The Continuing Depopulation of Detroit

Yves here. Detroit is getting the same treatment as Latvia and Ireland, and we are already seeing similar results in Greece, with most people who have good foreign job prospects taking a hike. But while Latvia and Ireland stabilized at much lower levels of output and have started to recover from their, Detroit, like Greece, looks like a failed state. And this is perversely seen as acceptable in America.

By Laura Gottesdiener, a freelance journalist based in New York City. The author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, GuernicaPlayboy, RollingStone.comand frequently at TomDispatch. Originally published at TomDispatch

Unlike so many industrial innovations, the revolving door was not developed in Detroit. It took its first spin in Philadelphia in 1888, the brainchild of Theophilus Van Kannel, the soon-to-be founder of the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company. Its purpose was twofold: to better insulate buildings from the cold and to allow greater numbers of people easier entry at any given time.

On March 31st at the Wayne Country Treasurer’s Office, that Victorian-era invention was accomplishing neither objective. Then again, no door in the history of architecture — rotating or otherwise — could have accommodated the latest perversity Detroit officials were inflicting on city residents: the potential eviction of tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000 people, all at precisely the same time.

Little wonder that it seemed as if everyone was getting stuck in the rotating doors of that Wayne County office building on the last day residents could pay their past-due property taxes or enter a payment plan to do so. Those who didn’t, the city warned, would lose their homes to tax foreclosure, the process by which a local government repossesses a house because of unpaid property taxes.

“Oh, my lord,” exclaimed one bundled-up woman when she first spotted the river of people, their documents in envelopes and folders of every sort, pouring out of cars, hunched over walkers, driving electric scooters, being pushed in wheelchairs, or simply attempting to jam their way on foot into the building. The afternoon was gray and unseasonably cold. The following day, in the middle of a snowless meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the governor of California would announce the state’s first-ever water restrictions as a result of an unprecedented, climate-change-influenced drought. Here in Michigan, city residents were facing another type of man-made disaster: possibly the largest single tax foreclosure in American history.

“It’s the last day to pay,” one woman heading toward the rotating glass chamber yelled to a pedestrian who had slowed to watch the commotion. Inside, a Wayne County Sheriff’s Department officer-turned-traffic-controller boomed instructions to a snaking line of people. “When you get to the eighth floor, you will get a number. Keep that number! Then go to the fifth floor.’”

The eighth floor, however, turned out to be little more than another human traffic jam, a holding space for thousands of anxious homeowners who faced hours of waiting before reaching the desk of some overworked city representative down on five. Yet, as a post office delivery worker gaping at the fiasco told me, this was less hectic than it had been a only few days earlier, when the treasurer’s office had rented out the Second Baptist Church across the street. There, people waited for the opportunity to enter the revolving doors to take the elevator to the eighth floor before heading for the fifth floor to… you get the gist.

In fact, the whole week had been a god-awful mess. A day earlier, rumors had it, a woman had passed out in the elevator between the eighth and fifth floors en route to “making arrangements,” the euphemism for getting on a payment plan that might save your home.

“What happens if you can’t pay?” a slender man asked me as we dodged a new wave of people surging through the glass cylinder.

“Then they sell your house at auction,” I replied.

“For real?” he asked, amazed.

He was waiting for his sister to make those “arrangements.” He didn’t have to worry about all this, he explained, because ever since he’d lost his job, which had provided him with housing, he’d been staying in motels. The Victory Inn over in Dearborn and the Viking across from the Motor City casino were both reasonable enough places, he assured me, but the Royal Inn on Eight Mile was the cheapest of all — $35 a night plus a $10 key deposit. That establishment’s single enigmatic Yelp review read: “This is definitely someplace you want to go where totally normal things happen.”

A Blueprint for Civic Hell

Detroit was once famous for creating the largest, most spectacular versions of whatever its residents set their minds to, be they assembly lines, record labels, or revolutionary workers’ associations. The city is often credited with inventing and mass-producing the twentieth century, while its workers simultaneously took the lead in revolting against the injustices of the era. Its factories put the world on wheels and labor laws on the books. Its workers and thinkers sparked and fanned a number of this country’s most influential resistance movements.

Detroit: every article about you should include a love letter, a thank-you note, a history lesson, for without you…

Few care to admit, however, that the city that was the arsenal of the twentieth century may also provide the blueprint for a more precarious era. Which brings us to those massive tax foreclosures of the present moment. Just over 60,000 homes, about half of them occupied, are slated for the auction block. As many as 100,000 of the city’s residents — about a seventh of the total number — are now on track for what many are calling an eviction “conveyor belt.”

Such an image easily springs to mind in this city whose auto factories were famous for their oh-so-efficient shop floors.  These days, sadly enough, it’s all-too-easy to imagine a twenty-first-century version of a classic Detroit assembly line dedicated to processing its own residents, workers, and retirees — all the ones it claims to no longer need, all those too old, too young, too ill-trained, too inefficient for a post-bankruptcy city. These undesirables, it seems, are to be turned into so many economic refugees on a conveyor belt to nowhere. While everyone loves to hear about legendary industrial Detroit, no one wants to hear about its de-industrialized progeny, and especially not about foreclosures — not again.

Mike Shane, a Detroit resident and organizer with the anti-foreclosure group Moratorium Now!, knows this better than anyone.  “We call the press, and they say, give us anything but foreclosures,” he tells me ruefully.

Connecting the Dots

On March 31st, some people did manage to make the necessary “arrangements” to save their homes. That included one woman with a Hillary Clinton-style hairdo who had lived on Winthrop Street since the 1960s, but like so many in the working-class sections of the city had fallen behind on her taxes. “They asked, ‘Why didn’t you pay your property taxes?’” she explained as she rested on one of the first-floor benches. “And I said, ‘Because I had a heart attack.’”

Last year, she recalled, a neighbor’s home fell into tax foreclosure. A man who lived on the same block noticed the familiar address on the auction list. He bought it back for her, she tells me. “He said to the woman, ‘Pay me back when you can, if you can.’”

Detroit is full of similar stories, filled with a stubborn sense of hope. But there are so many more addresses on the foreclosure list than angelic neighbors. By early afternoon that March day, the building still bursting at its seams with thousands of people, the county office conceded its inability to cope and extended the foreclosure deadline another six weeks.

