13098018-african-american-bride-and-groom-on-their-wedding-day6048910-a-handsome-business-man-with-car-license-plate-success-fictional-license-plateA record number of Detroit-area blacks have achieved the American dream of reaching middle class status as defined by income, education, lifestyle, attitude and a sense of accomplishment. Although well-educated, well-housed and well-heeled, they have a relatively low profile — for two reasons: They have been upstaged by the negative behavior of the black underclass. And they have hastily and quietly abandoned the city to greener pastures across 8 Mile Rd. and the western suburbs.

The civil rights movement spawned their debut. As opportunities opened up in the 1960s, many blacks seized the moment and moved upward and outward.

Their out-migration from Detroit to the suburbs was primed in part by the desire of better-off families to escape the social distress of the poverty-stricken “hood.” That included often-justifiable fears that children from disadvantaged families might be a bad influence – or threat – to their children. As a protective measure, they elected to limit their children’s exposure to the less savory aspects of core city life by voting with their feet.

As a rule, though, blacks still tend to huddle together; prefer the company of one another, whether in the city or suburbs. Upwardly mobile blacks are increasingly the exception. More than others, this group discovered a downside to black unity, like, for example, the proliferation of black criminals.

Their newly acquired status gave them the choice of either merging into white communities that offer a wealth of opportunities and amenities, or remaining in city neighborhoods in decline. Some split the difference and opted for predominantly black suburban enclaves where they face another set of issues.

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When suburb-bound blacks reach a critical mass, as in say, Oak Park or Southfield, whites tend to pack up and leave. Some of that flight is the result of long-held stereotypes and prejudices. Suburban black communities also carry higher social service costs than predominately white ones due to their predisposition to attract lower-income residents and renters. Home values also tend to dip. Undisciplined poor students from Detroit contribute to a decline in school quality.

Within a period as short as a decade, the suburban black enclave is again threatened by enough reprehensible behavior to cause families to move to a predominantly white community to get ahead of, if not escape, what is almost certain to be another influx of disorder. Here, they secretly hope to avoid, and in some cases discourage, “too much” neighborhood integration.

The new standard of success may be the ability of financially successful blacks to effectively “blend in” with their white neighbors while making a decisive break with their heritage. Living in two worlds and mastering both can prove challenging.

After all, those who have “moved on up” frequently leave close friends and relatives in their wake. As high achievers flee, a chasm opens between those who have “made it” and those who struggle to eke out a meager existence.

Their departure is the subject of much debate. City leaders are prone to play the “guilt” card in an effort to get them to return and “give back.” But is there still such a thing as a “black community?” If it exists, is it identified on the basis of color or class? Does it even make sense to quibble over such trivial assessments?

Apparently the black middle class has rejected any suggestion that it should carry on its shoulders the responsibility for concentrated black poverty. Rather than remorse, I see indifference. This leads me to believe their abandonment of the inner city is a permanent estrangement.

We have reached a point where the largest black middle class and the largest black underclass are speeding in opposite directions. This may also be a time when successful blacks accept that they now have more in common with their white suburban counterparts than with the inner-city poor wasting away in predictable misery.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting take, Bill. I remember when “The Bill Cosby Show” was gaining traction in the ratings and some black “leaders” expressed their concern that the show depicted a well-to-do black family. Their reasoning? Because they were fearful white America would see that and figure that the blacks were OK after all and no reason to worry about them. Can you imagine?

    It’s sad that ours is a time when some young black scholars in school are taunted and even bullied for having the temerity to try to make something of themselves.

    I think you’re right; “black flight” has been a silent movement that appears to be just gaining steam.

    Ahh, but what to do? That’s always the question?

  2. Great artice! This strikes home in a few ways and I will start with the one that was most pressing in shaping our (my wife and I) mindset when we decided to head for the hills (pun intended) 5 years ago. We have 3 children and in 2005 we came to conclusion that if we wanted our children to have a successful education that would both enrich their mind and utilize their talents we had to leave Detroit. We found that the Detroit Public Schools System was (and even more so now) unable to provide what we felt was a quality education because of under motivated teachers and leadership as well as under motivated parents and students. So, for the best interest of our children, we packed up and bought a home in the suburbs. I also felt that my children were not safe on their own street or in their own yard for that matter to ride their bikes and play. This also played a detrimental role in our decision to move. Now I don’t feel that we wanted to move close to the “whites”, but I do feel we wanted a better quality of living and a better school system to educate our future leaders of tomorrow. I would not care where I lived if my neighborhood was safe and the schools were adequate, but Detroit isn’t the place at this point. In our case it wasn’t about classism or race for that matter, it was a pure and simple choice of accepting community ineptitude or chasing our dreams and I do not regret it at all.

