Bernie Sanders Missed A Big Opportunity To Talk About Racism

You can't talk about Detroit's decline without addressing discrimination and white flight.

DETROIT -- Presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) agree on at least one thing: that Detroit was a model city in the 1960s and has since fallen into ruin.

"In the 1960s, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of America. It had a population of 2 million people, had the highest per capita income in the country," Cruz said at the Republican debate in the city on Thursday.

Sanders echoed this idea during Sunday night's Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan.

"Do you know that in 1960, Detroit, Michigan, was one of the wealthiest cities in America?" he said. "Flint, Michigan, was a prosperous city."

The two candidates' agreement on the issue stops there, however, as they offer different explanations for Detroit's economic problems.

"And then, for 50 years, left-wing Democrats have pursued destructive tax policies, weak crime policies, and have driven the citizens out," Cruz continued Thursday. "Detroit is a great city with a magnificent legacy that has been utterly decimated by 60 years of failed left-wing policy."

"There are vacant homes, one after the other after the other," he added. "Crime has been rampant, and it is an outrage."

Cruz’s argument echoes a common refrain among conservatives who point to decades of Democratic leadership in the city when discussing its financial troubles.

Sanders has indicated that free trade policies supported by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led to Detroit's problems with blight and abandonment.

"What happened is: Corporate America said, 'why do I want to pay somebody in Michigan a living wage when I can pay slave wages in Mexico or China?'" he said Sunday. "Those trade policies, as much as any other set of policies, has resulted in the shrinking of the American middle class."

It's true that trade policy played a role in the auto industry’s troubles and massive job loss in Michigan, and it makes sense that Sanders would push the issue ahead of the state's primary on Tuesday.

But what both Sanders and Cruz have glossed over is that Detroit’s prosperity in the 1960s was still divided along racial lines. Black people faced widespread discrimination, poverty and high unemployment. The city was in turmoil, erupting in riots in 1967.

Federal policy supported redlining in the housing market, which confined black residents to particular neighborhoods and helped spur white flight to the suburbs. Businesses and jobs followed suit. Black neighborhoods were razed for urban renewal projects and carved out by freeways that made it easier for residents to escape. The tax base shrunk and the city lost out on state funding.

Some Detroit residents are tired of seeing their city being held up as a symbol of failure by politicians attempting to score points with voters.

More notably, Sanders’ remarks stoked ongoing criticism of how he addresses race.

"He tends to focus on broad economic forces that have disparate impact on minority communities, but tends not to grapple with racism itself, or the way it shapes and distorts public policy," Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic. "But American inequality long antedates NAFTA -- this was a country whose early wealth was entwined with slavery -- and it’s hard to see how a single-minded assault on free trade alone will succeed in remedying it."

The Detroit area is still one of the most segregated in the country, and like other cities, it struggles with a legacy of structural racism and urban disinvestment -- complicated problems that require solutions beyond job creation.

At another point during the debate, Sanders talked about his racial blind spots and acknowledged that he could never fully understand the discrimination African-Americans face. He also promised to invest more in education when asked about the crisis in Detroit schools, and touched on other issues that affect the city.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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