“I don’t know if it’s because they’re so damn overwhelmed,” wondered Mary Crenshaw, a sunken-eyed woman who was relieved by the announcement, as it gave her time to wait for a lump-sum retirement payout from British Airways, her former employer. She had come to save her family home in Highland Park, a small city enclosed by Detroit whose once occupied homes sported oak floors and beveled glass windows. Now, more than half of them are empty, lawns overgrown, windows boarded up, the former homeowners having already ridden earlier foreclosure conveyor belts out of the neighborhood.

After all, this current tax foreclosure crisis comes right on the heels of the city’s last great displacement: the 2008 housing crash, which descended on Detroit like a tidal wave, sweeping nearly a quarter of a million people out of the city and leaving in its wake tens of thousands of vacant properties.

The fact that the city is now threatening to evict a seventh of its remaining inhabitants in a single year, all because of unpaid property taxes, seems like an absurd proposition until you begin to connect the dots: the mass water shutoffs, the shuttering of dozens of public schools, the neglect of fire hydrants in particular neighborhoods, and now this deluge of foreclosures.

Looking at the pattern that emerges, you can see that Detroit is not only a city in the midst of a “revival,” as enterprising investors and the national media often claim. It’s true that redevelopment is taking place in some neighborhoods, and city officials do claim that big changes are coming, often illustrating them with colorful documents that look like they were formatted by a team of graphic design wizards from the back of San Francisco’s Google Bus.

But that’s just one part of the Detroit story. For the city’s low-income, black, and elderly residents, Detroit isn’t a city on the rise, but one under siege.

An Emergency That Never Ends

On a blustery Saturday afternoon just two weeks before the day of the foreclosure deadline, an Emergency People’s Assembly Against Tax Foreclosures was held at Old Christ Church to address this siege. It was one of a set of “people’s assemblies” called to deal with the latest crisis in a city where, in recent years, crises have never been lacking.  Before the tax foreclosure assemblies there had been the Emergency People’s Assemblies Against Bank Foreclosures, the Emergency Pack-The-Court Actions to Defend Homeowners from Eviction, the Emergency Town Halls to Defend City Pensions & Services, the Emergency Meetings Against the Emergency Financial Manager, and so on.

“Emergency” had, in other words, been the word of the moment for years and years. That invasive sense of never-ending urgency could similarly be seen in the literature of such groups — in the words always screamingly in capital letters, in the typographical equivalents of exclamation points. When I’d first heard about the most recent event, I was in a meeting with Mike Shane and I said to him, “Over the three years I’ve been visiting Detroit, I’ve never arrived at a time you weren’t holding an Emergency People’s Assembly the following Saturday.”

Shane laughed on cue. “Well, yes, that’s right,” he replied. “We’ve been at this since about 2007.”

The Old Christ Church that day was shiveringly cold. From the pew behind me came the sound of rustling coats as two children squirmed. Beside them sat their grandmother and grandfather, Lula and Daryl Burke, who had come to describe how their home had been sold at a tax foreclosure auction last year. With the help of the grassroots community group Detroit Eviction Defense, Lula explained, the Burkes had convinced the home’s buyer to sell it back to the family.  

A little bit of gumption on her part helped, too.  As she recalled explaining to the investor who had bought her home at auction, he could try to sell the house to someone else. But before he did that, she planned to strip every last thing out of it. “It won’t have a furnace, a toilet, doors, windows, all the way down to the light switch,” she warned him.

On the wall behind the altar three white-robed angels were suspended in mid-frolic, oblivious to the current condition of their once regal city. In front of them stood anti-foreclosure lawyer Jerry Goldberg.  “Are we going to allow 62,000 more foreclosures this year?” he thundered, his face growing redder. I later learned that, years ago, Goldberg had sold peanuts down at the old Tigers stadium (now a bulldozed parking lot) and his unrelenting voice had apparently made him very good at it.

“No!” he responded emphatically to his own question. “Are we going to allow them to make our neighborhoods into a bunch of ponds?” 

Perhaps I should have led with this information: in some of the city’s latest flashy Adobe InDesign-ed planning documents, certain of Detroit’s more down-and-out neighborhoods have been transformed into ponds. Or, to be more precise, they have been turned into “water retention basins” that planners believe will offer the Detroit of the future superior management of storm water runoff.

Minutes earlier, Alice Jennings, one of the most celebrated social justice lawyers in the city, had explained that, according to Detroit’s planning documents, those retention basins are slated to be built on top of now populated neighborhoods. In other words, ponds are also what we’re talking about when we talk about Detroit’s tax foreclosures.

“No!” Goldberg shouted yet again. “We need to stop these foreclosures with a moratorium, a halt! The idea that this can’t be done is hogwash! The Supreme Court held in 1934 that, during a period of emergency, the people’s need to survive supersedes any financial contract! The governor has a responsibility to declare a state of emergency!”

His sentences all ended in exclamation points, as his torrent of words resounded off the church’s high ceilings. In an upside-down universe, Goldberg would have made a skilled auctioneer rather than a man desperate to save all those homes and their inhabitants.

To be clear, Goldberg isn’t suggesting another of the emergency proclamations that Michigan’s governors have used to impose unelected emergency managers on school districts and municipalities from Detroit to Muskegon Heights. Rather, he’s calling for the governor to declare a state of emergency under Michigan law 10.31, which would allow him to “promulgate reasonable orders, rules, and regulations as he or she considers necessary to protect life and property” — including, of course, halting the tax foreclosures. In 1933, similar actions allowed Michigan’s legislature to pass the Mortgage Moratorium Act, later upheld by the Supreme Court, mandating a five-year halt on property foreclosures.

Winning that moratorium took, among other things, a well-organized national Communist Party, hundreds of worker councils, thousands of eviction blockades, and — I’d be willing to bet, although I don’t have the archival evidence — an incredible number of “emergency meetings.”

Woe to Those Who Plan Iniquities

By late afternoon, Goldberg was resting his vocal chords and about a dozen people from the audience were lining up to take the microphone, including Cheryl West, a tiny, gray-haired woman clutching a thick Bible to her stomach. When it was her turn to speak, she began: “I lost my home of 60 years.” There was no trace of bitterness in her voice, just a touch of awe and disbelief. “It’s been quite a journey. Quite a journey.”

