Fiftieth Anniversary of the Detroit Riot: Personal Observations and Evolutionary Analysis

Fifty years ago, a deadly urban riot began one hot summer night in my hometown of Detroit. It ignited around 3:30 a.m., when police arrested 85 patrons of an illegal after-hours bar in the midst of an all-Black neighborhood that had been all-White 15 or 20 years before.

When the mayhem ended six nights later, 43 people had been killed, 1,189 injured, 7,231 arrested, 2,509 stores had been looted or burned, 690 buildings were destroyed or had to be demolished, and 388 families were displaced.

Detroit’s Mayor at the time was Jerome Cavanagh, a young, bright and ambitious liberal. Elected with near-unanimous support of Black voters, he had aggressively launched anti-poverty programs to make the nation’s fifth largest municipality a model of the Great Society’s War on Poverty. (1).

The rapid migration of American Blacks between 1940 and 1965 from the mostly rural South to the big cities of the North, very quickly increased the Black population from less than 10% to over 30% at the time of the riot. That meant that Detroit, which had about 150,000 Black residents before World War II, had about 600,000 a generation later. In the 1960’s Detroit was dealing with a larger influx of Southern Blacks than all but Chicago and New York.

Conditions of Detroit’s Black Community Before the Riot

Politically correct revisionist historians and sociologists (many of whom are Black) like to portray Detroit’s riot of 1967 as the inevitable rebellion of a people victimized by White racism.  However to maintain this typical liberal view one must dismiss many well established facts that contradict the narrative.

Michael Barone notes that although “it has become the liberal fashion to call the Detroit riot a “rebellion,” it was not premeditated and had no explicit policy goals.” There was certainly pent up frustration and discontent with the police, much like there is today. “People throw bottles, break windows, loot stores and set fires when they think that enough other people will be doing the same as to make them immune from punishment.”

According to economist Thomas Sowell,

Before the ghetto riot of 1967, Detroit’s Black population had the highest rate of home-ownership of any Black urban population in the country, and their unemployment rate was just 3.4 percent. It was not despair that fueled the riot. It was the riot which marked the beginning of the decline of Detroit to its current state of despair. Detroit’s population today is only half of what it once was, and its most productive people have been the ones who fled. (2)

By the 1960s, Blacks had advanced into many better union and professional jobs. Detroit had a large and prosperous Black middle class; there were higher-than-average wages for unskilled Black workers because of the auto industry.  Black Detroit had seats at decision-making tables including two Black congressmen (half of the Black Congressmen at the time); three Black judges; two Black members on Board of Education, a housing commission that was forty percent Black; and twelve Blacks representing Detroit in the Michigan legislature. Black leaders praised the Cavanagh administration for its willingness to listen to concerns of the inner city.

Detroit had recently acquired millions in federal funds through federal programs and invested them almost exclusively in the inner city, where poverty and social problems were concentrated. The Washington Post claimed Detroit’s inner-city schools were undergoing “the country’s leading and most forceful reforms in education.” Housing conditions were not viewed as worse than those of other Northern cities. In 1965, Detroit received an award for urban redevelopment. The Department of Justice’s Office of Law Enforcement Assistance designated Detroit as the “model for police-community relations.”

FortuneNewsweekChristian Science MonitorLookHarper’sU.S. News and World Report, and The Wall Street Journal all published positive articles on the city; Mayor Cavanagh was so highly regarded nationally that he was elected to head the Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. It was only after the riot that sociologists began to report many African-American residents were dissatisfied with social conditions in Detroit before the July 23, 1967 riot, and believed that progress was too slow. (e.g. Violence in the Model City by University of Michigan‘s Sidney Fine).

The Mass Exodus of the White Community

The decade that followed the riot saw a downward spiral of vastly increased violent crime and a welfare dependency that nearly tripled. The Black community in Detroit received much more assistance from federal and state governments after 1967 as money flowed into Black-owned enterprises after the riot.  Meanwhile the White community fled the city. Commenting about this shift from a White majority city to a Black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the White people who fled as fast as they could. The White exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969. (3)

A somewhat broader historical perspective is necessary to describe the true extent of the collapse of Detroit. We begin with one of the most fantastic demographic statistics that you will ever read. In 1950 the non-Hispanic White population of Detroit was over 1,830,000. By 2010 97% of White residents had fled the city leaving just 55,604 Whites.

