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Reviewed by:
  • Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City
  • George P. Mason
Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City. By Heather Ann Thompson. Ithaca, NY: ILR/Cornell University Press, 2004. 304 pp. $45.00 hardback, $19.95 paper.

Heather Thompson's Whose Detroit?, an aptly titled book, examines the social, economic, and political origins of the post-war conflict among radicals, conservatives, and liberals which shaped the Motor City. Thompson specifically focuses on the crisis-ridden period of 1967-73, including events [End Page 93] surrounding the 1967 Detroit rebellion, and "argues more broadly for rethinking our received wisdom about the fate of postwar American cities, liberal politics and the U.S. labor movement." Thompson provides a comprehensive, rich and vibrant analysis of Detroit which integrates race, class, and gender into an examination of the complex and inexorable interrelationship between urban transformation and organized labor. Whose Detroit? provides a timely examination of the historical and social processes which will certainly provide a model for expanding our understanding of current problems facing cities and organized labor.

While Thompsonexamines the urban, political, and labor dimensions, and the interrelationship between these phenomena, this book is much more than simply a story of urban decay and the decline of organized labor. The author has developed a conceptual framework which demonstrates how individual agency intertwines with a social structure defined by race, class, andgender inequity. She skillfully challenges many prevailing premises and assumptions of urban decay and the fate of labor including the "problematic assumptions about the character of cities, politics and labor circa 1980."

The narrative Thompson employs demonstrates how "the U.S. labor movement always had more power over its destiny than its leaders imagined." She successfully argues that the problems are much more complex than a simple dichotomy of liberal versus conservative or black versus white, and she deftly connects the fate of organized labor and urban politics to actions of the Detroit Police Department (through its infamous Red Squad and STRESS unit—known to city blacks "as little more than an all-white, DPD-sanctioned vigilante organization"), the courts, politics, violence, religion, black nationalism, the development of Revolutionary Union Movements among black UAW rank and file, and even segregationist support for George Wallace among white UAW workers.

Thompson uses considerable evidence in her examination to illustrate how simple explanations or dichotomies will not suffice. Throughout Whose Detroit? the reader is presented with a micro-history of Chrysler UAW autoworker James Johnson Jr.—a micro-history exemplifing the particular class and racial inequality which developed in the post-war period. Just as many Detroit blacks in 1967 responded rebelliously to the failed promise of liberalism and the Great Society, James Johnson Jr. responded—to the social inequality, horrendous and dangerous working conditions at Chrysler's Eldon Avenue plant, and UAW officials who "considered black radicals in both the city and in the plants extremely dangerous to the union"—by killing two foremen and a job-setter on the shop-floor. Thompson connects the micro-history of Johnson to the larger social questions by guiding the reader through the myriad of facts [End Page 94] in court records, considerable archival collections, numerous print medium, personal interviews, and a thorough examination of existing examinations.

Whose Detroit? is a refreshing examination of the Motor City which will add considerably to the literature and debate surrounding the role and fate of labor in social transformation. The book may be criticized for trying to do too much and not providing enough historical specificity. Another criticism that Thompson may face surrounds the use of the micro-history, which gives the book the read of an excellent drama in which race and class are shown to permeate social and political life at so many levels. Finally, the categorization of conservative whites and liberals may be a brush too easily and broadly used with insufficient evidence or definition—even though she is accurate, given the history of Detroit.

Whose Detroit? is an exceptional and well-written narrative that is worth reading for its own sake. This book is an absolute must for any study on Detroit, as it examines much of what...


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pp. 93-95
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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