“Let me give you a little background,” she continued. “My entire family is now deceased. My father was the first African American to teach music in Detroit, possibly in the entire state of Michigan. He worked for the school system. He lived in that very house. He lived there through the 1967 riots and we were right at the hub of where the riots started. My sister was a journalist, and during the riots she was one of the people getting the story out to the media, because she was working for UPI at the time. My sister was on the front page of the London Times, that’s how far her news traveled of the city burning down around us.”

Then, after a few more background comments on her life, she opened up her bible. “Since we’re in a church,” she said by way of explanation and began to read from the Book of Micah. She skipped its beginning.

“Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance…”

Undoubtedly, she assumed that everyone in the church was already familiar with such “iniquities” and the biblical lines that went with them. After all, in the previous few years, they had lived through the 2008 foreclosure crisis, the imposition of an emergency manager on their city, mass water shutoffs, and significant pension cuts for retired city workers, not to speak of all the evils that had come before.

Instead, she read the verses she liked best, the ones that, as she said, God led her to just about the time she lost her home.

“You strip off the rich robe
from those who pass by without a care,
like men returning from battle.
You drive the women of my people
from their pleasant homes.
You take away my blessing
from their children forever.”

She paused, then suddenly, in a surprisingly powerful voice, yelled the next line: “Get up! Go away!”

The church reverberated with her admonishment. And then, with a smile at her own audacity, she added, “The end.”

Shortly afterwards, we filed out of the church. And yet it was not the end. It never is.

There is now, for instance, that new deadline — May 12th — for residents to get on a payment plan to avoid losing their homes to tax foreclosure. That offers more time for people to navigate the revolving doors of the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, head up to the eighth floor, then down to the fifth, all in an effort to fight their way off of the city’s conveyor belt to nowhere. And, of course, it gives residents more time to host emergency people’s assemblies aimed at throwing a monkey wrench  — once and for all — into this assembly line of eviction and displacement.

Even if that happened, however, these gatherings, called for in all capital letters and exclamation points, undoubtedly wouldn’t end. They’ve become as much a fixture of this city as the women and men who organize them, the churches that host them, and the neighborhoods whose survival may depend on them. After all, the worst injustice would not be whatever provokes the next emergency people’s assembly, but the possibility of a future Detroit without such gatherings, one in which all these meetings and people are gone, all the stories have been suppressed. Imagine, then, the worst iniquity of all, the one so many are fighting against: a Detroit where once inhabited streets have been submerged in the silence of water retention ponds, where longtime residents have been scattered and displaced by the foreclosure conveyor belt and no one left in the city knows the history of what’s been drowned.

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    1. DJG

      Chicago managed to lose about 275,000 residents between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses. Not a good record. A sign of a local economy permanently in decline. I note, too, LA proper and NY proper both gained residents during that time. Without a doubt, Lambert, the wee hours of your time stamp must turn you into an optimist.

    2. DJG

      Well, the assessor’s office just sent out the new valuations for the north quadrant in Chicago. I got mine the day after the election–such timing. My assessed valuation is up 20 percent, which means a similar rise in property taxes. Foreclosures, here we come.

  1. fresno dan

    After they foreclose on all those homes, who exactly do they think are going to buy them?

    1. Lambert Strether

      They’re going to turn them into “water retention basins” (!).

      Good thing there’s no hog farming in Detroit city limits, or else they’d turn them into lagoons.

      1. guest

        A simple-minded question: where did all those evicted people go after they were foreclosed and their houses levelled? We are talking about hundreds of thousands of persons — somewhere they must have been a corresponding swelling of destitute population.

        1. detroiter

          When Wayne County forecloses on a property for non-payment, it does not take any action to evict the occupant. Foreclosed homes go up for auction and the subsequent buyer may or may not evict the occupant. The new buyer may instead seek to collect rent from the occupant. Thousands of foreclosed properties also go unsold at the annual auctions. These properties generally end up in the City’s hands, or more recently in the inventory of the Detroit Land Bank Authority. The Land Bank owns thousands of occupied properties and does not engage in mass evictions.

          That said, the “conveyor belt” and “revolving door” are both apt metaphors for the decline of Detroit’s neighborhoods. Conveyor belt, because the decline has been relentless and continuous over a very long time. Revolving door, because the vast majority of properties sold at Wayne County tax auctions become immediately tax delinquent again.

          A third metaphor, and one more to your point, is the “housing disassembly line” which describes the role that suburban sprawl has played in the rise of blight in inner city Detroit.

        2. Jason Calley

          Where will the people go? Why would a politician care. To the government, citizens are livestock who produce tax revenue. If a farmer had chickens which did not lay eggs or cows which did not produce milk, would he still care about their welfare? To a politician, taxpayers who do not pay taxes are just something to get rid of. They don’t care where the people go, just as long as they go some place else.

    2. David

      “After they foreclose on all those homes, who exactly do they think are going to buy them”…good question?

      two cases I am familiar with.

      The LES (Lower East Side of Manhattan) in the 70’s – Owners would abandon their apartment buildings and not pay the taxes which eventually were picked up by the NYC. No one wanted them since the repairs were enormous, Needle Park (Tomkins Square Park with needles everywhere) and the rents low due to the local clientele and Rent Control. The buildings were eventually boarded up or knocked down and made into vest parks and vegetable gardens until the neighborhood turned around in the 90’s and today is premium property. Took 20- 30 years.

      In Dayton, Ohio the central part of town was largely owned by NCR ( National Cash Register) the manufacturing of cash registers went on for over a hundred years and then went to the far east. No one wanted these beautiful industrial buildings in good shape with wide avenues and plenty of utility corridors. So NCR leveled them, a few hundred acres to escaper property taxes. Turned to green park land for 30 years until “part of” the land was recycled into another use. most still vacant

      So the cities are there to create the “conditions” for recycling the assets – takes along time – NYC was quick – Dayton is still struggling

      so goes the USA – vast tracks of suburban property is now laboring under property taxes owned by people 50-90 years old that cannot pay $10,000 – $30,000 per year property taxes due to: yield on savings (less than 3%), Implosion of Pension Fund Assets and discontinued funding and coming Social Security & Medicare cuts. This is a time bomb across the landscape for cities, school funding.

