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Notes on a Rebellion

An armoured personnel carrier rumbles down a Detroit street in 1967. Courtesy of Shorpy Historic Photo Archive.

The Detroit riots or rebellion that took place in late July of 1967 has always had an effect on me.  Not  because I witnessed it, I wouldn’t be born for another two years, but I did see the event through the eyes of my mother who witnessed the events by accident.  She was living in Flint (my hometown) and went down to Detroit for the day to the zoo.  Someone told them about the disturbances and to be careful.  Her cousin was driving and for whatever reason went through one of the main flashpoints of the riot.  Mom said she saw people bleeding, a grocery store on fire and people smashing and grabbing at the car, her cousin had to look for Car accident lawyers to pay the damages.  She has told me that the images would bother her for months afterward.

The events of late July and early August of 1967 had a profound change on the city.  They highlighted the racial tensions that had been going on for a long time. On some parallel universe, say on Earth-23, the rebellion would have been a wakeup call and would have led to making changes to help blacks who had not fared well in Detroit for decades.

But that didn’t happen.

Conservative columnist Nolan Finley writes in the Detroit News how the events in ’67 led an accelerated white flight from the Motor City and into the suburbs.  This had a profound effect on the Detroit Metro area, for both the urban core and the suburbs:

The riot was the seminal moment in Detroit’s history, the point from which nothing would be the same. But it was also transformational for the suburbs, and for those white Detroiters who would very soon become suburbanites.

For many, it marked a final break with Detroit, a turning away from a place that had been home to generations of their families, the spawning of resentment that would over time grow into hostility and outright hatred of the city and its people…

Over the years, I’ve interviewed countless white, ex-Detroiters whose families left the city after the riots. Nearly always, they talked about how their old neighborhoods “changed”: code for “blacks moved in.”

So many had not been back to the city since, even though they resettled just a few miles away. Once in a while they might drive past their old houses to shake their heads at its fate. But except for an occasional Tigers game, they were done with Detroit once they moved to the suburbs.

And proudly so. “I never go to Detroit” was a bragging statement. And they really didn’t have to. The suburbs became totally autonomous from the city in a way unmatched anywhere else.

In their isolation from Detroit, it became in their minds a sinister place, populated by violent and dangerous people — black people.

I grew up an hour north of Detroit in the 70s and 80s. I could see that the move from Detroit was fueled by a fear of blacks and white families were determined to move as far away as possible. As Finley notes, I have heard of talk from some whites that were proud to have never set foot in the Motor City. The move out of the city meant that tax dollars were leaving as well, causing the city to have less responsive city services. And as Finley states, statewide legislators turned against Michigan’s largest city, making sure Detroit was starved of resources and punishing any lawmaker that voted to help Detroit.

Now, some of the reason for Detroit’s slide is because of corrupt leadership from leaders such as the late Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor in the 70s, and Kwame Kilpatrick who was mayor in the aughts until he was convicted in 2008. But the main reason for Detroit’s fall from grace was because of whites who left the city and then made sure to punish it for decades.

Anyone looking at Detroit now can see a bit of a rebirth happening. Downtown and Midtown are coming back to life. It’s not unusual to see the Institute of Arts teeming with visitors. A new streetcar line winds its way down Woodward Avenue. Detroit is becoming a place people want to visit.

But that doesn’t mean everything is well.  Segregated suburbs meant that mass transit around the Detroit Metro was poor to nonexistent.  Detroit made headlines a few years back after the Detroit Free Press did a story on James Robinson, a 56 year old man that walked 21 miles to his job in the suburbs because the bus system didn’t go all the way to his workplace. One result of his story was a new push for a regional transit plan, something that Detroit has yet to do that other major metros have done decades ago. In 2016,  a funding plan went up for a vote in the four metro counties.  While it won in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and Washtenaw, which is home to the college town of Ann Arbor, it lost narrowly in upper class Oakland County and by a wide margin in blue collar Macomb County, which meant the vote lost.  Even after all these years, there are still some that don’t want to do anything that benefits Detroit and “those people.”

Americans, especially white Americans in the North, like to see racism as something that happened down there in the South.  It was those backwards folk that made black lives so hard.  White Americans in the North could take pride that there weren’t signs saying “whites only.” They told themselves that blacks in the North were equals, unlike in the American South.

