Managing Inequality

Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit

352 pages

January, 2017

ISBN: 9781479849208



Add to Cart Available: 12/1/2016

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Karen R. Miller is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York.

All books by Karen R. Miller

In Managing Inequality, Karen R. Miller examines the formulation, uses, and growing political importance of northern racial liberalism in Detroit between the two World Wars.
In the wake of the Civil War, many white northern leaders supported race-neutral laws and anti-discrimination statutes. These positions helped amplify the distinctions they drew between their political economic system, which they saw as forward-thinking in its promotion of free market capitalism, and the now vanquished southern system, which had been built on slavery. But this interest in legal race neutrality should not be mistaken for an effort to integrate northern African Americans into the state or society on an equal footing with whites. During the Great Migration, which brought tens of thousands of African Americans into Northern cities after World War I, white northern leaders faced new challenges from both white and African American activists and were pushed to manage race relations in a more formalized and proactive manner. 

The result was northern racial liberalism: the idea that all Americans, regardless of race, should be politically equal, but that the state cannot and indeed should not enforce racial equality by interfering with existing social or economic relations. Miller argues that racial inequality was built into the liberal state at its inception, rather than produced by antagonists of liberalism. Managing Inequality shows that our current racial system—where race neutral language coincides with extreme racial inequalities that appear natural rather than political—has a history that is deeply embedded in contemporary governmental systems and political economies. 


  • “In her captivating study of interwar Detroit, Karen Miller sets out to uncover the origins of color-blind racism. Color-blind racism, she argues, is key to understanding modern American politics but is itself not properly understood. In particular, its historical origins have often been misconstrued by historians of the postwar period.”


  • "With her tightly woven narrative about interwar Detroit, Miller offers an important contribution to the literature on the struggle for civil rights in the North."

    Against the Current

  • “In her work, Managing Inequality, Karen R. Miller unearths the roots of modern colorblind discourse.”

    American Historical Review

  • “With crisp prose and an expert use of historical evidence, Karen R. Miller makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the intersections between early twentieth-century urban history and U.S. racial discourses.”

    Journal of American History

  • “Examines the transformation, uses, and growing political importance of northern racial liberalism, the notion that all Americans should be politically equal but that the state should not enforce racial equality by interfering with existing social or economic relations.”

    Journal of Economic Literature

  • "This is a very smart book. Miller’s impressive work lives in the space between the (often paternalistic) assumptions animating northern racial liberalism and the more expansive vision of a racially egalitarian city that inspired African American activists in the early decades of the 20th century. Returning to the history of Detroit in the critical interwar years, Managing Inequality brings novel insights into how state sponsored programs and initiatives – especially around housing and employment – mobilized a rhetorical liberalism that in reality masked real subordination. Indeed, anyone who has ever pondered the creation of official interracial commissions in northern centers like Detroit will find shrewd answers in these pages. Miller’s analysis is supple and nuanced, highly attentive to the historical record. She keeps a number of balls in the air simultaneously and the result is a book that resists easy answers about the use of race neutral ideologies, both past and present."

    —Angela D. Dillard, University of Michigan

  • "Managing Inequality is urgent historical reading. In our contemporary political culture, public officials regularly insist they are colorblind amidst evidence of persistent racial inequality. Karen Miller powerfully demonstrates that this 'colorblind' discourse emerged in the early 20th century among liberal politicians who wanted to maintain segregationist practices and structures but avoid charges of racism. Miller details the role Northern racial liberalism played in the creation of the modern unequal metropolis.  In the process, this book provides a much-needed lens on the situation Detroit and other cities face today."

    —Jeanne Theoharis, Brooklyn College