      Systems are set to crater after ZIRP for 7 years.

  2. James Levy

    Every time this topic emerges on other sites the knee-jerk response among commenters is “black misrule!”. It’s very hard to present the structural argument that although there was plenty of black misrule, the misrule went back further and the black politicos were a) the victims of a larger political economy that was happy to sacrifice their city for corporate and suburban prosperity, and b) bankers who were happy to fleece financially illiterate politicians with bad bond and investment schemes. A Koch or a Bloomberg could redistribute wealth to key constituencies because the pie was growing and those constituencies would kick back a little bit of that growth in the form of taxes. Black politicians almost always find themselves masters of a shrinking ship, with calls to redress old inequalities and redistribute wealth to their constituencies forced to come out of a shrinking pie. This leads to deficits and the inevitable call for “reform”, i.e. making their poorest constituents suffer in order to balance contracting budgets. It’s a nasty trick on the most vulnerable, but one played out over and over again across urban America.

    1. Jim in SC

      This does seem very reminiscent of Katrina, only the natural disaster is organizational. (And I know that description is far too simplified. If white flight hadn’t happened after the riots, then Detroit might have muddled through.) What’s happening in Detroit today is to a less extreme degree happening across Blue America, as former or remaining members of the middle class move from the NorthEast and the Upper MidWest to points south and west. It has been in process ever since the term ‘Sunbelt’ was created, and air conditioners invented. But the local political structures that couldn’t sustain themselves back home can’t do so in new locations either. However, the arc of failure is a long one, certain but hardly noticeable, so the political and economic errors that produced the failures are not obvious to those hurt by them.

      All of the elements that Progressives preach as necessary for revival of the body politic and economic are in fact elements of their demise. Usually they involve creating sacred categories: unions, schools, minimum wage, etcetera…with little accountability, and paid for by someone else. Regrettably, the world is changing too fast for the old sacred categories to keep up or be relevant. What is needed is for people to take responsibility for themselves, and to develop enough self awareness to drop the illusion that everything can be paid for by some ‘other.’

      Bruce Lee said, ‘If you want to learn to kick, kick!’ We are infantilizing teenagers by raising the minimum wage to the point that nobody would ever hire them. A third fewer eighteen year olds have drivers licenses than they did thirty years ago. Their time is more and more taken up with school, as we’ve added requirements across the board, though this doesn’t seem to have increased their employability a whit. To develop the capacity for work, you have to do it. If young adults haven’t developed the capacity for hard work before they are twenty-four, they likely never well. Their incessant schooling and lack of employment prospects: thanks both to the minimum wage and their lack of driver’s licenses, makes it less likely that they will do so. I’ll bet that lots of these people losing their houses in Detroit never had the opportunity to work as teenagers.

        1. Jim in SC

          I’m not sure who you mean by ‘they.’ I don’t think it is the fault of the low income mostly African American Detroiters who are losing their houses, access to water, et al. But I think that the wealthier, mostly white masses who are fleeing the NorthEast and Upper Midwest–though they probably wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘fleeing,’– are in fact, somewhat at fault for not being more self conscious and reflective about what they’re doing and why. I am also not happy about the possibility that they are bringing failed ideas about government and economics to the South, where I live and hope to continue to live. My hope is that, as the writer Ellen Gilchrist says, ‘Southerners southernize the world,’ and that may include the millions of Northerners and MidWesterners moving down here. It also helps that they come throwing money at us, as the South has long had precious little of that. This allows me to give them the benefit of the doubt.

          In fact, the first wave of Northern migrants came to our town forty five years ago. They lived in an unincorporated development, one of the first ‘developments,’ but attended school with us. I associate them with two sorts of forbidden fruit: money and drugs. We didn’t even have marijuana before they got here. Those kids were by and large stoners with an unquenchable entrepreneural spirit. Even though they’d come from schools up North that were somehow supposed to be ‘better’ than ours, the Southerners were more likely to be the scholars. Lots of the Northern kids didn’t go to college, but became wildly successful entrepreneurs after high school. They integrated well into the community, all in all, and many are my friends today. The South was socially ossified at that time, and they did us a big favor by shaking things up, though their behavior also seemed to imply that, in order to deal with the pressure of entrepreneural work, you had to get high. They were considered ‘the rich,’ then, especially by the lower income native whites, and the guard gate, which was supposed to keep the rabble out, actually served the purpose of keeping them in a place where they could get high to their hearts content and roam free: at the very worst, the guards would turn you over to your parents. Paradise!

          1. Jim in SC

            Let me add that we can have plenty of homegrown mis-government too. Some of the lower population counties–where there hasn’t been a lot of immigration–are pretty awfully governed.

            However, the difference between the Northern influx of forty five years ago and that of today is scale. People can move down here in middle age, live here the rest of their lives, and never speak to a native Southerner. That many people have come. I’m shocked when, in my yoga class of forty, I see two other Southerners (and I’m kin to one regular!) So different groups are not communicating, just like in Washington. It’s sad, because there used to be a lot more communication across all groups.

            Ironically, I think African Americans used to have much more political influence here than they presently do. When you go from twenty percent of the population to five percent, it’s hard to retain much clout.

        2. Jim in SC

          run75441: I responded in two posts, and the most pertinent disappeared. To summarize: I certainly don’t think what is happening to the African Americans losing their homes in Detroit is their fault. I think high property taxes: which I fear Northern migrants to the South are bringing down here, are largely the problem.

      1. jgordon

        Hey, society is collapsing in slow motion here. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s humanity as a species because we’re way too boneheaded to have a sustainable culture. The resources on our planet just don’t exist for 7 billion people to have a car and be hardworking (industrialists), and everyone trying for that lifestyle today is eating into the seed corn of future generations. Detroit is only an early exhibit of what happens to industrial societies that fail to make arrangements for the dark centuries ahead of us.

      2. bruno marr

        Where to begin responding to this nonsense!?

        To generalize on Bruce Lee: If you want a Society you need to act socially. The folks moving to the Sun Belt aren’t moving there for the sun. It’s jobs (unfortunately, non-union). The Rust Belt is rusting because the municipal tax base (see: jobs) has eroded. Taxes (when assessed fairly) are actually a good thing, as they help provide the infrastructure and services that allow a society to function. (Out-houses may function in rural Alabama; they’re a no go in Chicago.)