But what happened on a summer’s evening 50 years ago, reminds all of us that racism didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line.  Racial problems were there long before July 1967, and sadly the rebellion of that year didn’t open the eyes of white Detroiters to learn how their darker brothers and sisters lived; no, it only forced them to cocoon themselves into homogenous suburbs while letting the city of Detroit burn- sometimes literally.

As Detroit starts a turnaround, I pray it can become a place where there is racial reconcilation that will bring justice for the city’s African Americans and the city they call home.


Staff Writer

Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis, MN.  You can follow Dennis through his blogs, The Clockwork Pastor and Big Tent Revue and on Twitter.  Feel free to contact him at dennis.sanders(at)gmail(dot)com.

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47 thoughts on “Notes on a Rebellion

  1. Several, somewhat disjointed thoughts:

    1) A lot of your post seems to be along the lines of the “middle class people shouldn’t take their kids out of crappy public schools but keep them in, and lobby for improvements” argument that went around a while back.

    2) Either that or it’s “Whites where shitty and racists to blacks and then when the blacks rioted, they bailed from the city and punished them.”

    Maybe, as my GF has come to realize, is that the “white flight” also has to do with being tired of putting up with the crap from shitty city administrations and bureaucrats who can’t keep the roads paved, can’t keep the street lights fixed, charge outrageous user fees for water (10 times what the suburbs charge-and get the water from the same damn place), etc. that make living in the city more of a PITA than it’s worth vs moving 10 miles in any compass direction? Maybe the “riots’ were the last straw?

    But let’s assume that 2 is true. I doubt most of the whites back then went around actively oppressing blacks. So while they bear SOME responsibility, most were probably just trying to get along with life. Then the riots happen. Now they decided “f this” and “have to move” away from dangerous riots. Is payback, in the terms of “you made your bed, now lie in it” so surprising?

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    • Damon,
      Of course they were actively trying to oppress blacks. White folks got FHA loans, black folks got to move to high rises. This was systemic, legalized discrimination and oppression (fun fact: to even get into the high rises, you needed to be married).

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      • Fun fact!

        The gov’t mandated discrimination in loans and construction and HOAs. Reference “The Rate Movie”.

        “This was systemic, legalized discrimination and oppression ” Yes it was. You can thank you’re gov’t for that. You can also thank them for a whole host of other atrocities they committed…or are you going to blame the whole of white people for that?

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        • Damon,
          Honestly? depends on the atrocity. The marianas? Not so much, as it wasn’t a Topic of Interest, and nobody really voted about it. Vietnam? Oh, hell yeah, I’m blaming all us Americans as a group.

          White folks? Well, I’ll blame them when they deserve it. Sometimes it’s broad based culture as implemented by the government (and I do think the housing discrimination was part of it, you can see it in the redlining), and sometimes (giving illegal drugs to black kids as part of a psych study in the 1990s) it’s just someone being stupid and idiotic and hoping not to get caught.

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          • I take no blame for Vietnam. I was a youngling.

            I am not to blame for the actions of prior generations. And I don’t support employees of a gov’t that abducted people and put them in camps, that conducted medical experiments on people, etc.

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          • What’s the problem with Vietnam, other than that we abandoned them to totalitarian communism, causing millions to flee and hundreds of thousands to drown at sea?

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            • George,
              m16s. We fought a stupid war using stupid ideas, and lost a ton of lives for no real purpose.

              BTW, I’m still awaiting your vocipherous denoucement of the Vietnam Memorial as “government funded NEA bullshit”

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              • I agree that we fought the war using stupid ideas, which is why we quit.

                Harry G Sommers covers most of them in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, which became required reading at the Command and General Staff College.

                The book applies Clausewitz and shows that we did pretty much everything wrong, from not having a unified command, to not knowing whether we were on the offensive or defensive (strategically or tactically), to not striking the enemy’s critical point, etc, etc. His conclusion is that the war could have been easily won with far fewer casualties on both sides by maintaining a DMZ and threatening the North with a seaborne invasion if they rolled south. Basically, Korean War reprise II.

                Another recommended read is A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.

