Saline, Michigan: 21st-Century Sundown Town

I remember when, a few years ago, friends in Ypsilanti, who are Nigerian, told me they were thinking of moving to Saline. “Please don’t,” I said, and I told them how I’d just been regaled by stories from an elderly friend who used to work at the Ford plant there, about how there was an open practice of Saline cops to wait for Black workers who were returning home to be pulled over, harrassed, heckled, and ticketed.

My Nigerian friend said that he was quite used to the daily onslaught of white Michigander micro- and macro-aggressions, and Saline would probably be no better or worse.

I’ll spare you the rest of the story because you already know it. Suffice it to say, my friend and his family no longer live in Saline.

And nor should they—it’s what some of us consider a modern-day Sundown Town. In fact, the last time I visited my friend in Saline, he was 20 minutes late for our lunch. He’d been pulled over on Michigan Avenue, in his almost-brand-new car, for “looking suspicious.” I remember how relieved he was he hadn’t been ticketed.

If you’re white and live in this county, chances are that over the years you’ve heard friends who are parents says something along the lines of, “Saline schools are supposed to be excellent.” And you’ve maybe even had friends who moved down to Saline so that their kids could attend Saline public schools. What exactly is meant when a white American considers a particular school district to be “excellent”? It usually means its student body is lily-white, and its class composition tends towards middle- to upper-. Both of these are the case with Saline.

The photo up top is from last night’s Saline Board of Education meeting. Some of us get creeped out when we see those canonical photographs of Klansmen in their white robes, standing in fields where they’ve lit things on fire, staring like bleached zombies towards the camera; some of us, on the other hand, get creeped out when we see photos like the one above, because they instantiate a less explicit, less salacious likeness of white supremacy. If this is an all-white school board, we can be certain it presides over an almost-all-white student body.

We have reporting of this Saline Board of Education meeting because some white Saline High School football players took their violent anti-Blackness to social media a few days ago, and harrassed Black players from their own team.

I want to dig down into two statements made by these white players. The first is elemental, precise, and what Saline ought to have added decades ago to its municipal welcome-signage:


Do we fault this kid for expressing what his entire culture has been teaching him since birth? That with whiteness comes privilege, and with privileged white proximity to non-white peers comes power? I’m a bit of a hardliner, so yes, I do fault this kid. He could have just spouted off at his own dinner table, and spared his Black teammates, who are already struggling to exist in Saline. But who I really want to fault—and by fault, what I mean is probably something more aggressive—is this boy’s parents, his white mentors more generally, and America itself, which is nothing if not an ongoing project of white colonial violence. By “white power,” what this boy means is probably something like, “I hate my culture because I see everywhere it’s violent, fucked, earth-ruining, patriarchal, and authoritarian,” but because these truths aren’t easily self-evident—it hurts to become aware of one’s own participation in an ancestry so rife with genocide, segregation, and exclusion—, this boy needed to locate a scapegoat, and Saline had long ago created one for him: non-whites. The racial composition of the Saline School Board says all we need to hear about how the white “leaders” of that community stand in relation to institutionalized white supremacy: they are propped firmly atop it.

Now let’s check out something else the white football players expressed on Snapchat:


Young man, the south never fell. It simply transmuted, camouflaged its affects, and spread like a virus into every downtown in America. The south is Saline, it’s Ann Arbor and Bloomfield Hills and every other majority-white town in Michigan. What I think you might mean, rather, is to express the aspiration of your parents and your community as a whole, which is to say, that white pride and anti-Blackness will once again become acceptable.

What you need to know, though, is that there are increasing numbers of us who will put our bodies on the line to prevent that from happening. Whiteness is not only a plague that’s already destroyed so much, and deprived so many of so much, it’s also outmoded. It’s no longer desirable. It’s ugly—no matter how well-tended and well-funded are the tract houses of Saline or the McMansions of Vanillaville.

I don’t want to linger any more on these white boys, who were simply programmed by their elders. Heidi Pfannes, president of the Saline Board of Education, dropped this brick of gelatin on the nightly news: “If we all pull together, change can happen. But we have to all work towards making that change happen.” Notice, yet again, that before leaders of all-white communities can express shame and/or self-critique, they feel like first they need to suggest that white supremacy is a system with two equal halves. It is not. Black students don’t owe a single minute of labor towards the process of “making change happen.” Or does Pfannes mean to suggest, by “pull[ing] together,” that it’s the malignant and also “good” whites of Saline who must sit down and tackle racism together? I don’t think so.

And, I’ll be damned—

Pfannes’s colleague, Superintendent Scot Graden, arrived at this three-alarm fire with two ounces of warm cliché: “… our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee will continue to work on methods to help educate all students and staff regarding the ways that language and behavior can harm groups of people who have been historically marginalized.”

Superintendent Graden, it’s not a DEI Committee your community needs, it’s a complete re-education about whiteness, racism, and patriarchy—because someone miseducated you, and each of us. White America has always miseducated its own, especially down in majority-white towns that have made themselves hostile to non-white inhabitants from the jump.