        And blaming current students for job availability and a lack of employability is a circular argument. In today’s job market training/skills/education is the prime currency; hence the long educational trail for Millenials. (I imagine the commenter probably grew up pumping gas as a first paid-work opportunity.) Today it’s mostly self-service at the gas station cum snack shop. As, for lack of driver’s licenses: car ownership is both a financial and environmental black-hole (astro-physics term). One would be smart to avoid it.

        Speaking of Black Holes, it seems that’s where the commenter’s logic resides, in a place and space that allows no enlightenment to escape.


      3. Ed S.

        A third fewer eighteen year olds have drivers licenses than they did thirty years ago.

        Jim , some food for thought:

        When I was 16 (in the late 1970’s), there were lots of interesting and cheap old cars. Parts were cheap and you could work on it , if you wanted (and there were people to help). My first car was $300 or 150 hours @ $2.30 minimum wage job. Comparable car today would cost minimum $5k. At least 700 hours at minimum wage. Big difference.

        Some more food:

        It’s much more difficult and expense to get a license today than it was “back in the day”. In Pennsylvania you could get your permit on the day you turned 16 — and take the driving test the same day. Here’s what CA requires now (edited):

        1) Obtain parental consent.
        2) Complete driver education (classroom training) and driver training (behind-the-wheel training)
        3) Pass the written law test.
        4) Complete at least 50 hours of supervised driving.
        5) Your teen must “hold” his/her permit longer (six months) than other drivers and practice the driving skills listed in this guide before he/she can come to the DMV for the driving test.
        6) Pass the driving test. If your teen fails his or her driving test, he/she must wait two weeks retaking.

        As perspective, these requirements are as hard or harder than getting a private pilot certificate (only 20 hours of instruction required prior to solo and 40 flying hours to exam). Ironically a 16 year old pilot can fly teenage friends as passengers but can’t drive them to the airport.

        The kids are alright – don’t blame them for the world today.

        1. Jim in SC


          That’s a very good point about it being more difficult to get a driver’s license and pay for a car today. That’s certainly true.

          I don’t think today’s world is exactly of the teens’ making. Somehow we decided that more education is important, even though it hasn’t shown up much in improved test scores.

        2. jrs

          There’s also better public transportation now. There’s more local train lines etc.. This is not to say public transpiration in the U.S. is very good compared to most industrialized countries. It’s merely to say that it actually HAS improved many places.

      1. James Levy

        Go to or or the Huffington post and look at comments when Detroit is mentioned and you will see scads of people saying that the problem with Detroit is that it is the product of what happens when blacks get their hands on political power (scratch white New Yorkers and most will say the same about the Dinkins years). I obviously don’t agree, as any reading of my post will confirm, but that does not change the fact that black misrule is a meme that is prevalent and not likely to go away any time soon. In fact, years of scholarship on the Reconstruction state governments which demonstrate they were at least as good if not better than those that preceded and followed them hasn’t put a dent in the Gone With the Wind image of carpetbaggers and black misrule, two themes invented ex post facto by the Klan and their admirers and almost impossible to kill.

        1. Jim

          The historical and contemporary record of black ruled countries is very poor. Compare Haiti with the Dominican Republic.

            1. Jim

              I notice a lot more Haitians flee to the US than Americans flee to Haiti. Haitian society is remarkable for its level of dysfunction and violence.

        2. Jim in SC

          As a matter of historical fact, I think you’re overstating the accomplishments of the Reconstruction governments, at least in our state and county (York). Robert K. Scott, the Reconstruction governor of SC, organized and armed two black regiments, which, whether by design or lack of discipline, proceeded to burn down the houses of whites throughout our county in an effort at voter intimidation. The regiments were eventually disbanded at the request of their officers, because they claimed they couldn’t control them. It is hardly the stuff of good government textbooks, and it was not ‘invented ex-post facto’ by the Klan. The Klan killed more people in our county during Reconstruction (11, versus 1 by the black regiments), and they certainly beat more (600), but both the State’s Regiments and the Klan were aiming at the same goal: discouraging voters from the opposing political party. Eventually twenty percent of the white population fled to Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border, after President Grant suspended habeas corpus and deployed the Seventh Cavalry.

          1. run75441


            I think you need to read up on the Colfax Massacre, the Waite SCOTUS, and United States v. Cruikshank. The Waite SCOTUS in 1871, ” the court held that the federal government had no role to play in prosecuting individuals for violating the civil rights of African Americans — that was the states’ job. As Waite opined, ‘Sovereignty for the protection of the rights of life and personal liberty within the respective States, rests alone with the States’. The translation: The 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection was well and good, but, in Waite’s words, ‘it add[ed] nothing to the rights of one citizen against another.” Under state rights, states were pretty much free to decide whatever they chose to do and indeed the states did with the implementation of Jim Crow laws.

            1. Jim in SC


              Thank you. I am unfamiliar with the Colfax massacre or the Waite SCOTUS and will check them out. 1871 was a terrible year. Most of the particulars I know about it came from our local historian Jerry West’s book ‘The Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan in York County, SC, 1865-1877,’ and from the York County portion of the ‘Ku Klux Conspiracy,’ Congressional testimony from 1871 I found in my college library in Maryland thirty years ago.

              Several years ago while taking a walk in Shelby, NC, I came across the graves of Thomas Dixon and W. J. Cash, authors, respectively, of ‘The Clansman,’ (which was the inspiration of D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation,’) and ‘Mind of the South,’ which was for many years the most important work of sociology written on Southern themes. Both men were graduates of Wake Forest, and both attended law school there. They are buried about fifteen feet apart.

              Dixon wrote the ‘Clansman’ in the Rose Hotel in Yorkville, SC, county seat of York County, in reaction to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ The events in the book are taken loosely from York County’s Reconstruction experience.

              Lambert: I think there is a difference between being interested in an accurate representation of history and being tagged as a ‘neo-Confederate.’ Would you call people like B.H. Liddell-Hart, who say that 100,000 Germans didn’t need to die in the fire bombing of Dresden ‘neo-Nazis,’ or Japanese who think that 100,000 Japanese didn’t need to die in the fire bombing of Tokyo ‘neo-imperialists?’ Of course, I realize that this is the United States, and only one telling of history is acceptable. Is that DeTocqueville? Why don’t we all read him tonight and reconvene in the morning?