                The author listened to all the tapes from MACV headquarter from 1968 to 1972, when Creighton Abrams was in charge. That period of the war was conducted so differently from the McNamara/Westmoreland period that it should be considered a different war, one that we were winning, or rather one that the ARVN and Ruff Puffs were winning. It was only in this second period that the Army realized that perhaps the 500,000 or so militia members should have decent rifles.

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                • George,
                  That book’s way too old to be hitting most of what West Point would critique nowadays.
                  We completely retooled our military after Vietnam — and if you can’t explain the difference between large squad tactics and small ones, then you’re missing a great deal of what was wrong.

                  *Some people might say “but they didn’t know any better”. To that I say fie! You lose that many lives, and I’m going to hold you to standards.

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                • America ultimately left Vietnam because it lost the home front. Trying to explain why our 18 year old kids had to travel halfway around the world to fight an enemy that posed no threat to America just was not possible.

                  That said, this is one of the more beneficial side effects of the draft. Not like the low-level nonsense we’ve been involved with in the Middle East for the last decade and a half. The all volunteer army has become a tool of American adventurism, to no good end.

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                  • Leaving Vietnam wasn’t the same as losing. After we left, South Vietnam stood longer than Iraq did from Obama’s withdrawal to the capture of Mosul by ISIS. Abrams felt that he needed two more years to get the ARVN ready to stand on their own, and it was two years we wouldn’t let him have.

                    South Vietnam still probably would have won in ’75 but we’d put them under an arms embargo and their troops simply ran out of ammunition. One ARVN division that was completely surrounded by four NVA divisions utterly decimated them – and then shortly after that ran completely out of ammunition.

                    And of course Ford refused to provide air support to stop the ’75 invasion. We’d used air support almost entirely to stop the ’72 invasion and the North Vietnamese had to spend three years rebuilding their army and getting resupplied with foreign weapons before they could try again.

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      • Anecdote: When my parents white-flighted from a suburb on the edge of the city (not Detroit) that was getting “too dark” to an exclusive gated community on a private lake in the ’80’s, I recall being disgusted by how proudly they related that their contract included a clause allowing the HOA first dibs on any property going up for sale in order to “keep out the riff-raff”. It was probably a decade after they moved in that the first black family bought a house there, but everyone was cool with that because the new homeowner played for the local NFL team. To this day it is still almost exclusively all-white.

        I live in a (way) predominately black neighborhood in the city proper. I have great neighbors who smile and wave hello while walking their dogs past my house, or pause their yard work to chat across the backyard fence, just like any other neighborhood. But my poor parents are scared to death to visit me at my house or join me for lunch at a favorite local “soul food” restaurant (Soul food – don’t you know what that means? Yeah Mom, it means there will be black people eating there too, get over it. No – it means we’ll be the only whites there! In my experience, probably not, but if so, why should that matter?). I am saddened at how their “soft bigotry” has clouded their judgment and limited their options.

        And that “systemic, legalized discrimination and oppression” that Damon says is all the government’s fault? Who does he think the government is in a democratic republic? “We have met the enemy and he is us”, indeed. One thing my parents have always done with unfailing consistency is vote. If more people were half as vigilant about voting there’s no way we would be saddled with the government we have now.

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        • “Who does he think the government is in a democratic republic?”

          Yeah, because the public endorsed and demanded from the elected representatives, entry into WW2, the syphilis experimentation, the the legislation mandating builders not sell to blacks, the transfer of census data so jap/americans could be rounded up and put in camps, the forays into Korea and Vietnam, the overthrow of Iran’s elected gov’t and the installation of the shah, the destabilization of Ukraine, the Bosnian war…

          Yeah, the american public was all over insisting the american gov’t do that stuff. You want me to continue?

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          • Damon,
            I lived in what used to be a Sundown town. It’s disingenuous to say that folks didn’t want blacks to live there, and weren’t using every tool, including the government, at their disposal.

            The public endorsed entry into WWII just as much as they did our fight in Kuwait. Public endorsing something just means there’s enough PR to make that happen.

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          • “Yeah, the american public was all over insisting the american gov’t do that stuff”

            I seem to have forgotten the part where the American public threw the bums out that did all that stuff instead of re-electing them like they did.