  3. I finally was able to escape in 2009. It was the crime and the school system that were the major reasons I wanted to leave. My quality of life has improved greatly where I live now. I can now read a book on my back patio without worrying about random gunfire. It is not normal to live in a atmosphere where you expect death and despair. I am an ICU nurse in the city and I see a number of crime victims daily. The atmosphere of crime has been normalized in the city. I am very happy I decided to make the move out of the city and it has affected my family life positively. Unless there is a drastic changes made, I do not see myself going back.

  4. Bill,

    This was avery courageous commentary on your part. What is unfortunate is that so many surrendered and left the City. If I understand your theme, you suggest that this movement may happen again now that the Black Middle class has established itself in the suburbs. The collapse of Detroit including the school system and the city government as we all know didn’t happen overnight and one can only ask can it be reborn? I would love for that eventuality but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. Can one really blame the teachers for not having the motivation to impart the best education they can on Detroit’sChildren? The school system is completely broken from the miserable and questionable mangement it has been subjected to andthe rush to create Charters, is more villian than Knight.

    In my opinion, Detroit’s destruction began with the creation of the Northland Shopping Center which is a point I made previously. I know that people will scoff at that viepoint but in reality there was never a regional plan to halt urban sprawl because too many bunsiness interests (land developers and builders) cared only about the economic rewards and less about the social impact abandonment of the inner core of metropolitan Detrit would experience and there were no leading political leaders at the time that cared about the future economic and political health of the city.

    With White Flight to the burbs that picked up steam in the mid 50’s and the slow exodous of business firms as well, the gradual then rapid decline of revenue left the city without the funds to maintain its infrastructure and provide the residents with vitally important public safety and health services.If our political and corporate leaders at the time did not envision this social and economic transformation then they were (are) dumber than I thought.

  5. While sitting in the basement of a friend’s house somewhere along the private road of a gated community in the northern suburbs of Detroit, I sipped on a mojito made with a rare Jamaican rum and thought little of the struggling community I’d left just twenty minutes earlier. Twenty minutes and another world away I found my mojito, my peace, and a paradigm shift.

    The shift came as my host’s teen daughter introduced her friends: “Unc, this is Jody, Ashley, and Jonathan”, she said as they ran off to some other part of the sprawling basement to facebook, diss the new kid or the old Unc., or whatever else kids do. Except for the various hues they were decidedly un-remarkable, just teens, being teens. What was remarkable was that my friend, still ambitious, still radical, and still with traces of black-nationalist thinking appeared perfectly comfortable in this serene suburban setting, looking down his wire frames into his cognac while holding a stogie like the ghost of a young Jimmy Stewart. My friend came along during the tail end of the movement, worked hard, took advantage of opportunities and became incredibly wealthy. Although he has residences in Chicago and Los Angeles, it is only when coming home to the Detroit area that he becomes a suburbanite. It is only here that this self professed Garvey-ite resides a world away from the most common of his compatriots.

    After a stint proving he was a Detroiter to the bone (read black and proud) he bought the little 6,500 square footer in the burbs because he could, and because it was a more conducive fit for his family (read safer). It seems that money proved a poor insulator against the mean streets of Detroit and its unsavory subculture with tentacles that can unravel the securest of family structures. So up and out he went. Post haste, but riddled with guilt and haunted by the chiding of friends (read Me). Had he given in to the promise of greener suburban pastures or given up because of encroaching urban decay and the people that symbolized that decay? Was he running to something, from something, both, neither?

    Another sip of my mojito and it became clear. Now, after years of twenty minute trips to that other world, the children have grown and are well adjusted, they and their friends are an assorted lot of very smart, very wealthy junior capitalists who’s varying hues will have nothing to do with their successes or failures. For my friend, the private drive and the gate are not symbols of his success at assimilating. Nor are they symbols of his successful departure from a people and their struggle. For him they are portals to opportunity, access, and privilege.

  6. While this topic can be very difficult for most people, my impression is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do value that you’ve added relevant and intelligent commentary here though. Very much thanks to you!

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  11. You speak of the black people who have given up on other “less fortunate” blacks. What you miss is that large group of people who are educated, well off financially and are not only concerned about the city residents, but are actively helping. Some of them live in the city while others reside in the wealthy comfort you describe in your article. I, along with many of my friends, am actively engaged in helping children who come from those families left behind. I could sit back and bask in the glow of my child’s Ivy League education; but that do-nothing attitude would be unconscionable to me. As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I saw Rev. King advocate for everyone. Now, those who wildly benefited from his ultimate sacrifice think they have made it and selfishly celebrate themselves. Shame. They should remember: You can’t run from yourself.

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