Four decades after violence left Detroit with a legacy of destruction and distrust, racial attitudes and suspicions are tempering, a Detroit News poll shows.
More whites say they would prefer to live in evenly mixed-race neighborhoods than in white-dominated communities, a dramatic change from 20 years ago. Fewer African-Americans believe whites want to oppress them and fewer whites feel that blacks dislike them.
At the same time, the poll of 600 Metro Detroiters this month reveals a persistent divide: blacks see stubborn or worsening discrimination where most whites don't believe it exists -- in jobs, housing and justice.
"You see blacks and whites mixing more, but I think a bias is still there," said Chris Tellis, a 49-year-old heating and air conditioning contractor who lives in Birmingham and is black. "There's an unspoken weight in the scale that seems fixed. It's a systematic discrimination that keeps us from progressing."
The unrest that began July 23, 1967, became a symbol of Detroit as a deeply divided city and continued to fuel white flight to the suburbs. By 2000, Metro Detroit had become the nation's most segregated region, according to a Detroit News analysis of census data.
The survey offers a unique perspective on changing racial attitudes because it repeated questions asked in a 1987 poll by The News. The most recent survey was conducted by EPIC-MRA in early July and has an error margin of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.
Almost three out of every four whites say blacks have equal opportunities to find good housing and jobs -- virtually the same percentage as 20 years ago.
Blacks still see a different reality: the vast majority feels they don't have equal housing and job opportunities. And blacks say treatment by police and courts has become even more disparate than it was in 1987.
"When you look at the results of these kinds of surveys you always have to keep in mind which group is the validator," said Michigan State University Professor Joe Darden, who specializes in urban geography. "In this case blacks are the validator. There is a higher likelihood that blacks would have experienced housing discrimination. The assumption of whites is that if they haven't experienced it, it must not happen. They may believe this is the U.S. and everyone is free and discrimination has ended."
Whites oblivious to barriers
Darden said based on the results, many whites don't understand all of the factors that keep blacks from integrating white neighborhoods. He said research shows that whites prefer to live in mostly white neighborhoods.
He said other groups tend to live in clusters of people who are just like them, as well. Immigrants do that, but he said it's temporary because succeeding generations tend to want to move into the mainstream.
Upwardly mobile African-Americans tend to leave black neighborhoods, too. The driving forces are a desire to live in neighborhoods with more amenities and where their children can attend higher-achieving schools.
"If they don't move out, it's sometimes because of external forces: discrimination in housing, racial steering (by real estate agents), mortgage discrimination," Darden said.
Passage of Prop 2 is telling
The disparities in white and black perceptions also may shed light on sentiment behind the public approval of Proposal 2, a statewide initiative that made it unlawful for public universities and other state government institutions to give preferential treatment in admissions, employment and contracting based on gender, race or ethnicity.
The proposal's passage is proof that many whites believed blacks were getting an unfair advantage with affirmative action programs that instead offered a trickle of African-Americans access to universities and government jobs, said Dan Krichbaum, executive director of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion, a nonprofit agency that offers diversity training and conflict resolution across racial and religious lines.
"It's important for us to like one another and it seems, according to the poll, that we're making progress, but when we talk about inclusion we talk about people being accepted in all levels at educational institutions, all levels of corporations," he said.
Leon Drolet, who chaired the campaign for Proposal 2, also known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, agrees racism continues to hinder blacks.
"There is no question that racial bias still exists," said Drolet, a Macomb County commissioner recently appointed by the Bush administration to chair a state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "Regardless of whatever program the federal or state government enacts, there's only so much those programs can do. Real discrimination is going to be subtle. No one is going to say, 'I'm not going to hire you because you're black.' If that person responsible for hiring is harboring racial hostility, they are going to hide it."
As for why a dichotomy exists in the way whites and blacks view discrimination, he said: "My best guess would be that it reflects what different people see. White people in Macomb Township see increasing numbers of African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods. They interpret that as equal access. What they don't see is the African-Americans who are in poor neighborhoods in the inner cities."
He said there is no unilateral truth. "The truth is the entire picture," he said. "If we could see what everyone sees, that would be the truth."
'Thin veneer of acceptability'
While the poll shows strides have been made in how each group views one another, some say there is still distrust.
"I work out in the suburbs," said Matthew Brown, 39, a pool technician who lives in Farmington Hills and is white. "There is a thin veneer of acceptability (toward blacks) and that's it. People don't use the N-word like they used to. They are cordial. But that's it."
Yet about half of whites polled say they would prefer to live in a neighborhood that has an even mix of blacks and whites, a 21 percentage-point increase over 20 years ago. But 43 percent of whites said they'd prefer to live in an all-white or mostly white neighborhood.
In both polls, black preferences to live in mixed neighborhoods have always been higher. In 1987, 80 percent of African-Americans said they would prefer to live in an evenly mixed neighborhood compared with 81 percent today.
Familiarity inspires comfort
Linda Hamilton, a 53-year-old African-American who retired from construction work, said integration is essential to bridging the divide and better understanding one another.
"I was raised around white people (in Ann Arbor) and it instilled in me that we are all equal," she said. "My first baby sitter was white."
Hamilton said her relatives who feel the most comfortable around whites are those who grew up in mixed neighborhoods. She said relatives raised in the segregated South still distrust whites today.
N. Charles Anderson, president of the Detroit Urban League, is optimistic relations between whites and blacks continue to improve.
"More people are willing to talk about race," Anderson said, citing a recent discussion of racial disparities at the Detroit Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference. "We need to interact more so we can understand each other."
Young Detroit leaders will discuss the impact of the 1967 disturbance and how to move forward in a panel discussion sponsored by The Detroit News, WWJ Newsradio (950 AM), WDET-FM (101.9) and Wayne State University.
8:30 a.m., July 26, Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium, Wayne State University Law School, 471 West Palmer, Detroit
Watch highlights at www.detnews.com