I grew up in the inner city of Detroit, SE side between Jefferson and Kercheval. I turned sixteen in 1972. I am ‘white,’ obviously. My family did not flee to the suburbs.
When I was very young, I estimate our neighborhood about 50% white. I grew up on the same block my mother was born on. On Kercheval and Jefferson there were small merchants who had been there since my mother’s youth. That changed in 1967.
One afternoon my cousin, I and a black neighbor boy were playing in his backyard and my uncle came to the back door to tell us to come inside in case there might be some stray bullets flying. I don’t think I understood what that meant but we went to his front screen porch. We saw people running from a house near the end of the block to a store on the corner, several times, back and forth. Shortly after the back-and-forth stopped, the shop was ablaze. We were not near the center of the riots but they erupted in our neighborhood.
After the riots, the neighborhood changed significantly. It also became somewhat dangerous. Our home was burglarized several times and family members were mugged or assaulted a number of times over the next decade. Though our immediate neighbors were always excellent neighbors and friends.
As a teenager I was a regular alcohol and drug user. Not to addiction, but I was a regular user and often drove and did a few other stupid things, under the influence. This led to several encounters with ‘Detroit’s finest.’. Once even forced off the road by a police car with officers stepping out of their car, guns drawn.
On one of these encounters with a man-in-blue, I am sure I was way over the limit and, at least, should not have been allowed to continue driving. However, in each case I was let go with no more than a warning. My white privilege, as I now see it, is that I am absolutely certain that my black neighbors and school mates were not handled so delicately when they brushed elbows with our ‘defenders of the peace’ in any similar way.
In another area, my family likely also experienced a ‘white privilege’ benefit but also suffered from its ill affects: Redlining.
According to the Michigan State University Redlining in Michigan web site: “The federal government redlined Detroit on June 1, 1939. Consistent with the requirements of the government Underwriting Manual, the redlining specifically targeted residents of color, deeming their neighborhoods as ‘hazardous’ to investment because they had residents of color or were even near residents of color.”
My parents bought the house of my childhood in 1958. The older woman selling it to move to the suburbs provided the mortgage. Without her carrying the mortgage, my folks likely would have had to pay a much higher interest rate and maybe could not have afforded the house. Redlining meant no one could get a government sponsored or insured loan in a redlined area, no matter your skin tone. ( See MSU Redlining in Michigan: Detroit – Redlining in Michigan (msu.edu)) And I believe it is fair to assume that the seller would not have carried the loan for a black family.
On the flip side of this coin, when my mother sold the house in 1983, she received $1,800 for it. And, the house was not small, I believe it was about 4,000 sf. So, although my parents were given the ability to own the house, it was not an investment. Redlining took its toll on everyone in its grasp. (For anyone not familiar with the role that redlining played in the creation of today’s ‘ghettos’ see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations)