DJC Poll: Black and white optimism on Detroit-area race relations

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Though their sprawling region had long wrestled with segregation, and racial violence has dominated national headlines this summer, about half of all metro Detroit residents say local race relations today are generally good, according to an exclusive new poll by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Seven-in-10 metro Detroiters say they believe race relations in the greater Detroit area are getting better or at least have stayed the same over the past 10 years, the poll found, a significant contrast from results of recent national polls, in which most Americans say race relations nationally are getting worse.

Despite the relative optimism, the poll also reveals a significant chasm between metro Detroit’s white and black residents, especially when it comes to the ways African Americans perceive how race continues to affect their daily lives, from suspicious looks directed their way to being unfairly stopped by police.

More than half (57 percent) of blacks interviewed said they have had an experience within the past year in which a person acted suspicious of them because of their race. Only 8 percent of whites reported a similar race-based incident. And one-in-three African Americans reported being unfairly stopped by police in the past 12 months, again, they said, because of their skin color.

See how whites and blacks differ on police views

Though generally positive on overall progress on race relations in the region, African Americans are slightly more pessimistic than whites in the local poll. While 56 percent of whites say race relations are currently good, 47 percent of blacks feel that way.

A region evolves

Reynolds Farley, a retired University of Michigan sociology professor and expert on the city’s racial demographics, said one reason local blacks and whites appear to be getting along better might be that metro Detroiters of all races and ethnic groups are increasingly working, living and socializing together.

“I think it’s easier for people in the Detroit area to have some familiarity with race relations than people in a state like Maine, where there’s virtually no black population at all and the information comes from seeing violent incidents on television,” Farley said.

“We have a higher degree of integration in metro Detroit, believe it or not, than a lot of metropolitan areas.”

Tama Smith, a 57-year-old white woman from Livonia who was part of the survey, said in a follow-up interview that she based her belief that race relations are improving on what she sees when she visits Detroit.

“The feeling I get in Detroit -- it seems like a much closer community,” she said. “Black and white people hanging out together in the casinos, Greektown, sporting events.”

By large margins, metro Detroiters say the region has made progress in race relations since the violence of 1967, which devastated large swaths of the city 49 years ago this week, altering the course of Detroit’s future and changing the city’s image in the eyes of the world.

Dozens of cities across the United States were hit by disorders that summer, though Detroit’s was by far the most serious in terms of lives lost – 43 – injuries and damage. People in the poll are split on how Detroit has recovered from that summer compared with other cities; about four in 10 overall say Detroit’s recovery has been worse.

The poll, of 600 Macomb, Oakland and Wayne County residents, was conducted by the Lansing-based EPIC-MRA survey-research firm from July 14-19, during the ongoing national furor over police shootings of African-American civilians, and retaliatory attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

The survey’s sponsor was the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a major funder of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, which includes The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, Detroit public radio station WDET and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Metro Detroit residents were also asked about the progress (or lack of it) the region has made in housing, education and other issues that contributed to the despair and anger in the Detroit’s African-American community in 1967. The answer to those poll questions will be released in future DJC articles.

A long view on race

According to the poll, fewer than three-in-10 metro Detroiters believe race relations are getting worse in their region, a significant difference from a New York Times/CBS poll earlier this July, in which six in 10 Americans overall said race relations nationally were deteriorating.

Another national survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this summer also found Americans more pessimistic than metro Detroiters. Pew, like the New York Times, found six-in-10 African Americans believe race relations are generally bad; 45 percent of whites agreed.

In the local poll, fewer than three-in-10 African Americans and only three-in-10 whites said they believe race relations in metro Detroit are generally bad.

The poll found that while black and white respondents agree race relations are an important issue, neither group put race at the top of their societal concerns. By a wide margin, the people surveyed ranked two other areas ‒ education along with crime, drugs and violence ‒ as the region’s most critical issues.

Race joined the economy and jobs as issues on a second tier of priority, though African Americans, Arab Americans and Hispanics placed slightly more importance in bettering race relations than whites?

Notably, a majority of black and white metro residents said that black Detroiters have made progress on economic conditions and jobs since 1967. In fact, as the DJC previously reported, the city’s poverty and unemployment rates are worse today than at the time of the disturbances.

Farley, the demographics expert, predicted the lack of jobs will continue to be an obstacle to improved race relations in Detroit, a city whose downtown core is buzzing with new businesses and development as its overwhelmingly black and impoverished neighborhoods outside downtown struggle.

“We once had in the Detroit area a stable black middle class based on the auto industry jobs and other auto industry jobs,” Farley noted. “And those jobs are still around, but they are far less numerous, and as a result, the overall economic status of blacks has hardly improved in the last 30 or 40 years.”

“How do you create more jobs for people who have moderate level of skill?”

Two worlds, separate and unequal

But the hopefulness found in parts of the metro Detroit poll is tempered by the findings of how race continues to play a painful role in the daily lives of many African Americans.

Sixty-five percent of blacks polled said their race makes it harder to succeed in life, though slightly more than four in 10 of the African Americans said they had not personally experienced discrimination in recent years.

Still, large numbers of black residents say they have experienced negative encounters because of their race even within the past year, including people treating them as if they are not smart because of their skin color.

Seven-in-10 African Americans said they believe blacks are treated less fairly than whites while applying for a loan or mortgage, and a similar number said discrimination plays a role in restaurants, the workplace or in searching for a good job. Strikingly, and by large margins, whites were less likely to say blacks receive more negative treatment.

In keeping with Farley’s theory that proximity eases racial strains, metro Detroiters offered generally sunny views of workplace harmony. When asked to describe how people of other races treat them at work, nearly 70 percent of African Americans, 64 percent of whites and 75 percent of Hispanics and Arab Americans agreed that relations were very or somewhat friendly.

Epic-MRA President Bernie Porn noted several reasons for cautious local optimism generally on race relations – Detroit has emerged from bankruptcy, the central city is booming, and mostly black Detroit elected to look past race by electing a white mayor, Mike Duggan, in 2013.

“That speaks to a more positive view of racial issues,” Porn said of Duggan’s election. “Things have changed. People are very positive about the direction of Detroit in our surveys.”

Shirley Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit Inc., the racial justice coalition formed immediately after the violence 49 years ago, said she wasn’t surprised to see a different assessment of progress on race from Detroit-area residents.

“I think this community has really worked harder at getting to know people who are different and getting to know them. Worked harder at it because I believe folks have felt we needed to work harder.”

Neighborhood changes

Another factor could be demographic trends: black Detroiters continue to move to the suburbs, which are far more integrated than they were 20 years ago, a development underscored by the establishment of an NAACP chapter this summer by black and white residents of the increasingly diverse Grosse Pointes, for decades a nearly all-white stronghold bordered by Detroit on two sides.

Add to that whites trickling into Detroit to live and work, a reversal of a 60-year-old trend of white flight that resulted in Detroit being more than 80 percent African American and 12 percent white. That flight produced the most unusual demographics in big-city America: All other major cities have a much more balanced mix of races and ethnic groups, with generally less acrimony between city and suburbs.

While many metro Detroiters in the poll said race relations have improved since the violence 49 years ago, it is difficult to compare sentiments today precisely with the way southeast Michigan residents felt five decades ago.

Sidney Fine, the late University of Michigan history professor whose 1989 “Violence in the Model City” is an influential book on the riot, wrote the difficulty arises because pollsters of that era used different samples of people and asked different questions.

In June 1968, one survey of Detroiters found that 42 percent of black respondents and 42 percent of whites thought the two races had grown “closer together” in the year since the riot.

Two decades later, another survey found 59 percent of blacks and 47 percent of whites felt the races were “closer together.”

Writing in the late 1980s, Fine concluded: “Detroit remained a racially polarized community twenty years after the great riot.”

With this new survey, there are signs that Detroit and the region that surrounds it has made halting progress in the ensuing years.

Poll: Cautious optimism on race, but a gulf in daily indignities

A survey on race by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative in metro Detroit revealed a rough consensus among African-American and white residents that progress has been made on racial attitudes in the region since the violence that convulsed the city in 1967; and further, that there is optimism for more progress in the future. But the survey of 600 residents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties last week also exposed a chasm in the race-related biases and slights that infiltrate the lives of black residents, yet barely register in the daily experience of most whites. Here are some questions asked of metro residents, 90 percent of whom identified as either white or African American:

Overall, would you say that race relations in the greater Detroit area are generally good or generally bad?

Generally good56%47%
Generally bad27%31%

Thinking about the past 10 years, do you think that race relations in the greater Detroit area have been getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?

About the same42%47%

Do you think that racism and race relations is an important, serious concern just among black people, mostly among black people, an equally important concern among both black people and white people, mostly a concern among white people, or is it a concern just among white people?

Among blacks17%40%
Equal in both races78%55%
Among whites1%2%

Compared to 10 years ago, do you think that white people have become more positive in their attitudes toward black people, more negative, or, have attitudes of white people towards black people not really changed one way or the other over the past 10 years?

More positive44%26%
More negative13%25%
No change36%43%

Compared to 10 years ago, do you think that black people have become more positive in their attitudes toward white people, more negative, or, have attitudes of black people towards white people not really changed one way or the other over the past 10 years?

More positive23%24%
More negative30%26%
No change31%42%

Over the next five years, do you think that race relations in the greater Detroit area will improve, get worse, or stay about the same?