These dramatic demographic shifts in American cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Oakland, etc., universally propelled urban decay, with whole neighborhoods falling into disrepair and decrepitude. In Detroit, as the urban decay moved outwards from the city center after the riot of 1967, the entire character of the city changed.  The peaceful, vibrant, well-ordered city of the 1950’s and early 1960’s quickly disappeared.  A new urban landscape of abandoned buildings, weed-infested vacant lots, high local unemployment and poverty, fragmented families, vandalism, violent crime, together created a new landscape that was largely desolate and inhospitable. The abandoned properties and no-go zones attracted criminals and street gangs and further contributed to a rising tide of violence and crime. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of middle-class Black residents fled the city for the very same reasons that caused middle-class Whites to flee a few decades earlier, but nobody ever accused them of racism.

Personal Reflections of Detroit 1956–65

My family immigrated to what came to be called Michigan in the eighteenth century while Detroit was still part of French Canada and Quebec’s third largest city. Throughout the nineteenth century Detroit’s population expanded exponentially after Michigan was incorporated into the Northwest Territory and eventually became a state of the US.  By the mid-twentieth century, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the US.

It was at this time that my family moved from Lansing to Detroit. I was just starting school when we arrived and remember the old West side neighborhoods of Russell Woods and Redford very well.  My neighborhood was a melting pot of numerous immigrants from all corners of Europe mixed harmoniously with native born Americans like my family. Our parents were mostly practicing Christians and active liberal Democrats. The street was a beehive of activity from dawn to dusk, with milkmen, mailmen, paperboys, street vendors, Fuller Brush salesmen, and Good Humor ice cream trucks. My brothers and I were allowed to patrol the city on our bikes wherever we wanted. Kids were always out in the streets and neighborhood parks until after dark. Nobody even questioned whether this was safe.

By 1960 as I grew a little older we began to venture outside the immediate neighborhood to some of downtown Detroit’s major attractions, like Tiger Stadium (then Brigg’s Stadium) and Belle Isle. But here is where trouble began to be apparent. For instance, while canoeing under one of the bridges on Belle Isle, we were pelted from the bridge with rocks by a gang of teenaged Black males. After a Tiger’s game while waiting for the bus, another Black gang ambushed us with knives, pushing and shoving and trying to pick a fight. Eventually streets nearer our neighborhood were full of roving Black males who would pull a knife and demand your money, in broad daylight. Larger older Black gangs would cross neighborhood boundaries at night to engage in “rumbles” with groups of White kids, slightly older than ourselves. Eventually after enough of these episodes, my parents decided to take their family of teenaged boys out of this environment and we moved to a small town in Western Michigan the summer before the riots.  In a subsequent section I reinterpret these boyhood observations of male coalitionary violence in the light of evolutionary theory.

Sociological Analysis

A number of processes have been described by sociologists to account for the rapid demise of Detroit and many other American cities in the so-called “rust belt”. My brief analysis covers the three that I consider to be the most important: 1) blockbusting; 2) government enforced school desegregation, and 3) gang violence and crime.


The real estate business practice of “blockbusting” was a significant catalyst for White flight. By subterfuge, real estate agents would assist Black people buying a house in a White neighborhood, either by buying the house themselves, or via a White proxy buyer, and then re-selling it to the Black family. The remaining White inhabitants (alarmed by real estate agents and the local news media), fearing devalued residential property, would quickly sell, usually at a loss. Significant losses happened when they sold en masse to incoming Black families, profiting from price arbitrage. By such tactics, the racial composition of a neighborhood population often changed completely in just a few years. My home neighborhood of Russel Woods went from nearly 100% White to 97% Black.

Forced Desegregation

Another key causal factor in the Black replacement of Whites was the unintended consequence of a naïve liberal Supreme Court decision. My boyhood experience of Detroit from 1956–65 was replicated across the US as a function of the Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students to be unconstitutional. In the decade following this decision many public schools went from nearly completely White to nearly completely Black. So much for the intended effect of desegregation.  For example, in 1957 in Baltimore, the Clifton Park Junior High School had 2,023 White students and 34 Black students; ten years later, it had twelve White students and 2,037 Black students. In northwest Baltimore, Garrison Junior High School’s student body declined from 2,504 Whites and twelve Blacks to 297 Whites and 1,263 Blacks in that period. (4).

Gang Violence and Crime: Evolutionary Analysis

While sociology has virtually disintegrated as an objective empirical science, modern evolutionary behavioral science has flourished and now provides a sophisticated contemporary vantage point to view the events we are describing in this essay.

The “turf” wars I witnessed in Detroit are part of a well-known continuum of male coalitionary violence that has characterized human behavior and inter-group conflict in any society throughout human history. I draw upon two main theoretical sources, 1) The Young Male Syndrome, and 2) Social Identity Theory. From this perspective we can view the ultimate consequences of inter-group conflict in terms of the primary function of these evolved behavioral systems, namely the acquisition of territory and resources needed to enhance reproductive success.

