White thought, black thought

Reading color and the difference it makes in the Motor City.

by Marc Christensen







Reacting to race in complex, even sensitive ways.














Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit

John Hartigan Jr.
Princeton University Press
$19.95, paper, 354 pp.

When John Hartigan went looking for places which could tell us new and important things about how race matters and how it takes shape through daily practices, he started in the right place: here in Detroit.

Specifically, he looked in one of the poorest sections of Detroit’s underpopulated center, the Briggs neighborhood north of Tiger Stadium. Because Briggs is mostly white, Hartigan avoids the awkward old "truisms" of race which rely on an imagined black ghetto, and instead suggests lively, original ways of thinking about how class intersects with preoccupations about race. Perhaps more important is that Hartigan’s book, taken in its entirety, rings true here in Detroit: It tells us things which, after thinking about them, we always kind of knew, but couldn’t articulate. This is a rare treat.

Although it’s only the first of three white-majority neighborhoods that Racial Situations considers, Briggs sets the stage for the rest of the book by neatly overturning other presuppositions almost as strongly held as the myth of the all-black city. Hartigan manages to show the hypocrisy of believing that Briggs’ "hillbilly" cultural norms could be uniformly racist, when so many day-to-day interactions in this area cross color lines. Hartigan is a good storyteller here, and a clear analyst of how local residents, black and white, make sense of race as it affects their lives and their sometimes desperate attempts to make do in this impoverished bit of the city.

Although Hartigan pulls out some good historical material on how the term "hillbilly" was used in Briggs around World War II – both to police the behavior of rural whites and to keep color lines sharply distinct – his most powerful cases are contemporary, because they explore a living, active process. The residents of Briggs don’t easily assume, for instance, that Malice Green was beaten to death because he was black. They’ve all seen cops menace folks and bash a few heads, in every color combination of cops and residents imaginable. Instead, they try to make sense, in their own neighborhood, of how race matters, and when it’s more or less immaterial to the fights and arguments which constantly erupt among people of all colors in Briggs.

For Hartigan, attention to storytelling helps untangle race and class, even though narrative also produces race as a mode of understanding. How people describe situations, and registers of power and inequality, is central to the convincing method of this book.

Hartigan asks what one self-described "hillbilly" is doing with race when he calls himself a "nigger" in front of his black friend. And, to Hartigan’s credit, he shows how – in this context and between these two people – this violation of code is an attempt to demonstrate the stupidity and arbitrariness of race, as well as to control the hurt produced by middle-class labeling of hillbillies as "white trash."

Trying to inhabit the "bad" position (and fooling around with the linguistic signs of race and class) doesn’t make this awful word any kinder, but it does help us understand how folks in this area – despite poverty, rowdiness and roughness of speech – regularly react to race in complex, even sensitive ways.

Similarly, after a fight (and name-calling) breaks out between members of one hillbilly family and several black residents, the incident gets told and retold among the family for weeks, in an obsessive attempt to figure out whether "all that black and white shit" was real (that is, did someone in the family do something disrespectful). Or whether, in this instance, the charges of racism leveled against them were merely an emotional screen for some other antagonism.

The problem may have been simply linguistic: The fight was over a wicker chair, and the likely hypothesis the family works out is that the black folks they were buying it from misheard one of them, hearing "nigger" instead of "wicker." Most powerful here is the recognition that even though members of this family might think themselves above using this word without provocation or motivation, the mishearing implies a pre-existing belief by their neighbors that they would say such a thing.

Hartigan makes palpable the uncomfortable realization that blacks would have justifiable reason for anticipating this word in the family’s speech. To the extent that inequities of class and race get mixed up in everyday life, the suspicions, entanglements and missteps along all fronts remain tense.

The uncomfortable feeling of being objectified that reverberates in the "hillbilly" neighborhood of Briggs also resonates just south of the Fisher Freeway, in Corktown. But one clear observation Hartigan makes early in this analysis is that the mostly middle-class residents of this neighborhood don’t interact with their racial or class others in the same kinds of tense but meaningful ways that people in Briggs do.

Although several other really interesting topics develop here, the most pervasive question that the Briggs-Corktown juxtaposition raises is whether any sincere discussion about race can even take place in the relatively anaesthetized places where the middle-class manages to interact across racial lines.

One example of this is how residents and neighborhood groups in Corktown regularly displace questions of race into ones of class, profession, architectural history and "gentrification" – in an attempt to avoid wrestling with the relative "whiteness" of Corktown – and thereby negate "race" as an available term for conflict or censure.

But even as Corktown dreams of ignoring the significance of race, the situation in Warrendale, the book’s last neighborhood (on the west side near Dearborn), becomes a nightmare: The community is branded as "racist" when residents oppose the opening of the Malcolm X Academy. Hartigan shows how the objections made by local working-class residents about the quality of education available at their overcrowded local school walked side-by-side with their perception that the school board would divert money and basic services to the Academy, and that the Academy would serve a primarily middle-class student base.

When the locals objected – whatever their reasons – race, class and demographics intersected in dangerous ways, and they were easily branded "racists" because of their unprofessional speech, and because they couldn’t control how other people thought the "whiteness" of their neighborhood mattered.

By looking at how race and class matter in these neighborhoods, Hartigan follows paths laid down by prominent black thinkers such as Cornel West and William Julius Wilson. And by asking us to see race and class in different ways, this book helps us imagine a world where such categories might be meaningless or superseded, even as it immerses us in the intractable, dangerous and hurtful relationships these fields of inequality perpetuate around us.

Marc Christensen writes about books for the Metro Times.

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