Overall, would you say that your race or ethnicity makes it harder to succeed in life, makes it easier, or, would you say it really does not make a difference one way or the other?

No difference56%30%

Over the past few years, would you say that you have personally experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of your race or ethnicity? If yes, would you say that it has happened regularly, occasionally from time to time, or only once?


Please tell me if you believe you have experienced any of the following things in the past 12 months because of your race or ethnicity...

People acted as if they were suspicious of you?


People acted as if they thought you were not smart?


You were treated unfairly in hiring, pay or promotion?


Would you say that you have many friends who are of a different race than you are, only a few friends, one or two, or, do you not have any friends of a different race at all?

One or two7%10%

For each of the following places or situations, please tell whether you agree or disagree that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in each one...

In the workplace?


In stores or restaurants?


When voting in elections?


In finding a good job?


As you may know, there is an organization called “Black Lives Matter” that has been protesting several shootings of black men over the past few years, including recent shootings in the past couple of weeks, by police officers. Based on what you know or have heard or read about Black Lives Matter, do you support or oppose the activities of this organization?


A number of cities other than Detroit were struck by what has been described as riots during the summer of 1967. Based on what you know from personal experience, or may have heard or read, compared to other cities, how do you think Detroit recovered from the riots?


Based on what you know from your personal experience, or have heard or read about the events that took place in the summer of 1967 in Detroit, which of the following terms best describes what you think took place – a riot, a rebellion, an uprising, or some other word?


Compared to 1967, how much progress do you think there has been in terms of race relations in the greater Detroit area?


Compared to 1967, how much progress has there been in terms of economic conditions and jobs for black people in the greater Detroit area?


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William C Plumpe
Thu, 07/28/2016 - 10:38am
I'm a well educated white male grew up in Detroit in the early 1950's, moved away to college and then returned to work and live in the City for almost 30 years so I think I have some experience in regards to race relations. Bottom line---yes police behavior must change and the great economic disparity between blacks and whites must be addressed but I see a definite disconnect that leads me to believe that real progress will never be made. I hear a lot about what the police can do and how we can improve police-community relations but I hear very little if anything about what the black community is going to do to help solve the problem. What can blacks do that is constructive to make tragedies like Michael Brown and Freddie Grey and others less likely to happen? Blacks must take responsibility too. If blacks aren't willing to claim responsibility to some degree to help improve their own lives I fear we will always be stuck at the first "feeling the pain step" and go no further. Blacks must stop playing the victim and take what responsibility they can to help solve the problem so that the solution doesn't appear to be so one sided. And I think if blacks came out and said "If police do this we'll do this to help" whites in general would be a lot more willing to help because we would feel we were sharing the responsibility with the black community rather than getting blamed and that we were all in this together not two separate groups with the same goal.
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 10:55am
I appreciate what you are saying William and know a lot about "oppressed group behavior". As a white male, who has worked hard, educated yourself, and gone on to a successful career, you assume the experience will be the same for those of an oppressed group. You blame the "victims", and yet tell them not to act like victims. You have the "power", and victims do not. It is not that easy for those from an oppressed group (I speak of this knowingly as a white female). It may be a useful activity for you to to walk in the shoes for one day of those you criticize and hold up to your standards. There has been so much work done in the area of "structural racism" and "strategic racism" (see Peter Hammer article in Bridge). This is a complex, long term issue for Michigan and will take dialogue and collaboration to create change to a healthier culture. I appreciate your concluding remarks about "being in this together" and having the same goals. The only real way of seeing if the goals are the same is to create them together (black, brown, white et. al)
William C Plumpe
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 5:51pm
I respectfully disagree. No matter how victimized somebody is they always have the power to make positive choices that improve their situation. Nobody is so oppressed so as to be without free will. It is not easy and requires a great deal of focus and discipline but acting like blacks have no power to improve their own situation is a fallacy that only intensifies their victimization and gets everybody caught in a revolving door of blame and finger pointing. It's simple. I agree to do something and in return you agree to do something. That is how equals negotiate. Victims aren't able to do that.
Ann Farnell
Fri, 08/12/2016 - 4:10pm
Mr. Plumpe, You are not listening. Nor are you reading....the above article, for example, and processing the results of the polling which a ddresses the differences in how whites and blacks view their status in different areas of daily living. Instead, you have pulled out the old GOP trope that Blacks don't take any responsibility for how they are treated in (what is understood by this political ideology) to be a perfectly "fair and balanced" playing field. Which is to say, "It's not us" so " it must be them". This, dispite a national candidate who has exploited racism to the nth degree and scapegoats even the handicapped in his twisted efforts to get votes. I'd suggest you pay more attention to what white people are doing about racism for a change.