2021 Equity Challenge Day 8: Tracing Inequity in the History of Metro Detroit

“Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” (“We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”)

Father Gabriel Richard

After the Detroit fire of 1805

Though we might not see it on the surface, the effects of historic, race-based inequity run deep and wide in Southeastern Michigan. Understanding the far-reaching impact of race relations in the history of metro Detroit is key to developing a more equitable region for all.

According to the National Parks Service, “Detroit occupies the contemporary and ancestral homelands of…the Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potawatomi.” The 1807 Treaty of Detroit forced indigenous peoples off this land and onto reservations to which they had no historical connection. More than 200 years later, the negative effects of the Treaty of Detroit can be observed in the inequity this community faces: federal data shows Native Americans suffer worse outcomes in education, healthcare, and life expectancy, and experience higher rates of obesity, substance abuse, violence and suicide.

In 1950, at its peak population of nearly 2 million people, the city of Detroit was 84 percent white (over 1.5 million people). Today, less than 15 percent of Detroit’s 672,000 residents are white — that’s fewer than 100,000 people. What factors led to the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Detroiters from what was once America’s fourth-most populous city? And how did racial division play a part in the development of our city and greater region? Today we’ll explore junctures that exacerbated race-based inequity in the Motor City, including the dismissal of indigenous nations, white flight, Detroit’s bankruptcy, the 1967 uprising, and the destruction of Detroit’s Black Bottom.



Read about the 1967 uprising and the 1943 race riot from the Detroit Historical Society. In both instances, widespread unrest accelerated the extensive departure of droves of white Detroiters to the suburbs. (3 minutes)

Read this piece from Hour Detroit on the racial and ethnic tensions that have historically divided our region. (10 minutes)

Read Ross Eisenbrey’s analysis of Detroit’s bankruptcy as a symptom of racism. (6 minutes)


Listen to Lester Graham’s report on “Detroit’s Last Spike in White Flight,” highlighting how racial division was a major contributing factor to the decline of Detroit. (4 minutes)


Learn about Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in this WDIV Channel 4 report. (5 minutes)


Using this interactive map, identify which Indigenous nations have historical connections to the land you live on, the land you grew up on, or the land you work on. (5 minutes)


Plan a trip to the Detroit Historical Museum’s “Detroit 67: Perspectives” exhibit to hear first-person accounts of the racial tensions that flared during 1967 unrest and the subsequent fallout of the uprising.

Reflect And Share:

  1. Consider your own family history. How has race played a part in what cities or neighborhoods your parents or grandparents live in, where you grew up or where you live today?
  2. How did where you live frame your understanding of race, culture and ethnicity?
  3. What messages, experiences or narratives about Detroit have shaped your perspective of the city?


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends, and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

Join thousands in conversation by using hastag #EquityChallenge or #TakeTheEC21