The White Crowd in the Black City: Race, Place, and World Series Detroit


Post-Civil Rights America is a racist society convinced that it is no such thing. It cites the popularity of Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and Barack Obama (among other officially ?good? and therefore successful blacks) as evidence that it is no longer prejudiced while it consigns millions of blacks to the segregated undersides of an ever more savagely unequal nation.

It hails Oprah?s millions while it sentences a million black children to life at less than half the nation?s notoriously inadequate poverty level. It hails Obama?s qualifications while it pushes median black net worth falls to less than 8 cents on the white wealth dollar. It cheers highly paid black athletes while it sends more black males to prison than to college and brands 1 in 3 black male adults with the lifelong mark of a felony record.

It splices clips from Martin Luther King?s ?I Have a Dream? speech into pickup truck commercials proclaiming ?this is our country? while it concentrates vast swaths of black America in apartheid communities where many households can?t afford a car. Its white majority tells pollsters of its willingness to live in racially integrated communities but regularly flees neighborhoods that become more than marginally black. It ridicules and occasionally unseats white public officials and personalities who make racially bigoted statements while it strips away elementary legal and policy mechanisms required to meaningfully enforce civil rights goals.

There?s a big contradiction between the United States? superficially non-racist state-of-mind and its deeply racist state of societal and institutional being (See Street, 2002 and Street, 2005)


Take, as one small but telling example, the first game of the 2006 World Series, pitting the Detroit Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Fall Classic opened in deindustrialized Detroit, which happens to be 85 percent black (American Community Survey [hereafter ?ACS?], 2005) and the nation?s poorest large city. More than a third of Detroit?s residents live below the poverty level, a reflection in part of its spectacularly high joblessness (Bello, 2005).

A living embodiment of King?s nightmare of ?Negro cities ringed by white suburbs? (King, 1967-B), Detroit accounts for just 22 percent of the ?Detroit Urbanized Area?s? total population (3.8 million) but 70 percent of that metropolitan region?s nearly 1 million blacks. It possesses numerous census tracts and blocks in Detroit where more than half the children live at less than half the poverty level (ACS, 2005). By contrast, the city?s predominantly white suburbs Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills are filled with impressive mansions and rank among the most affluent communities in the nation.

Middle and working-class whites have been fleeing the poverty and misery of an ever-more black Detroit for more than three decades (Hodgson, 2004). When the Tigers (led by Denny McClain, Mickey Lolich and Al Kaline faced off against the Cardinals (led by Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Orland Cepeda) in the 1968 World Series, the city was 56 percent white and home to more than 838,000 Caucasians. The white population of Detroit is currently below 93,000 (ACS, 2005) and the Detroit metropolitan area is now the most racially segregated urban region in the United States. It has a black-white ?dissimilarity score? of 85, meaning that 85 of every 100 Detroit-area blacks would have to move in order to live in census tracts whose racial distribution matched that of the total metropolitan region (Mumford Center, 2002).


Prior to the opening game last Saturday, FOX Sports broadcast a soulful vignette on the purported deep meaning of the Tigers? storybook 2006 season for the residents of the abandoned black city. Narrated by the legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, the five minute vignette featured numerous images of black Detroiters.

A baseball championship, Harwell said, would not solve the city?s deep social and economic problems. But it would, he argued, help bring the city?s residents together and to feel better by ?seeing some of themselves? in the success of their city?s team. (Surprisingly, FOX made no references to the role that the Tigers? 1968 World Series triumph was supposed to have played in helping that city overcome the intense racial divisions it had displayed during the great Detroit riot of 1967). It was nicely done.

Once the game began, however, the city?s predominantly black population seemed to disappear into the stadium lights. Except for the racially mixed ? black, white, Asian (the Cardinals have a Japanese outfielder) and (especially) Latino ? players, Detroit?s downtown Comerica Park seemed almost completely Caucasian. In the numerous wide-angle images of the crowd I scrutinized during the opening game, I discerned a total of five African-Americans, three of whom were beer or hot dog vendors. In crowd shot after shot, it appeared that almost everyone attending the World Series in black Detroit was white. Most of the Tigers? attending fans, it seemed, had driven in from places like Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. They did not come from the actual city in whose name the Tigers play.


The stark relative absence of blacks from the Game One stands provides some curious backdrop for some interesting comments by New York Times reporter Selena Roberts and Detroit?s corporate-neoliberal black Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick. In a Sunday Times column on how the Tigers? supposed ?factory laborer? manager Jim Leyland is ?a symbol of Detroit?s Rebirth? from Roberts made a suggestive comparison between the Fall Classic and the city?s experience hosting the Super Bowl last winter. ?The city?s hope brokers,? she wrote, ?were host to the Super Bowl in February, but that was a party for everyone else. The Super Bowl is a gilded squatter, plopping down, not moving for a week, so every outsider in a limo can pull up to indulge. The World Series,? by contrast, ?is local, not global, and it?s a party for the people? (Roberts, 2006).

If Detroit?s World Series is a ?party for the people,? it appears that people from the city?s massively preponderant racial group stand outside the relevant definition of ?we the people.? The folks at the center of the ?party? appear to be be from the white periphery even though the ?party? grounds are in the middle of a black city.


