The late 1960s and early 1970s in America was a period marked by huge and permanent economic and demographic changes. Particularly hard hit by these sweeping changes were many of the country’s large industrial cities. Detroit became synonymous with urban decay and what soon came to be known as “white flight.” As the narrator describes it, Detroit is “a large famous city that is a symbol for large famous American cities.”
The trends had begun much earlier. In the years immediately following the end of World War II, veterans and their families enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and the high birth rate now known as the baby boom. As a consequence these families began to leave the inner cities for newly created suburbs and housing developments. This exodus from what had been thriving mixed-use neighborhoods in large cities set off a chain reaction that reached a crisis in the late 1960s and that continues to reverberate today. As families with at least modest means abandon urban neighborhoods, only those too poor to move remain. The poorer residents are unable to support the surrounding businesses and they in turn must move outward to the suburbs to be closer to their customers. Thus, the inner city loses the tax base that commercial property provides, further depleting the resources and degrading the services for the remaining residents. Public schools struggle to meet children’s needs and to attract qualified teachers. Naturally, major employers soon find the suburbs more attractive and abandon the city’s core as well. One of the most insidious aspects of this demographic shift is the racial segregation that it causes. The population that moves out to the suburbs is primarily white, while those that stay in the city are primarily people of color. Thus the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity is reinforced and unequal and segregated school systems grow up within miles of each other.
Racial Tension and Violence
Not surprisingly, the demographic configurations and the economic and social disparities involved of major United States cities resulted in escalating tensions between the races. In the summers of 1967 and 1968 race riots erupted in major cities across the country. In several instances, the National Guard was called upon to restore order. These riots were sparked by a number of causes and found ample kindling in the deteriorating and minority-dominated inner cities. The civil rights movement in the south had awakened black radicalism in northern cities as well, and black power movements such as the Black Panthers gained considerable popular support among minorities and inspired fear and terror in most white people. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring of 1968 initiated widespread protest, some of which became violent. In the summer of 1967 forty-three people were killed in race riots in the streets of Detroit. The images of this kind of violence further deterred white people from living or shopping in—or even driving through—the inner cities.
The women’s movement of the 1960s sought to liberate the suburban housewife. Almost exclusively a white, middle-class movement, women’s lib, as this phase of feminism was known, exposed the myth of the happy consumer housewife and implored women to seek fulfillment in other areas of their lives. Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 and the best-seller book of 1964, was the manifesto. In the words of New Yorker writer Daphne Merkin in a recent review of Freidan’ s biography, the book addressed ‘ ‘an amorphous malaise that afflicted college-educated American women, who smothered their children with attention, had unrealistic expectations of their husbands, and then sought to assuage their sense of quiet desperation by downing pills or having joyless extramarital affairs.” Of course, many housewives and mothers resisted the radicalizing temptations and stuck firmly to the ideals they had inherited from their mothers. In the language of the movement, those who did so did not want to raise their consciousness and confront their dissatisfactions with their traditional, if comfortable, lives. One group, however, who would have found the rhetoric of women’s lib impossible to ignore, is the daughters of these women. Young women rebelled against their mothers’ examples, unsure of what they would become, but certain never to fall into the confinement of the unfulfilled housewife.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Joyce Carol Oates, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.