Foundational Work on the Carceral State — A Review of “Whose Detroit?”

Thompson, Heather Ann. Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Reviewed by Ian Toller-Clark

Historians, social scientists, and public commentators have long wondered how and why America’s cities descended into an “urban crisis” in the final decades of the twentieth century.

It has been twenty years since Heather Ann Thompson persuasively argued in Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City that “America’s urban centers did not merely waste away by the 1980s.” Rather, radicals, liberals, and conservatives had been engaged in a decades-long battle for control over both local politics and the labor movement in cities like Detroit. In the end, the unintended consequences of this fight—as much as racism and capital flight—led to disinvestment and deindustrialization. 

Whose Detroit? shows how the postwar politics of urban America revolved around the issues of police brutality and job discrimination as much as industrial decentralization, school and housing desegregation, and urban renewal. During the 1950s in Detroit, the issue of police brutality and discrimination galvanized a social movement for Black civil rights. Racial discrimination and tensions between young Black auto workers and their White (often older) foremen made the assembly line a front in the battle for civil rights, too. By the early 1960s—and again in the early 1970s—these civil rights activists and the everyday Black Detroiters they represented joined with White labor leaders and liberal elites to win electoral victories and control of City Hall. In this way, Thompson weaves a dual narrative: two intertwined stories about civic politics and labor activism. The chapters that alternate between conflicts over criminal justice and labor reveal a dynamic and contingent Detroit. Hers is a contested city not at all on an inevitable path towards “urban crisis.”

In fact, Thompson argues that “just as the catastrophic Great Depression generated new political options for how America might be ordered, the polarizing urban rebellions of the 1960s generated new political possibilities for America’s inner cities.” Indeed, after the 1967 rebellion and the 1969 mayoral election—events that signified frustration with liberal coalition politics—Black Detroiters forged a more revolutionary politics through media, churches, labor unions, and local public high schools. In short, the Black Left became a “political force.” 

This new political force directed its grassroots power at ending the oppressive reign of “a special undercover unit” of the Detroit Police Department, commonly referred to as “Stop Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets” (STRESS). This unit, formed in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit uprising, proved the catalyst for a new era of police brutality in Detroit. Thompson explains that STRESS “was responsible for 39 percent of the DPD’s citizen deaths during its first year of operation.” Meanwhile, by 1971 thirteen officers in the unit “had been cited by the Citizen Injury Board at least two times.” 

The campaign against STRESS contributed to the election of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor in 1973. However, Young’s election did not amount to the triumph of the Black Left or of labor radicalism. Rather, White and Black liberals alike had co-opted the activism of Black radicals and labor organizers to defeat conservatives at the polls. As mayor, Young pursued federal funding for Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, the racial integration of the police department, and community policing. These reforms in particular wound-up making police officers “an even greater presence in black Detroiters’ lives with dire consequences” (see the prologue of the 2017 edition for more on Young’s legacy as mayor). Ultimately, Whose Detroit? provides scholars and lay readers with a myriad of examples of the limits of liberalism. Even well-intentioned liberal reforms produced unintended consequences that exacerbated and widened racial and social inequalities for millions of Black Detroiters.

“The Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit,” completed in 1954 and originally known as the City County Building, it was renamed in 1997. Michael Barera, 2015, Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, Thompson’s other significant contribution is showing that the conflicts and tensions that riddled both civic politics and labor struggles had important consequences for everyday Black Detroiters. This is why Thompson introduces each of her chapters with a biographical anecdote about James Johnson Jr. Born in Starkville, Mississippi, Johnson joined the Second Great Migration of Black Americans to Detroit in search of a job within the city’s famous auto plants. After enduring years of hatred and bigotry on the shop floor, Johnson went to work on July 15, 1970, and killed three of his fellow workers. This gruesome act, however, is only part of Johnson’s story. Thompson continues to trace Johnson’s experiences with the criminal justice system and the workmen compensation board to illustrate the interconnected nature of race, labor, and political power. Through Johnson’s life, Thompson renders visible the connect between the personal and the political. 

As Thompson reminds us, “the most important outcome of the urban uprisings of the 1960s was not devastation,” but rather that “African Americans across the nation had put politicians on notice that they would never lie down or remain mute in the face of social, economic, and racial inequality.” This point is even more poignant today, a year after millions protested the murder of George Floyd. 

Other historians, including Joseph Trotter, have made a similar point about the legacy of Whose Detroit? In the second edition of Black Milwaukee, Trotter writes: “Thompson probes both the inter- and intra-racial dimensions of African American activism and convincingly concludes that an emphasis on the loss of inner-city white residents, and the decline of interracial labor and civil rights coalitions, downplays important aspects of African American and working-class life during the onset of deindustrialization.” 

But Whose Detroit? does not only help us reevaluate America’s “urban crisis” and the agency of Black urbanites. It was one of the first historical treatments of the struggle between Black America and the carceral state. Since 2001, historians including Elizabeth Hinton, Simon Balto, Max Felker Kantor, Amanda Hughett, Timothy Lombardo, Ashley Howard, Austin McKoy, Anne Gray Fisher, Melanie Newport, and so many others have complicated and broadened our knowledge about the consequences of law-and-order politics in urban America—the study of which Whose Detroit? helped to popularize. Thompson created a foundation for future studies in urban history and the carceral state much as Lisa McGirr did with regards to postwar suburban history and modern conservatism. Now, on this book’s twentieth birthday and as we live through another consequential moment in urban political life in the United States, the time is right to reconsider the conflicts over political and labor power that Thompson so richly describes.


Ian Toller-Clark is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. His dissertation, “Carceral Democracy: Prisons, Race, and the Realignment of Politics in Wisconsin, 1940-1972,” analyzes the intertwined development of mass incarceration, deindustrialization, and metropolitan politics in the United States. He is also an Assistant Editor for The Metropole’s Member of the Week Series.

Featured image (at top): Detroit’s first Black mayor, Coleman Young with supporters. Carptrash, 1981, Wikimedia Commons.

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