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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 430-434
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Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Ann Thompson. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 295. $35.00 cloth.
This is the kind of book that while you're reading it, you keep wanting it to be a whole lot better than it is. Not because it's bad. Just the reverse. Because it isn't, and because it could be and should be a whole lot better since all the essentials are here: a powerful story, a talented young scholar trying to do the right thing, and most important of all, a worthy cause to be served. [End Page 430]
It's the worthy cause that puts Heather Ann Thompson's Whose Detroit? in company with several other, recent books—books by young scholars who grew up in or around Detroit, who went to graduate school, got their degrees, and then decided to do right by their home town. There is, for example, Thomas Sugrue's crucial investigation of race and economics, The Origins of the Urban Crisis; or Suzanne Smith's study of Motown music, Dancing in the Street, or John Hartigan's wonderful examination of whiteness and "hillbillies" in Detroit, Racial Situations. Now, thanks to such works as these, there's a whole revisionist genre of Detroit studies, the aim of which is to show what Americans generally don't know about the city, but think they always already understand, and also to expose the cost that such ignorance exacts from us all, because Detroit is the most American place in this country, when it comes to race and racism, class and labor and the kinds of violence, overt and otherwise, that ignorance breeds. Detroit is not the exception, as most people elsewhere would like to believe; it's the rule (merely exaggerated), so that what we don't know about Detroit is what is bedeviling the rest of us, no matter whether we credit this truth or not.
And that's right where Heather Thompson (Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina/Charlotte) begins and ends her story about "politics, labor, and race in a modern American city," as the subtitle puts it—with the insistent, and justified, claim that Americans fail to understand Detroit at their peril:
By excavating the history of inner-city Detroit and its labor movement, and by re-examining their respective fates as the twentieth century neared its close, this book demonstrates the following central claims: America's urban centers did not merely waste away by the 1980s; political tensions among radicals, conservatives, and liberals after World War II shaped urban America as surely as did racial clashes; and finally the U.S. labor movement always had more power over its destiny than its leaders imagined. (8)
We get it wrong, in other words, when we write the city off as the failed, empty product of racial politics run amuck. The story is more complicated, and more complicatedly ours—all of ours—than that, as Thompson says in her conclusion: "[I]t would be a tragic mistake to see American urban centers by the mid-1980s as simply the doomed place that many whites left and where the economy took a nosedive" (219). And that's the important story she sets out to tell, about what most people don't know, or else don't want to credit about post-war Detroit. There's nothing inevitable about this most typical American city and the devastation that has taken place here; it is the result of choices that people made. And we might have chosen otherwise. But we didn't. [End Page 431]
Thompson has organized her book around the story of an African American auto worker, James Johnson, Jr., whose name is probably unknown now even to most people in the city where he lived, and where his life went disastrously and dangerously wrong. "While Johnson is clearly not an Everyman," Thompson reasonably cautions,
his participation in the Second Great Migration to...