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    • White flight is a complicated policy. Federal and state governments did a lot to encourage the suburban boom in mid-twentieth century America by giving White Americans a lot of incentives to move out of the city and into single-family homes in the suburbs. Highways were built, public transit disfavored for decades, and federally guaranteed mortgages were given to White Americans easily. It turned a nation of renters into home owners. These were very popular with the electorate though. It was probably the most popular example of social engineering in American politics.

      Whether the cities were badly administrated were a different question. By the mid-20th century, most of the old style political machines were dead and replaced by more modern style politicians. The old style political machines weren’t necessarily bad administrators though. Tammany Hall knew they had to deliver efficient services to get elected. The mid-20th century politicians also seemed to do well. Cities went south when they got deliberately screwed by federal and state anti-urban politics.

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      • “White Flight” is a coordination problem.

        I’d be willing to bet that the majority of the white flight stories out there are sympathetic. “I got a job offer at a great place!” is the story behind why my family moved, for example. The problem is that any given story is sympathetic, all of them together lead to a city where the only people left are the ones who cannot move.

        Then time passes and rents are cheap. Next thing you know, you’re dealing with “gentrification”.

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        • One family moving out of the city isn’t bad but millions of families moving to the city makes at a place for the very wealthy, the very poor, young people without families, and Bohemians. That tends to be a problem. Some cities did fine or relatively fine for the golden age of suburbs, San Francisco thrived more than Cleveland or St. Louis and New York took until the 1970s to go into temporary decline. Most did not.

          Another thing was that suburbs had a lot of cultural propaganda promoting them. There were movies whose plot were that young couples with kids should live in the suburbs and not in the city that started appearing immediately after World War II ended. Mr. Blathings Builds His Dream House is the big example. It Happened on Fifth Avenue’s plot involved a bunch of veterans building suburbs.

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      • So the failure of Detroit is the fault of whites who left and the federal gov’t? That’s a nice liberal fantasy. The citizens of Detroit don’t bare any fault do they?

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        • notme,
          I’m sorry, are you now not going to blame the subsequent impoverishment of the south on the Great Northern Migration???
          Like it or not, people move. The people who do things get blamed more than the people UNABLE to do things.

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          • subsequent impoverishment of the south

            What are you babbling about? You make it sound as if the south was rich before the Northern Migration and then became poor. The south has always been poor rural and agrarian.

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  2. Three years ago I visited Detroit. I wanted to look at the Detroit Institute of Arts murals (and truth be told, wanted to see in real life the images we have all seen in countless photos)

    I’m a keen tourist. I walk, I drive, I go everywhere. I want to see everything.

    Two things shocked me:

    Other than (a) around the baseball park during a game; (b )inside the DIA; or (c) inside the GM building at Renaissance Center, I saw ONE white person within Detroit City limits that was outside a car. I also don’t recall a single white person staying at the hotel I was, near downtown. Conversely, I saw zero black people in the several small cities (the Grosse Pointes ) around Detroit. Not even the grocery bag packers at the supermarket were black.

    The city limit between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park goes through the middle of the block between Alter Rd. (Detroit) and Barringron (GPP). You could have imagined a tornado had ravaged the west side of block after block. The East side (GPP) had beautiful, well kept, upper middle class houses full of (white) children playing in the garden. The West side was full of empty lots, boarded houses, and squalor. And the few people around are all black.

    On one side of the fence you have happy (upper) middle America. On the other, you have our local version of Mosul.

    It’s worth the plane ticket to see this. I wish we had a new Diego Rivera to paint it in a mural for all of us to understand, and remember.

    PS: Detroit is a beautiful city. I trust it will be reborn soon

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  3. As Detroit starts a turnaround, I pray it can become a place where there is racial reconcilation that will bring justice for the city’s African Americans and the city they call home.

    Can you be more specific by what you mean when you say “racial reconciliation” and “justice”?

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  4. My family was from the Detroit suburbs (know where Plymouth is?) and, a couple of years after my father died, we moved to New York (officially “upstate” but, in this case, that meant “40 miles from NYC”).

    We went back to Michigan to visit relatives from time to time, and we heard nothing but how things were getting worse. We moved out in 1986. “Roger and Me” was released in 1989. We watched that documentary with a mixture of “oh, our poor Michigan” and “Jeez, am I glad we got the heck out of there!”