Talking about the large number of white suburbanites who visited the somewhat revitalized neighborhoods in and around Comerica Park this spring and summer, Kirckpatrick told Roberts that ?we?ve reintroduced the city to people who live 5 to 10 miles away.? He also claimed that the Tigers? were creating a ?spirit of can-do? and an ?example of hope for the city,? telling Detroit?s residents that ?you can change the culture. You can do anything.? His upbeat comments were reflected in Roberts claim that the Tigers were trying to ?extricate [Detroit] from a cycle of failure? (Roberts, 2006).

If the racial demographics of the Game One crowd are any indication, however, ?Tigers? fever? has facilitated a very curious and limited sort of ?reintroduction? between the black city and the white suburbs. It?s a superficial reconnection where white people from the latter space briefly gather as a racially homogenous collectivity in a relatively small and safe part of the former space, only to return to privileged white preserves once the contest is concluded.

This is not exactly what King had in mind when he said that Americans should ?be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering ram of the forces of justice? (King, 1967-A). Kilpatrick?s indirect embrace of the victim-blaming ?cultural? explanation of concentrated black urban poverty aside, the lily-white composition of the Comerica Park crowd suggests that the viciously circular culture and consequences of white supremacy (Mills, 2003)remain all-too intact, putting real limits on black options and hope within and beyond Detroit.


Major League Baseball has long priced its tickets so extravagantly that many black central city residents are excluded from its regularly attending fan base. At ?U.S. Cellular Field? on Chicago?s predominantly black South Side and in the largely black and Latino South Bronx?s Yankee Stadium, most of the black Americans you see are informally hustling outside the ballparks or formally working concessions and parking. The crowds are recruited from white, upscale neighborhoods and communities.

It was not always like this. When I was a baseball-obsessed grade-schooler on the South Side during the 1960s, I regularly saw large numbers of black fans at the Chicago White Sox?s Comiskey Park (things were different at the white North Side?s Wrigley Field, home of the laughable Cubs). By the 1990s (when I returned to Chicago), African-Americans had practically disappeared from Sox crowds.

When the World Series comes to town, the racialized economic barriers to ballpark entry only rise. Comerica?s demographics meshed all-too well with the region and nation?s racial income and wealth disparities. Game One standing room tickets sold for as high as $500 on some websites. The Tigers? season-ticket exchange even listed four seats behind home plate at $8,000. (Kowalksi. 2006)

Blacks? pronounced absence from the Fall Classic in Detroit is probably about more than racially economic inequality. The city?s successful basketball franchise the Piston certainly draws a larger number and percentage of black fans than the Tigers. For various reasons, including divergent barriers to youth participation in the respective sports, basketball is a much bigger draw than baseball for black America.

Still, there are some good black players on the current Tigers roster. Black Americans have a spectacular baseball tradition that includes such iconic names as Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Ricky Henderson, Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson. An African-American slugger named Barry Bonds (of whom I am personally not a fan) is currently chasing Aaron?s all-time home run mark. Past black Tigers heroes include Gates Brown, Ron Leflore, and Lou Whitaker.

Baseball?s relative popularity in the black community is hardly so degraded that the Tigers could not easily find tens of thousands of ?local, not global? African Americans who would be pleased to join the ?party of the people? if they only possessed the cash and connections to score some World Series tickets.

Baseball is still the quintessential American Game and the Fall Classic remains its ultimate spectacle. What does it say about the extent to which America has honored King?s integrationist and egalitarian legacy when the World Series? crowd is nearly all white even when it is played in the middle of a city where nearly 9 in 10 residents are black?

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of numerous books and project studies and hundreds of articles. He is a social policy researcher, historian, and public speaker in Iowa City, IA. His next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (2007). Selected Sources

American Community Survey (2005). U.S. Current Population Survey (2005) race and economic data for Detroit and Detroit area retrieved October 21, 2006 at www.factfinder.org.

Marisel Bello (2005). ?Auto Woes Add to City?s Budget Problems.? Detroit Free Press, 30 December 2005.

Godfrey Hodgson (2004). More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton, NJ, 2004), pp. 177, 212.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967-A). ?Where Do We Go From Here?,? p.251 in James M. Washington, ed.., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King,, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harpercollins, 1991);

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967-B). Speech at Ohio Northern University (1967), available online at http://www/onu.edu/library/onuhistory.king/king.htm.

Bob Kowalski (2006). ?World?s Toughest Ticket?,? Fort Worth Star Telegraph, 21 October 2006.

Charles W. Mills (2003). From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), pp. 177-218.

Selena Roberts (2006). ?A Factory Laborer in Cleats,? New York Times, 22 October 2006, section 8, p.1).

Paul Street (2002). ?A Lott Missing: Rituals of Purification and Deep Racism Denial,? The Black Commentator (December 22, 2002), at www.blackcommentator.com and http://www. nationinstitute.org/ tomdispatch/index.mhtml?pid=258.

Paul Street (2005). ?The Full Blown Oprah Effect: Reflections on Color, Class, and New Age Racism,? Black Commentator (February 27, 2005), available online at http://www.blackcommentator.com/127/127_oprah.html Lewis Mumford Center (2002). Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, Metropolitan Racial and Ethnic Change ? Census 2000 (http://mumford1.dyndns.org/cen 2000/ WholePop/WPSegdata/ 1600msa.htm).

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