History, Geography and Renisha McBride

(Editorial piece for the Detroit News, November 18, 2013)

The geographer William Bunge wrote that “no stronger indication of the power of white racism can be found than its ability to hide historic geography.” I came across this remark some years ago while researching suburban Detroit, where I spent my childhood.

I was born in Dearborn on Outer Drive, the long, strange road that surrounds Detroit like a horseshoe, the same road where Renisha McBride was killed. Having started life on Outer Drive, then moved to neighboring Garden City, I approached my research with an outwardly simple question: How might I explain the fact that until I grew up and moved away from suburban Detroit, I never met a black person?

By looking into the history of Detroit and its suburbs, I found a great number of possible answers to my question — in exclusionary real estate practices, in housing policies, in America’s peculiar history of anti-urbanism and its idealization of the small town. More crucially, I found that virtually all of these were shaped by the inescapable facts of racism and segregation. Racism might appear in the details of zoning documents; or it might erupt in an ugly crowd, for example, in the 1963 attack on a Dearborn home believed (falsely it turned out) to have been rented to a black family. Such information is available to any white suburbanite who wishes to know why he or she never knew many black people. This is part of our history.

As a child, I loved our street in Garden City. It was a space created for baby boomer childhood and neighborliness. Again, part of our history. Yet as an adult learning about Garden City, I discovered there had once been a race exclusion sign on our town’s border with Inkster. Our neighborliness had its exceptions. This, too, is part of our history.

The point here is a simple one: We need to know it all. Not to speak of the sign, not to question suburban segregation — that would be to do precisely what Bunge warned, to leave white racism untouched and unchallenged by hiding historic geography.

Take the tangled histories of Inkster and Dearborn Heights, where McBride was killed. Dearborn Heights incorporated in 1960, having been created from two sections of Dearborn Township and a connecting strip of land from Inkster. But the Dearborn-Inkster connection goes back further, to Henry Ford. Ford was a Dearborn man, not known for his love of cities. Having stated that “the real United States lies outside cities,” Ford decentralized production early, opening the River Rouge plant in the 1920s and making Dearborn — not Detroit — the center of operations. This posed an immediate problem for black workers. Although white auto workers might reside in Dearborn, the town was closed to black residence.

A local solution was found in 1921 when a property developer bought a tract of land in Inkster and built cottages at low cost for black workers employed at the Rouge complex. This set in motion Inkster’s early development as a suburb with a sizable black population — a suburb that grew as a direct response to the suburbanization of Ford industry and to the local apartheid practiced by Dearborn and other communities near the Rouge plant.

This is America and this is our history. Whatever the eventual outcome of the McBride case, her death on a suburban front porch stirs memories of these historic geographies. Listen, for example, to statements made at the first rally following the shooting: “Southeastern Michigan is one of the most segregated areas in the country. … It has been a fact for decades. It’s a kind of apartheid. The city of Detroit is surrounded by segregated suburbs.”

These are black memories. Those of us who come from the suburbs face choices about how we might join this conversation. This is our history too. And history has a way of erupting into the present, sometimes with great violence.

Isn’t it tragically long past time to meet with those who have been so effectively erased from our communities and our minds? We might begin by thinking about Renisha McBride.


About Amy Kenyon

Amy Kenyon is a historian, writer and photographer.
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