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Along Detroit's Eight Mile Road, a stark racial split

By Dante ChinniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2002


Last weekend, "8 Mile," a film starring local hip-hop artist Eminem and filmed in this city, sold out more than 40 times at The Phoenix theater.

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The movie, a pseudobiographical story about the white rapper's rise, offers a hopeful glimpse of this city's longtime racial tension: Eminem's character has black and white friends, and he gains acceptance for his talent despite his skin color.

The scene at the Phoenix this week, however, bore little resemblance to the storyline. The crowds have been overwhelmingly African-American. That is not remarkable. The Phoenix is the only first-run movie theater in this city where 81 percent of the citizenry is black.

But the cinema, which sits on Eight Mile Road, the avenue for which the movie is named, is directly across the street from Warren, a city that is 91 percent white. And though the theater is newly remodeled and Eminem is popular with blacks and whites, few of Warren's residents have been crossing the road to see the movie.

Michael Rhodes, who is black, says he isn't surprised. "That's the way it is here," he says, as he exits the cinema. "We stay on our side and they usually stay on theirs."

The problem of racial segregation is not unique to Detroit. Indeed, 40 years after the death of Jim Crow, blacks and whites often live separate lives in separate communities all over the United States.

But the problem is especially ingrained in the Detroit area. It is, according to the 2000 Census, the most segregated metropolitan region in the country.

And on Eight Mile, the divisions are the most stark. There are eight lanes of asphalt and concrete separating one side of the street from the other, but as a racial divide it might as well be the Grand Canyon.

At first glance, the road looks like nothing special. The flatness of the landscape and the straightness of the street means that when one is driving on it, the road is the horizon line both in front and behind. It can appear endless. There are few residences. It is generally a commercial thoroughfare with one small storefront after another, ranging from auto-repair shops to fast-food restaurants. In between strip malls there are occasional vacant lots, manufacturing plants, and, inevitably, strip clubs.

But from the very beginning the street has defined the region - and in fact the entire state - metaphorically as well as factually.

In 1785 it was drawn as the baseline for maps of the entire territory on Michigan. And while Detroit's annexation of land left its boundaries jagged along its other borders, the northern border of Eight Mile Road remained a straight line.

The city's racial tensions have long roots.

As southern blacks moved north to cities like Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, many whites simply left the city and built communities that developed exclusionary policies, says Robin Boyle, an urban expert at Wayne State University. Michigan law allowed for particularly strong home rule, which, he says, included "conspiracies particularly between the real estate and finance industries."

The city's population shifted from 43 percent black in 1970 to 63 percent in 1980. And though federal laws eventually outlawed discriminatory housing practices, the history already in place in Detroit has been hard to overcome.

"What creates the high level of segregation in this area is that whites don't stick around long enough for integration to occur," says Cliff Schrepp, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit. "When blacks come into the neighborhood, they leave."

Institutional apartheid?

Even with laws in place, subtler exclusionary real estate practices still go on, says E'toile Libbett, president of the Detroit Board of Realtors. Racism is something that is felt if not always seen.

"There are a lot of stories and it is done much more quietly now," she says. "If something like a black couple look in a white neighborhood and they hear, 'Oh, there's a sales agreement on that [house],' and then two or three weeks later it is still on the market and nothing has happened."

Beyond rumor there are occasional hard-fact cases.

Just two years ago, a local real-estate agent was honored for reporting a white seller, a former state judge, who refused to sell to a black family in nearby River Rouge. The seller lived in another home on the street and did not want the first property to go to a black family.