Thomas J. Sugrue On History’s Hard Lessons

Destin Jenkins in Public Books:

Destin Jenkins (DJ): How did you initially approach the story of postwar Detroit?

Thomas J. Sugrue (TJS): I began as an economic determinist. That is, I wanted to write about work and housing, but I hypothesized that work, labor, and industry were the driving factors in the transformation of Detroit and other cities like it. Housing and the city’s neighborhood racial politics would follow. When I began doing my research, it very quickly became clear to me that drawing an artificial line between race and class or between work and neighborhood made no sense. The two needed to be understood as mutually constitutive. To pull them apart would do injustice to the way the political economy worked in post–World War II America.

I would consider myself a historian of capitalism before the field was named. When I looked to Detroit, I saw a racialized economy of work and investment, as well as a racialized economy of home finance, of property ownership, and of land ownership. The story of post–World War II cities is one of racial capitalism, or racialized capitalism.

DJ: Can you give us an example of how race and class are intertwined, and of how that interconnection shapes and is shaped by capitalism?

TJS: I began thinking mainly in terms of class. Deindustrialization and disinvestment had devastating consequences for workers, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

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