    I suppose that makes us part of the “White Flight”.

    Friends of ours (like, last *MONTH*) went to Detroit for some Tae Kwon Do thingy that was going on there. We saw them just last Sunday and they came back with stories about how awesome Detroit was and how revitalized the downtown is. The dad even told a story about how they were walking back to their hotel after a rough day with the boys and they stopped by a pub and they saw the hotel three blocks away and told the boys “hey, you guys walk on back, text us when you get there”. This boggled my mind because, when I was a kid, walking to your hotel in Detroit was not something that you would do in the first place, let alone let your kids do it.

    He also told us the story about how their Uber driver told them “yeah, three years ago, Detroit wasn’t so nice”.

    I wonder at the extent to which the revitalization of Detroit will involve “gentrification”.

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    • Better gentrification than roving thugs who want to “recruit” you.
      (That’s the rep I had from the last time someone sent an agent into Detroit. Got some nice pictures too).

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    • I wonder at the extent to which the revitalization of Detroit will involve “gentrification”

      My personal guess? Over 93.82%

      Three years ago you could already see the first sprouts of gentrification two or three blocks around the baseball park. There were some restaurants and pubs that was clear catered (or tried) to the young and hipster. The Alter Rd. area is full of gorgeous old houses that would command millions (even in their current dilapidated state) if magically the city limit moved 200 yards westward. Sooner rather than later, someone will start buying those houses and bringing them back to market.

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      • J_A,
        TOOO LAATE!
        Wall Street crashed the market on Detroit real estate a while back — then they bought everything they wanted, and now they’re cashing in their chips by creating a positive feedback cycle.

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      • What is revitalization without gentrification? Where is that tax base without people coming in from outside the city limits and increasing property values? Where are those good schools without the PTA raising money for new lab equipment?

        “[R]acial reconciliation that will bring justice for the city’s African Americans and the city they call home” is rather specific as to who calls it home, and presumably who would call it home in the future. Though white flight was bad for many reasons, reversing it is also unacceptable. Sometimes, you hear someone talk a good game about residential integration, but it seems to me like nobody wants the “other” to move in, in either direction.

        What remains?

        There’s annexation. Pull those white dollars into city coffers without anyone moving anywhere. As it might challenge the dominance of the black political establishment (and the white political establishment in the suburbs), it’s unacceptable to all. Suburbanites can withstand some pundit calling them racist if it means they don’t have to settle for Detroit-quality public services and no politician wants their carefully-designed district lines challenged.

        The other option is the suburbs and states conducting helicopter drops of cash on the city, without asking for anything in return. No gentrifiers to interrupt the blocks and blocks of dilapidated houses interspersed with overgrown empty lots. No demands that the money be used for something other than a city administration that has been siphoning cash from city coffers for decades. Even if the money is spent well and Detroit improves, how are you going to stop white people from wanting to live in it?

        The truth is that if you make anything nice enough, people will compete to live in/near it on the basis of price. The best guard against gentrification is to keep things crummy and dangerous. This is a case where you have to pick your battles.

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        • Agreed. I suppose it is possible to have a ‘nice’ neighborhood where the people who live there are not upper SES, but I think that only happens when the neighborhood stayed ‘nice’ as things grew up around it. Once a neighborhood stops being ‘nice’, getting it back to nice will require money, and that money will have to come from somewhere.

          Sure, a city could spend tax money to bring a neighborhood back to ‘nice’ without evicting everyone, but that’s a hell of a lift without a lot of buy-in and investment from people in the neighborhood and outside players, and even then it’s a political mess (e.g. How come that neighborhood gets all the love, what about our neighborhood!?), and you have to make sure the people who live there are willing and able to keep things nice for long enough to make the investment worth it.

          Allowing gentrification solves so many of those problems, at the cost of basically pricing the current residents out.

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          • Pricing current residents out of some places. In many cities, gentrification takes place on former industrial/warehouse districts, where raw space in sturdy buildings is a big draw, as opposed as poorly-maintained houses built for poor people in the first place. In other cities, it’s the white-ethnic neighborhoods that gentrify first.

            I’d add to this the fact that non-native-born people are driving population growth in many cities we consider to be gentrifying. A poor incumbent is more likely to experience rent pressure from a Salvadoran, not a suburbanite.

