A Credit to Ebony for a piece describing how the tribulations of the U.S. auto industry are hitting African American communities particularly hard.
We read a lot of articles on Detroit these days, but this one stands out for being both broad and narrow in the right ways: broad in that it takes a look not just at the business of auto manufacturing but at how that business has played an important role in shaping black communities; narrow in that it focuses on those particular communities, rather than trading in generic utterances of woe, and gives us specific details we didn’t know.
The article is marked by skillful shifts in scale: among individuals, African American communities and the United States at large. It starts at the smallest scale, with the experience of one car dealer:
Michael Johnson calls it expense control. A Black new car dealer for almost 20 years, his Michael Chevrolet dealership in suburban Detroit employed 78 people just three years ago. That’s now down to 58 folks. What’s more, he keeps fewer new cars and trucks on his lot, sells cheaper used cars and spends almost nothing on advertising.
‘It’s tough as hell out here,’ he says. ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I have never seen it this bad. It’s constantly shifting every quarter. Something new happens that makes us have to rethink our business strategy.’
Then, some broad context:
A lot of Johnson’s ills can be blamed on the escalating price of gasoline that has stanched demand for products that domestic automakers do best—full-size pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. But the uncertainty caused by high oil prices, the mortgage debacle and job losses have combined to accelerate the meltdown of the domestic automotive industry.
And then, after the very small has given way to the very large, reporter Frank S. Washington moves back in to middle ground:
In other words, Johnson is not alone. When he started in 1990, Johnson says General Motors had 127 Black dealers. That’s now down to about 38 and Johnson expects up to a half-dozen of GM’s remaining Black dealers to be out of business by the end of the year.
The upheaval inundating Black communities because of the failing automotive industry is like a financial tsunami. You see a swell in the water, but the immense danger is not realized until the wave hits. Black advertising agencies, Black automotive assembly line workers and Black automotive suppliers are being sucked under and out of the auto industry.
We pause here to note that the piece’s focus on African American communities has an added benefit: It requires a look beyond manufacturing to other aspects of the auto business, giving us a more complete picture of the industry—and setting the stage for the following point:
The importance of the auto industry in shaping modern-day Black America cannot be understated. For generations, it was the lynchpin of a manufacturing base that lifted tens of thousands of Black families out of the ranks of poverty and the working poor and into the middle class and the upwardly mobile.
But now, the auto industry is headed south in more ways than one. You might have read about the shift of automotive manufacturing to foreign-owned plants in the southern U.S. Ebony notes this trend, but then goes on to add to our understanding of it, with the observation that, for the black community, the shift is more than just geographic:
True, Asian and European automakers have replaced many of those manufacturing plants with assembly operations of their own. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia now boast automotive assembly plants. However, because foreign manufacturers have located in mostly rural, southern areas and get major components from their home markets, they don’t have anywhere near the economic impact on Black communities that were once the domain of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.