The Young Male Syndrome       

In urban areas the widespread phenomenon of juvenile street gangs and other violent contexts have led evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly (5) to refer to the higher levels of risk-taking, violence and aggression commonly observed among late adolescent males as the “young-male syndrome”.  In any given year, the vast majority of homicides and aggravated assaults (85–90%) are committed by males, mostly young males (Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data, 2009).  In addition, Black American males account for about 50% of these acts, although they constitute only 13% of the total male population.

Violence, and the credible threat of even more violence, is the key tactic that enables the success of the other causal factors of blockbusting and forced desegregation. The high investment parenting strategy of the bulk of the white population is incompatible with the violence and lawlessness that infected the schools and neighborhoods in which they were trying to rear their offspring. I believe that this was the primary reason why 29 out of every 30 white family left their homes behind to begin life anew, often at significant financial loss. This happened block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood over the span of a generation or two, after 250 years of white expansion in a city that was able to successfully integrate all immigrant groups but one.

Social Identity Theory

The recognition that people in general are highly prone to identifying themselves with groups is currently explored in detail by social identity theorists. Their insights regarding the social-cognitive mechanisms that lead to in-group and out-group distinctions provide a promising foundation for an evolutionary theory of groups (6). Central to understanding the role of ethnicity, religion or politics in dividing humans into groups is our inability to appreciate groups as collections of distinct individuals. That is we tend to discount variation within groups leading us to especially conceptualize out-groups as more homogeneous than they really are. We very easily use group tags and explain complicated groups in a singular, reductionist way. Race and religion historically have served as two of the most conspicuous tags that instantly distinguish a group, dividing the world into us and them. Throughout recorded history, as on September 11, race and religion have served as tags for “death-deserving” enemies.

Groupishness is one of the most robust findings in social psychology. Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif pioneered research on this topic in the 1950’s (7). He saw group conflict, negative prejudices, and stereotypes as arising from the inevitable competition between groups for desirable resources. Once formed, in-group vs. out-group tendencies can be exacerbated by real conflicts of interest between groups. When people compete for scarce resources (e.g. jobs, land etc.) hostility often rises between groups, especially when group status is so easily marked by physical features like race. Social identity processes are exacerbated in times of resource competition or other perceived sources of threat suggesting that this is an adaptation for between-group conflict. Interesting Sherif demonstrated that peaceful integration of distinct groups was not a likely outcome of desegregation, or simply mixing the two groups together. This was nicely portrayed in the film West Side Story during the arranged dance between members of the “Jets” and the “Sharks”. It is also obviously demonstrated by the resegregation of Detroit and many other American cities after the policies of desegregation had their effect.

Following Sherif’s seminal work, later studies have shown that stereotypic behavior and attitudes of the in-group are posi­tively valued, while out-group behavior and attitudes are negatively valued. A common source of ethnic conflict is fear of being dominated by ethnic strangers. This type of external threat tends to reduce internal divi­sions and maximize perceptions of common interest among in-group members. In the absence of threat, people are more individualistic, but in times of threat, group and individual interests increas­ingly coincide and group members develop more of a sense of shared fate. Pearl Harbor in a previous generation provides an excellent example of this among Americans.

For complex reasons, this generalization does not yet apply to many White Americans (or West Europeans) today even though the threats they face as a community are very real. But the key word there is ‘yet’. Politics throughout the West is getting more racialized, e.g., with around 60% of Whites voting Republican, many of them blue collar Whites whose fathers would never have voted Republican. The class-based politics of the past has given way to race-based politics as Whites continue to sink into minority status. As the costs of multiculturalism become ever more apparent and Whites worry about their future as a minority, these processes will become even more apparent, and Whites will develop a sense of a shared fate. Then things will get really interesting.

  1. Fine, Sidney. Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. 425
  2. Sowell, Thomas (29 March 2010), “Voting with Their Feet”, Townhall, retrieved 12 April 2017
  3. Young, Coleman. Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young: p.179.
  4. “From the Old Order to the New Order–Reasons and Results, 1957-1997”. Baltimore City Public School System. Archived from the original on January 2, 2004.
  5. Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine
  6. MacDonald, K. B. (2001). An Integrative Evolutionary Perspective on Ethnicity. Politics and the Life Sciences, 21(2), 67–79. (This paper was published in 2005 because of a delay in publication of the journal.)
  7. Sherif, M., O. Harvey, B.J. White, W.R. Hood, and C. Sherif (1961). Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers’ Cave Ex­periment.Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
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