01/30/2012 01:59 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

What 1943 Detroit Can Teach America About Itself

1943 is a year that should stick out in the eyes of Detroiters mindful of local history. It is a year defined by a race riot that was the explosion on a simmering kettle. As the American wartime production geared up, blacks and whites flocked to the north for higher paying factory jobs putting a strain on housing, transportation, and the common wartime rations.

Like many major cities, Detroit is a place that is not only a part of American history, but is American history. Racial tensions preexisting in the north were intensified by traditional southern racism, which was an added problem for a city already struggling to maintain standard living conditions.

The lesson to be learned is that even with the city at full employment levels, the tensions were higher than ever. Prosperity in this chapter of history did not bring about peace. The larger social problem was a system not meeting the needs of the people, and it was glaringly obvious. The boom in population led to shortages in housing, and long lines for buses and food. Even though people were making money, there was no place to spend it. The broad reaching bigot ways across the country miles were now condensed into a city unable to hold it all in.

In the current focus on economic revival, it cannot be forgotten that the needs placed upon a society must be met. Funding public departments is not a bill one wants to pay, but a responsibility which helps to guarantee true prosperity through a peaceful culture. It is not to say the failure of society to serve itself in 1943 was the only cause of the riot, but the lack of supplies for the demand did not make life pleasant.

A contemporary example can be seen within how public schools have been manipulated by officials. The demand for quality public schools is of no surprise (which parent would not want the best for children?), but the supply has never been seen as enough. Programs like Race to the Top forced reforms that were hard to execute and driven blindly by their own admission. Or, opening schools up to competition only increases the demand through intentionally reducing supply and forcing the market to artificially rank schools. When the concern is of a social importance (meaning the goal to obtain equality), supply cannot be by lottery, massive movement of students, or seeing where teachers can be paid the least. Schools must be supplied in adequate numbers and in high quality.

The goal for any society, and the country that founds it, is to meet the needs of the people. In America, like in many places in the world, capitalism is the best means to this end. Yet in all pursuits that seek equality in nature, which should not be driven by profit or gain, public service is the most honest method of achievement. In 1943, public service in terms of housing, transportation, education, and race relations could not keep up with the pace of growth. It is easy to get lost in the numbers when looking at tough budget cuts, but as history will prove it cannot be done by diminishing the quality of public service.