“Desperate, but not hopeless. I feel so useless in the Murder City. Desperate, but not hopeless.” These are the opening lyrics to a song called “Murder City”, written and preformed by the alternative rock band know as Green Day. Click to listen to song The “Murder City” they are referring to? My city. Detroit, Michigan. Also known in my 40 plus years as “Motown”, the “Motor City”, the “D”, “D-Town”, “Hockeytown”, “Rock City”, and the “3-1-3”. Sadly, to the rest of the world, Detroit is also known as the “Murder City.”
I grew up the adopted daughter of two married, middle class parents in a rural community downriver of the city of Detroit. My father, with a high school education, was able to provide a very comfortable life for his family by working in one of the auto factories that defined the Motor City as such. Even though our family only lived 45 miles outside of the city, it was not a place we visited very often. My childhood exposure to Detroit was limited to the occasional school field trips to the Institute of Art, the Belle Isle Zoo and the annual middle school trip to Boblo Island. (Only two of these places, the Detroit Institute of Art and the Belle Isle Zoo still exists today.) I thought the city was beautiful, and as others often do, I could feel the energy that only a big city can provide. I was convinced that my parents fear and dislike of the city was based on their fear and distrust of African Americans, which was a common theme in my small, still somewhat segregated white town. (Most of the backs in my community lived in the South side of town “on the other side of the tracks.”)
I am now a married adult, and currently live less than a mile outside of Detroit’s Eastside border, in an affluent, primarily white community. An education, travel, and a broader world -view than my parents have afforded me a less narrow view on Detroit, and those who reside there. I believe that applying Robert Merton’s Strain Theory can help us to understand the “whys” and “how’s” of the history of crime and destruction in the city of Detroit, of which racist viewpoints similar to those of my parents’, played a part.
Robert Merton (1910-2003) spent most of his career teaching at Columbia University and was a known and respected American Sociologist. Merton agreed with the Structural-Functional approach of sociology in that crime is a functioning product of society itself. Merton added to this approach his own theory, stating that society defines “success” in terms of certain goals (such as financial security) but does not always provide everyone with the means (such as an education, and good jobs) to reach these goals. Conformity, according to Merton, occurs when people accept society’s goals and have the approved means to get there. But what happens when legitimate means to success are not available? A strain then occurs between the cultural goals and those who have the legitimate means to achieve them, and the cultural goals and those who do not have legitimate means to achieve them. Merton explains that those who do not have means to achieve society’s cultural goals often engage in unconventional methods to achieve those goals, such as the crimes of theft, selling drugs, prostitution, and human trafficking. Merton defines retreatism as another possible response by a group that lacks opportunity. Retreatism is when an individual or group turns away from both society’s approved goals and legitimate means for obtaining those goals. These retreatists effectively retreat from society. They become drug addicts, street people, and alcoholics. The last group presented within Merton’s Strain theory often becomes rebellious. They do not accept the conventional goals for success, but instead of retreating, or “dropping out” of society, they come up with a new system and actively try to recruit others to agree with them, oftentimes in the forms of riots, gangs, fringe religious cults and political groups.
Filmed in 2008, and containing clips from Detroit’s recent and distant past, the Al Profit documentary “Murder City” explores the history of crime and corruption in the city of Detroit. Click here to view filmThe film presents a raw, real-life glimpse into the lives of those attempting to make sense of a city plagued by crime, violence, drugs, prostitution, racism, riots, and corrupt leadership, all while navigating radical changes in population, industry, and economy. It is not a pleasant film, and it presents no solution for the city’s multiple problems. It does, however, provide for us a frame of reference to apply Merton’s Strain Theory, as it presents the history of crime and violence in Detroit. In this way, we can examine Detroit’s past, and use that knowledge as a reference in developing ideas for the future.
