- Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit by Karen Miller
In her captivating study of interwar Detroit, Karen Miller sets out to uncover the origins of color-blind racism. Color-blind racism, she argues, is key to understanding modern American politics but is itself not properly understood. In particular, its historical origins have often been misconstrued by historians of the postwar period. Rather than locate the point of origin in the post-1945 period, as she argues these historians have, Miller places it in the 1920s and 1930s. To convince scholars to shift their attention to the earlier era, Miller develops an analysis of what she contends was the prevailing racial ideology in Detroit between the wars, an ideology she terms “northern racial liberalism” (3). Northern racial liberals were whites who were concerned primarily not with fairness but with control: control of African Americans’ aspirations for racial equality and control of racist violence and the threat it posed to orderly metropolitan growth. And although over the 1920s and 1930s a growing number of northern racial liberals evinced a more sincere but still distinctly limited commitment to racial justice, even by the end of the Depression, white Detroiters with that outlook remained a small minority. Moreover, whatever racially egalitarian leanings this small group had were undercut by their belief that racism was first and foremost a moral, and therefore individual, problem. In Miller’s view, “The principle of ‘tolerance’ was both the beginning and the end of northern racial liberals’ prescription for the problems of African Americans” (101). At the center of her account are “local liberal state officials” who exercised great influence over relations between black and white residents (19). Working-class whites, by comparison, figure less prominently than in most studies of twentieth-century urban racial politics.
Four sources of social conflict in interwar Detroit accounted for the emergence of northern racial liberalism: labor market segmentation, residential segregation, urban reform, and civil rights activism. In each of these realms, northern racial liberals sought a modus vivendi with black Detroiters that largely preserved the status quo while conceding a very small measure of progress. As she examines these four areas of political struggle, Miller’s study encompasses a number of important moments in the history of race and racism in interwar America. Some of the topics covered are likely to be familiar, including the World War I race riots, the Ku Klux Klan’s explosive resurgence in the early 1920s, the Sweet case in 1925, and interracial organizing by the CIO. Miller also delves deeply into less well-known material, including the racial politics of municipal vaccination programs, interracial investigative committees, New Deal public housing projects, and Detroit’s mayoral elections. Throughout, Miller pays careful attention to the evolving relationship between local officials and African American civil rights activists from a range of organizations. As she deftly puts it, “The modern racial liberal state, characterized by its leaders’ disinterest in addressing structural racism, was thus [End Page 100] engineered at the points of struggle and reconciliation between white and black liberal leaders” (74).
In making that argument, Miller explicitly and implicitly takes to task some of the principal works in postwar US history for failing to investigate the pre-1941 antecedents to postwar racial backlash. This criticism is, to some extent, easily met: those scholars were asking different questions about racial politics at a different moment of history rather than investigating the origins of color-blind racism. As a corollary to her claim that historians have overlooked the depth of racism in interwar northern urban America, Miller also contends that historians have overstated the differences between racial regimes in northern and southern states. She is critical of scholars who contend that southern political elites played an outsized role in the development of public policies that sustained racial inequality. It is not her principal concern, however, and Miller leaves to others the kind of systematic comparison that would be necessary to make that point convincingly.
Miller’s consideration of the...