detroit has been increasingly automated or exported out of the country to workers whose labor is made cheap through, for instance, structural adjustment programs.
As Black labor has become increasingly “surplus” in the industries that employed many Black workers in the early and mid-twentieth century, capitalist investment strategies have increasingly focused on possible profits from Black-occupied land. That is, the racialization of Black people has shifted to more closely resemble that of Native Americans as their place in a white settler economy has come to more closely resemble that of Native Americans.
This shift in economy, I posit, has led to a dominant development discourse in rapidly gentrifying Black cities, like Detroit, which melds racialized tropes commonly used in the context of settler colonialism (discourses of erasure, a sense that new “urban pioneer” residents are fulfilling a moral duty to improve the city by occupying land, etc.) with longstanding portrayals of Black urban violence and dystopia.
Discourses of Black invisibility, which characterize Black cities as unoccupied and in need of salvation, lend themselves to racialized narratives like those of Detroit’s “comeback.” This narration of comeback, coinciding with the massive displacement of Black Detroiters, makes sense only because we as a nation are conditioned to both accept ongoing narratives of settler colonialism and the racial logic that views Black lives as indeed not mattering. Ultimately, in order to understand and counter incursions on urban Black communities, researchers and activists must take seriously not only the Black experience of living in the wake of slavery, but also the experience of ongoing structures of settler colonialism.