In his documentary, Profit shows us that the history of Detroit is not so unlike it’s present. Between 1970 and 2007 Detroit had the highest murder rate of all major cities in the United States. I was surprised to learn that this distinction goes all the way back to 1928, when a then primarily white Detroit led Los Angles, New York, and even the roaring twenties’ infamous crime laden Chicago in murders. Interestingly, there was a gap of time when Detroit was able to shed its horrendous distinction as the murder capital. During World War II, the unemployment rate of Detroit’s citizens was virtually non-existent due to the large amount of war related factory production. The post war period flooded the city with blacks, coming to the North for the abundance of jobs that the newly formed auto industry provided. These jobs paid well, and Ford Motor Company was arguably color blind in their hiring practices, at least for entry -level production jobs. In 1940, Ford Motor Company employed half of the black men in the city of Detroit, but only 14% of the white men! (Maloney and Whatley)
Sadly, this period of relative economic equilibrium did not last. By the late 1950’s, the auto industry began to move it’s factories to the suburbs, and the population of the city of Detroit began a decline that continues today. The very industry that built the city, had abandoned it. Mismanagement of the car companies, an international oil crisis, aggressive unions and several other factors contributed to the decline of the auto industry, and the city of Detroit became a center of unemployment. In 1982, the unemployment rate for the country was 9.7%, while it was 16.9% for the State of Michigan, and a shocking 21.6% for the city of Detroit. The average Detroit auto -worker (working “on the line”) in 1982 received a weekly paycheck of $475.00 and had good health benefits. Unemployed, his government check was $200 a week. And when his unemployment benefits expired? He received a weekly check of $100.00 from the welfare system. These figures would translate into 2011 figures of $1,107.05 weekly salary, $466.13 weekly unemployment check and $233.06 weeklywelfare check. (CPI Calculator.) I also find it interesting that today’s newly hired auto factory worker earns just $570.00 per week, representing a huge change in the economic value of the factory worker. Our micro example illustrates the individual auto- worker’s shift as the individual social actor conforming to society’s goals of success and the means to get there, to an alternative means of achieving success.
Unfortunately, that opportunity for alternative means expressed itself in the Detroit Cocaine Epidemic of the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s. A small group of Detroit men, as Merton’s Strain theory predicts, organized themselves into gangs called the “The Kingpins” and “The Chambers Brothers” and rebelled against conventional goals and advocated a new system all together, the Crack Community. These “communities” existed in crack houses all over the city of Detroit. Profit’s film tells us that at one time, over 500 crack houses were on Mack Ave. alone. The crack community established it’s own definition of cultural success, separating itself by its language, dress, music, and familial structure, specifically in regards to males. The epidemic spread like wildfire across the city. In 1986, the National Drug Abuse Hotline received more calls for crack cocaine addiction from Detroit than any other city in the U.S., besides New York City, an astonishing statistic considering the population of Detroit at that time was 1 million, vs. the 7 million residing in New York City. Once again, we see a means to achieve success outside the accepted norms. However, as Sociologist, Economist, and author Steven Levitt ‘s study (Levitt and Dubner) tells us that being a crack dealing gang member was not a lucrative job. Levitt’s study found that most drug dealers earned less than minimum wage. Their attempts at financial success failed miserably, while at the same time creating an addicted, “retreatist” segment of the city of Detroit. click here to see presentation of study
An undercurrent of racism ran through the city of Detroit, beginning with the influx of blacks in the 1940’s and continuing today. In the 1960’s, the city’s blacks were scared both emotionally and physically by the racist actions of the predominately white Detroit Police Force, who were known to mistreat blacks in the city. The State of Michigan attempted to reduce crime in the city by requiring the city’s police officers to live within the city limits, applying the theory that a higher police presence would reduce crime. To facilitate this requirement, the government offered above average housing in the nicest neighborhoods of the city to the mostly white police at a very reduced price. This often displaced the black citizen and his family, who had found himself recently unemployed by the auto factory and unable to pay his mortgage with his meager unemployment check. Where did the black family go? They were forced to move to the newly built Urban Renewal Projects (referred to by the city as the “projects”). The blacks had lost their income, their neighborhoods, their homes, and their sense of belonging. This relocation of the blacks, combined with flagrant abuse of blacks by the police, coupled with the national Civil Rights Movement, fueled the Detroit riots of 1967. Although police and the National Guard tried to control the city, five days of fires and violence occurred, and by the end, 43 people lay dead, 1189 injured and over 7000 had been arrested. Unfortunately, the tension between blacks and whites still exists in metro Detroit today, arguably at even higher levels than during the 1960’s.
A black child in the city of Detroit today is statistically likely to be the child of a parent who has less than a 8th grade education. His grandparents were likely either in a gang, or were a user or seller during the cocaine epidemic, and have less than a 5th grade education. His great grandparents likely found themselves unemployed by the auto industry, possibly victims of police violence, and without the home their own parents had moved to the city in the 1930’s to pursue. Adding to this dismal past, this Detroit child of 2011 has a failing public school system to look forward to. It is my hope that sociologists today can look at Merton’s Strain Theory as it applies to crime, drug use, prostitution, and most importantly education in the city of Detroit. A greater understanding and awareness of this theory would help government, industry, social services, non-for-profits, churches, and centers for learning in the structuring of their programming and services. As the band Green Day reminds us life in the Murder City “is desperate, but not hopeless.” It is my hope that working together, social institutions and social workers can provide the city of Detroit hope. Hope to provide all of its residents, both black and white, with the means to achieve the goals of society at large.
“The Journal of Economic History”
Thomas N. Maloney and Warren C. Whatley (1995). Making the Effort: The Contours of Racial Discrimination in Detroit’s Labor Markets, 1920–1940. The Journal of Economic History, 55, pp 465-493 doi:10.1017/S0022050700041607
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