              1. run75441


                Newly minted black citizens were left to state rights to insure their citizenship. It mostly did not happen till 100 years later. Even now United States v. Cruikshank (Waite SCOTUS) has had some bearing in our lives with regard to the right to bear arms and who decides. Keep in mind, the court has never determined that right based upon an interpretation of the 2nd amendment. SCOTUS has always used other court rulings to grant the right to bear arms. Something, the NRA and advocates seem to miss.

                I live in Michigan and have been here for 20 years. Michigan takes pride in being called “Pure Michigan” which is somewhat ironic as the population is purer in the sense of the numbers of people who were born here and stayed here. It was 2nd to LA recently in the percentage of people except LA percentage decreased and Michigan’s increased. What this holds for Michigan is the population is slowly losing all of the people who moved here.

                I do not see you as Neo Confederate at all. You just forced my hand in answering you and hopefully others. It is not a brief answer to give on Detroit and its demise has been happening over the years. Hopefully, I made some understandable sense of it below.

                As to the demographics, Detroit minorities will slowly follow US 94 and US96 to the west side of the state. In a move similar to Hispanics being a minority today and a controlling factor by 2040, minorities will hold sway over Michigan also. The time I coming when white America will be a minority.

        3. Calgacus

          the product of what happens when blacks get their hands on political power
          Sure, that does lead to problems. For then the whites, the undereducated violent overclass, those who think they are better than other people – attack. In Detroit – water shutoffs for the poor, not the rich; pension theft, bankruptcy imposed by imported state-appointed tyrannical managers / thieves.

          As for Haiti – It did something of enormous and undying benefit to the rest of humanity – the only successful slave revolt in history, leading to the destruction of slavery everywhere, including the USA. More recently, as Noam Chomsky said – we should go to Haiti and study democracy from them (Aristide, Lavalas).

          Casting it in black and white terms is of course absurd, but if one does, the problem is clearly white misrule, inability to control white greed, dishonesty, corruption and violence.

    2. Jim

      Average IQ of African-Americans is 85. However because of out-migration of the more able African-Americans it is likely that the average IQ of the Detroit population is significantly below 85. This is way below what is required for anything like a first world economy.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Wow, nothing like an unreconstructed racist.

        The problems with all the work purporting to link “race” and “intelligence” have been well-known for decades. First, the concept of “race”: There is no “Hispanic race.” It’s a census category, not a biological one. What we call “Hispanics” in the United States includes Indian peasants from Yucatan and doctors from Mexico City (and Madrid). Second problem: the concept of “IQ.” The inventors of the IQ test claimed it measured “innate intelligence.” But of course what the test really measures is test-taking ability. Our peasant from Yucatan probably wouldn’t do as well as the kid from Beverly Hills High. Both “race” and “intelligence” are culturally constructed notions, not biological or genetic facts. None of this is hard to understand.

        1. Jim

          I agree that “Hispanic” is a rather imprecise term. In the US it usually means “Mestizo” ie an imdividual of mixed European-Amerindian ancestry. Mexican Mestizos are roughly half European, half Amerindian with a small amount of African ancestry. However the genetic composition of Mexican Mestizos varies quite a bit regionally in Mexico.

          Whether IQ measures some kind of unempirical notion of “true inelligence” is not important. IQ correlates empirically very well with success and achievement in advanced cultures. If one ranks different ethnic groups by average IQ’s and compares this ranking with SES, educational and professional attainment the rankings agree all over the world. For example East Asians rank at or near the top of any society in which they are present in siginifcant numbers. Very poor East Asian migrants to such places as Jamaica, Malaysia, etc. soon rose to economic domainace over the host populations.

          The long term historical record of the cultural achievements of different races tracks closely with their measured IQ’s. For example Chinese civilization has typically been at or near the top in cultural ahievement since the time of the Shang dynasty. Sub-Saharan African cultures have lagged well behind Eurasian and Amerindian cultures. Eurasian cultures have been more advanced than Sub-Saharan African cultures since the Mousterian 50,000 years ago.

      2. hunkerdown

        Facts not in evidence: that “white”, Western, and/or European cultures constitute any good example of intelligence, let alone favorably comparable intelligence.

  3. Dave

    Kwame Kilpatrick Is in his jail cell fervently nodding in agreement with your comment as he reads it…….

  4. Demeter

    Detroit, my home town, was allowed to die of callous neglect following the Riot of 1967…but it refused to. The growing fear that Urban Farming and other self-sufficiency projects would prolong the city’s humble life triggered a lot of changes…Why did it take so long for Detroit’s suffering to reach the consciousness of the 1%?

    Because until recently, nobody could figure out the angle….

    But they did, finally. It’s Gentrification: a playland for the Rich and Edgy.

    Creating for-profit parks with Hantz tree plantings, telling the Koch Bros. to get their filthy petcoke bitumen off the banks of the scenic Detroit River (which Rahm hasn’t done for the city of Chicago, by the way), razing buildings that have been abandoned for 50 (FIFTY!) years…and foreclosing on the people still there who can’t afford to pay the exorbitant property taxes (well in excess of the value of the property as is), cutting off water for the destitute, and exporting the jobs: first to the suburbs of Detroit, and then to Canada, Mexico, and Third World countries…

    Do you know how much of our auto industry is in China, these days? Auto parts for repair are nearly all from there.

    If there’s a definition of 1% Evil, Detroit is its victim.

    1. run75441


      Your city was dying well before 1967. The riots the same as what occurred in Chicago were just a point on the time line.

  5. Felix

    Our auto industry is in Mexico. The dismal failure is that the UAW has not organized these workers who are working for ten dollars per day and happy to have the work. Why pay a Mexican laborer 14 per hour which is now what the auto companies are paying (about what I earned at Ford in Mahwah in 1970!!!) to new employees when you can have that same Mexican build your pickup in Mexico and with Nafta ship it north? We need to eliminate the border. The reality is that at this point Mexico is part of the US and the US is part of Mexico. Our school population is largely Hispanic from Mexico. That means the next generations are from Mexico. We have imported their population. Vast tracts of Michoacan and Sonora are empty. Everyone has already left. Germany absorbed east Germany and survived. We need to absorb Mexico. When labor costs are equilibrated more or less the horrible pressure on US manufacturing centers may decrease. Let the UAW organize the Mexican plants. The car companies, foreign and domestic, are investing mulitiple billions in these plants…..the latest announcement was Toyota…….moving production from Mississippi to Mexico impacting…..mostly black Americans.