            Point being, Detroit has only so many levers to raise the money required to support infrastructure designed for a much larger population and tax base. The rest of the state sees it as a money sink, not an economic engine, so the legislature can’t be counted upon to pay for improvements. It’s great (I think?) that we are past the point of discussing how to let things go to seed in a more organized way, but natural population growth won’t bring the city back to where it can support an acceptable standard of government services. Someone will have to move in, and it probably won’t entirely be rich African Americans from Atlanta and Prince Georges County, Maryland.

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  5. I’m kind of curious Dennis, most of problems I see in impoverished areas have a lot to do with capital formation and velocity of exchanges. Do you think inner city Detroit struggled with those two problems (for decades) more so than areas outside the zone? Do you see signs that solving those problems is/will lead to revitalization?

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    • Joe,
      I dunno, maybe giving white folks FHA loans (a prime way of gaining middle class wealth) and deliberately sending the blacks to high rises mighta just maybe had something to do with the impoverishment…

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  6. I ran the Detroit Marathon last fall. Very good race, well organized. All the parts of the city it went through were either nice or just a basic business district. There were black people running so it wasn’t’ just a “white thing.” The burbs were a mixed bag of some very upscale and some that seemed sort of sketchy but that is any city.

    You mention that people like to blame the South for racism and give the North a pass. There is definitely some of that. But there is also very much a racism is endemic to US society and affects everybody vibe. That seems to piss people off just as much.

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  7. The problem with Detroit has nothing to do with America or race relations. It is the normal result of a city founded by the French. See St Louis, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans for more examples of how that works out. Instead of looking at Detroit for any kind of narrative about race or white flight, the locals would better spend their time blaming the French for their problems, and coordinating with other French-founded cities on real solutions.

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          • The French fort was burned and replaced by a British fort (Fort Pitt), which is why Pittsburgh is still a nice place. Had they not burned the French fort, Pittsburgh would be in the same shape as Detroit. You can’t build a great city on rotten foundations.

            Even the French know this, so most all of their great cities were founded by earlier hunter gatherers, wandering tribes, Gauls, Romans, or other invaders, and their original names weren’t French. For example, Marseilles is actually the Greek city of Massilia.

            For a genuinely French city, see Port au Prince.

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  8. Racism was part of the problem but trying to claim it as the entirety is way too easy.

    It’s reasonable to move because you’re threatened with…
    – your home/business being burned down
    – bad schools
    – much higher taxes for much lower services
    – absurd levels of political corruption and incompetence

    It’s reasonable for the rest of the state to look at high levels of corruption and incompetence and question whether more money would fix anything. For example Detroit’s schools are terrible but better funded than most; That paradox is probably best explained by absurdly high number of non-teachers they employ per teacher. If memory serves from the last time I did the math, a good school district has roughly a 1:(0.6) Teacher:Non-Teacher ratio, Detroit is more like 1:4

    Detroit had challenges, it needed brilliant political leadership, what it got was a series of incompetent and/or corrupt leaders whose main skill was playing the race card.

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  9. Detroit in ’67 and everything else of an apocalyptic nature thru 1968 was a great boon to George Wallace in 1968. It undergirded additional racism and made Nixon’s election as close as you could get to a slam dunk. Nixon was able to construct the Southern Strategy in 1972, picking off the bloc Wallace had created.

    It’s impossible to explain the effect of seeing a war zone in an American city on television, complete with tanks. There was very real fear. It was roughly akin to in direction if not in magnitude, 9/11. After all, we’d seen Vietnam on television night after night. It was the beginning of the end of the Johnson Presidency, which was the last of the FDR equilibrium that had held for 40+ years at that point.

    As with most things like this, the larger picture was lost once the footage began. And if you read George Wallace’s campaign rhetoric from ’68. it should sound familiar. As racist as Wallace’s message was, the message is much more of anti-elitism than of pure Lost Causer segregationism. If you listen to Nixon’s oval office tapes, he’s beyond blunt about “the blacks” as scapegoats for any unrest on his watch.

    The shock, the hypocrisy, the flammable nature of lost illusion and abortive cognitive dissonance that is racism in America seems to be self-latching. Throw in the rise of some real hardcase radicals and it’s a perfect agar for the thing.

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