Ebony on the Fall of Detroit

The magazine reports the U.S. car industry's demise is hitting blacks especially hard

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.

Washington goes on to give more specifics about the effect on African-Americans:

Since 2006, Chrysler, Ford and GM have announced that they will cut more than 75,000 mostly blue-collar jobs and shut almost two dozen plants. If automotive plants are no longer producing cars and trucks, then they don’t need parts, and that means their suppliers have to close plants and lay off workers too. This drain of automotive jobs has impacted Blacks more than other ethnic groups.

Interviews with several Black automotive assembly line plant workers who have taken buyouts or retired revealed four reasons other than the economy for their departure: bigotry, boredom, stress and a worsening work environment.

‘A lot of Blacks are leaving because of the racism,’ says Bill, a 30-year veteran at Ford who didn’t want his last name used. ‘White folks get breaks; Black folks are held to the letter of the [work rules] law.’

And more:

Chrysler, Ford and GM have traditionally been the leaders in purchasing parts from Black-owned suppliers. But as their market share has fallen, so has their production and the number of parts that they need. With this trio recently announcing the closure of plants that build pickup trucks and full-size sport-utilities, the number of parts they purchase from Black-owned suppliers will shrink.

Continuing to shift back and forth between the general and the particular, Ebony writes:

Bill Pickard is founder of the Global Automotive Alliance. One of his Detroit-area companies supplies plastic fuel delivery systems to automakers and employs 400 people. He summed up what’s at stake, saying:

‘We [Black-owned automotive suppliers] are the children of the ’60s,’ Pickard says. ‘There’s nobody behind us. If we go out of business, there’s no one to replace us. So we must survive in order to pass on our businesses either through inheritance or through a succession of ownership.’

Even worse, when minority suppliers disappear, they almost never return and other companies don’t rise to take their place, says Rainbow Push’s [Glenda] Gill. The same can be said of any area in the automotive industry in which Blacks have a presence.

This is the kind of article we need to see more often. It helps us understanding the big picture of the crisis by highlighting its effect on communities while showing how current economic forces are reshaping them.

For a historian’s take on blacks and the U.S. auto industry, take a look at this brief synopsis. These facts informed the Ebony article, and they should inform other reporting as well.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.