    1. cnchal

      Last week it was Toyota moving production of the Corolla from Ontario to Mexico, and Ford announcing a host of new engine plants in Mexico, which will eventually kill the engine plant in Windsor.

      Where is the Mexican government getting the bribery money to pay these manufacturers to locate there, or is paying wages that round to zero incentive enough.?

      I know someone that goes to Mexico regularly to set these plants up, and he calls them hellholes.

    2. jrs

      As far as political ideas that will never happen go, not a bad idea. And unionize the whole big Ameri-mexico! At least it prevents the whole divide and conquer we have going on with the U.S. and Mexico with the working class in both as the main victim.

  6. MLS

    Detroit has seen it’s population decline since about 1950, not long after the end of WWII. Certainly the auto industry provided an enormous boost to the city from the turn of the century onward, and resources continued to pour into the city as they mobilized to assist the war effort. Population came in droves, and because plants were spread out the city took on a decentralized state. The focus at the time was getting factories converted or up and running to support the war, not civic planning. Thus people tended to live along major bus lines, and with wages so high could later afford their own homes. Freeways were built to accommodate the influx and further decentralize the city, and infrastructure like schools and bus routes were added. As the war ended, the need for all that the city produced waned. Left in place were millions of homes and plenty of city services and infrastructure that were no longer needed. Detroit over time built up an excess of workers and continued to be dependent on an industry that was not large enough to support all those workers. So people began to leave, except for the poorest, who couldn’t afford to and were left to pay for far more city services than they needed. Compounding the problem was that the city was so decentralized, meaning essential services like police and fire coverage was sparse in a lot of ares and crime spread.

    Other factors such as the competition from Japanese auto makers and the terrible leadership of Coleman Young and a corrupt city council just accelerated what had already begun many years prior.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      1. The car companies, esp GM and Ford, embarked on a serious “move-away-from-Detroit” plan as soon as the union organized them in the 1930s, though it really didn’t kick into high gear until after WW2. The “need” for cars didn’t disappear, but a lot fewer of them were made in Detroit.
      2. The city’s population stopped growing about 1960 but not the metro areas. Like most rust belt cities, suburbanization and freeway-ization was just viewed as the next logical step (for white middle class people to get away from working class and poor black people).
      3. Once the decline became evident in the schools (and remember that the key ruling that school desegregation did not require suburban school districts to take kids from outside their districts was a SE Michigan case), the rest was just math.
      4. Given the cards he was dealt, Coleman Young was an excellent mayor. Conservative budgeter, no major scandals. You can say he went out of his way to antagonize the suburbanites – which he didn’t have to do – but it wasn’t like they hadn’t already declared war on the city.

      1. Paul Boisvert

        Having grown up in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, I’m one of many who mourn its savage decline from a great city to a ravaged battlefield. As a later aficionado of New Orleans, the two are linked in my mind, as are so many cities along the central axis of the country, the land within several hundred miles of the Mississippi–Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, and all the smaller industrial (these days, largely post-industrial) towns along the way, all with working class folks and people of color who are largely poor and getting poorer…

        Both Detroit and New Orleans lost half or so of their population to a perfect storm–the confluence of nature and human arrogance towards the environment in New Orleans; and the confluence of capitalism and racism in Detroit. But the latter storm is the one that has laid waste to all the cities above, including in part New Orleans, and including the poor black ghetto population of Chicago that is roughly the size of Detroit’s. The devastation will continue, until we eliminate capitalism and racism in our land.

        Which is a tough job, seemingly impossible right now, but somebody’s gotta do it–or else we will eventually have twenty, thirty, a hundred Detroits. Many of which will eventually have a lot of white people suffering, too (God forbid.) And, given capitalism’s cancerous growth logic at the expense of the environment, the same number of New Orleans…

        For those who say you can’t eliminate capitalism, racism (and sexism and…), and can’t create a just, equitable, cooperative, sustainable society: of course we can. We’re human beings. Think of every single incredible, wonderful, intellectual, architectural, scientific, industrial, artistic, and moral achievement you’ve ever heard of anywhere in the universe, and ask yourself: who accomplished it? Humans, every single time. We’re the best–ever. We’re like gods–in fact, we’re even better: we invented God…and the inventor creates the invention, not vice versa…

        So we can do it…the only question is, do we want to?

  7. cripes

    Capital has been chasing higher profits-and lower wages-since Adam Smith, at least, leaving industrial wastelands in its wake. A generation or two later, upper middle class twits arrive to restore the wreckage at firesale prices, evict the traumatised residents and tell stories of depraved criminals, who provide easy access to drugs for middle class youths.Then build a few craft breweries. Rinse, repeat.

  8. mark

    The Auto Industry in Mexico is thriving, thanks largely to NAFTA.

    “Mexico is one of the world’s “Top Ten” countries for vehicle production and for vehicle exports. In 2014, it has overtaken Brazil to become the world’s 7th largest vehicle producer and fourth largest exporter. 80% of Mexico’s production of around 3.3 million vehicles in 2014 were made for export.”

    I doubt that it’s improving the lives of Mexican citizens much.

    1. cnchal

      I doubt that it’s improving the lives of Mexican citizens much.

      And there in a nutshell, is the problem. What hope do you have of ever selling your output to a Mexican? If we are going to have “free trade” and it only goes one way, the term is an oxymoron.

      It is a ridiculous level of exploitation. At least pay the Mexican workers a descent wage, more than what illegal Mexican immigrants earn working in the US. That would put some floor under wages in a self declared trade zone of equality.

      It isn’t as if the car companies can’t afford it. Ford charges nearly $2000 for a headlight unit for the Focus RS.

      Mexican auto plant workers – $3 to $3.50 per hour. Talk about minimum wage!

      From the Washington post

      “Mexican auto factories and Mexican manufacturing offer First World productivity and quality at Third World wages,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of education and geography at the University of California at Berkeley who has tracked Mexico’s auto industry for decades. “That is an unusual combination, and right now it is a defining combination.”

      Why is it that the Mexican workers have captured nearly zero of their productivity improvement?

  9. run75441

    This is not an easy and nor will it be a brief story to tell about Detroit and there are many factors to point to which led to its decreased population. In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1.8 million and was a white-dominated city. Detroit was rolling in jobs then from the OEMs and Tiers.

    Suffice it to say, ~300,000 residents had already left Detroit between 1950 and the 1967 riots. This was equivalent to 3 decades of population growth from 1930 to 1950. After the war, the OEMs began to abandon the multi-story factories it had for single story and sprawling plants in the suburbs and like what you might see in Wixom, down river, Lordstown, Beloit, etc. With the plants went the jobs and Detroit lost ~130,000 jobs by 1967. 25 new plants had been built and none were located in Detroit during the same time period. Not only was this a way to improve on manufacturing efficiency, it was a calculated attack on unions and UAW power. By 1960 and while still called Motor City, Detroit could no longer claim that distinction as only Chrysler was building cars in the city.

    Just in time to help the transition to the suburbs were the FHA and VA products requiring only 3% down payment. White workers moved from the racially mixed Detroit areas to the suburbs such as Wixom located around the city and in places such as Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. What stopped blacks from taking advantage of FHA and VA loans was the lack of equal access to housing laws. Developers, realtors, banks, etc. were able to block blacks from moving into these new developments in Wayne, Oakland and other counties. FHA guidelines favored new suburban developments over older city developments, which were considered to be risky.

    Detroit suffered its first deficit in 1961 well before Coleman Young took office in 1974. Much came from the transitioning of plants and labor outside of the city. What also hurt the city and if you are familiar with it are the successive rings and diagonals of highways in and around the city which create barriers to travel as Detroit has little in the way of mass transit. Bring it up in the richest county in Michigan (Livingston) and you will see a mirade of reasons not to have it and maintain the status quo of too big, too often and too fast. Brighton as well as other suburbs have <1% black residents and there is a fear of easy access. Michiganders have the distinction in the US of driving their TBTOTF vehicles the farthest of any other US workers.

    Before one can point to black leadership as causing Detroit issues one should look at Cavanaugh, Miriani, Gov. Romney, the OEMs and big oil as laying the groundwork and policies for the slow decline of the city. This lead to a point in 1967 when racil tensions were high and black unemployment was at 14% for blacks and 7% for whites, some black Vietnam vets who fought on some of the same dirt as I did later in 68 and 69 got into a scuffle with the Detroit police. White flight was already in full bloom by 1967 and what followed were small businesses.

    And what did the courts do?

    Justice Thurgood Marshall's dissenting opinion stated
    "School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races when, under a Detroit-only decree, white parents withdraw their children from the Detroit city schools and move to the suburbs in order to continue them in all-white schools."

    Justice Douglas' dissenting opinion stated
    "Today's decision … means that there is no violation of the Equal Protection Clause though the schools are segregated by race and though the black schools are not only separate but inferior. Michigan by one device or another has over the years created black school districts and white school districts, the task of equity is to provide a unitary system for the affected area where, as here, the State washes its hands of its own creations."

    The 1974 SCOTUS decision in Milliken v. Bradley was:

    in a 5-to-4 decision, holding that school districts were not obligated to desegregate unless it could be proven that the lines were drawn with racist intent. Thus, officially arbitrary lines which produced segregated districts could not be challenged. Again and the same as United States v. Cruikshank supported state rights and local control over Federal interference.

    If there was any hope the wall of segregation surrounding Detroit would be broken, it failed in SCOTUS. Attempting to break the separate but equal doctrine of schools leaving Detroit schools with 2/3 occupied by black students, the NAACP brought suit in Federal Court. The lower courts agreed with the NAACP only to be overturned by SCOTUS. The NAACP sued on the basis of there being a direct relation between unfair housing practices as found in FHA policy and redlining (earlier in my hash above) and educational segregation. The 6th District specified it was the state's responsibility to desegregate (sound familar?). Here is the Catch 22; since the violations were found in the city, the very same policies and redlining which kept blacks out of the new suburbs could not be blamed on the suburbs. Detroit was effectively walled in by economic class and race.

    Metropolitan Detroit proves ~50% of the GDP as Canada largest port of entry to the state of Michigan. Without it, Michigan would be just another large vegetable farm and salt mine. While people outside of Detroit blame blacks and snub the city, their salaries would be dramatically lower without the city.

    So what is happening today?

    We moved here from MadCity Wisconsin due to work. I do throughput analysis, brownfield analysis, purchasing, distribution, logistics and materials. There are not many of us Druckers around anymore. If you really believe Labor is the issue as many economists would have you believe, you join the ranks of the seriously misguided. Labor has not been an issue since the sixties.

    Michigan has a habit of voting for Dems in national elections at 54% of the electorate. Yet Michigan sends 8 Repubs to The House and 5 Dens in 2012. How can that be? Michigan packs its districts thereby diluting the impact of its Dem constituents. At worst, MIchigan should be split evenly. Much of the radical change in The House was precipitated in Michigan and five other states to give the Repubs much of the majority they enjoy today. Michigan has also laid the groundwork to change how the Electoral College is selected in Michigan doing a split plus two for the winner of the state. For those of you who believe this is a far better approach, Google Justice Posner (7th District) and the Electoral College which I believe was printed on my old haunts Slate Mag.

    With Detroit bankruptcy? Funny thing happened there aso, CDS were paid off at 80-90%. Read the DEMOS argument against Detroit bankruptcy (The Detroit Bankruptcy) which the appointed Emergency Manager's staff took time to answer in rebuttal. Michigan slashed Detroit revenue sharing ($67 million) making a bad situation even worst for cash flow.

    Sorry for the length of this chemo/steroid rough cut dialogue. This pretty much paints a truer picture of what took place in Detroit before Coleman came to power, what took place from 1967 onward to Kilpatrick, and how the city continues to be plundered.

  10. cripes

    @ run75441

    Ring of truth there.

    Remember, always catapult a lot of propaganda to make sure there is no sympathy or solidarity for the victims.
    Ethnic cleansing got nuthin’ on US!

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