Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Analyzing Detroit’s Racialized Public Discourse of Urban Renewal through Metaphor

Analyzing Detroit’s Racialized Public Discourse of Urban Renewal through Metaphor

Kailey McAlpin

Research in cognitive science and linguistics has demonstrated that metaphors operate as conceptual maps that create and reinforce symbolic systems of thinking whereby one semantic from a source domain is transferred to another semantic in a target domain (Lakoff, 1987; Santa Ana, 1999).  Metaphors employed in the press function as semantic building blocks that structure the readers’ understanding of the world around them, shaping public opinion of contemporary issues.  This study set out to examine the racialized attitudes expressed through metaphor concerning Detroit’s mid-20th-century urban renewal efforts, which disproportionately targeted poor African-American communities, razing entire neighborhoods and displacing thousands of families from their homes.  The process of identifying metaphoric conceptualizations of urban renewal in Detroit involved keyword database searches of articles published by The Chicago Defender, a newspaper writing for a predominantly black readership, and The Detroit Free Press, a newspaper writing for a predominantly white readership, between 1940 and 1960.  Fifteen out of thirty-eight articles selected from The Chicago Defender contained reoccurring metaphors that conceptualized urban renewal as a catalyst for racial conflict, a mechanism used to contain and control expanding African American populations, and/or a nightmarish fantasy that is doomed to fail.  Forty-one out of one-hundred-and-twelve articles from The Detroit Free Press contained reoccurring metaphors that conceptualized urban renewal as a protector of elite white values, a savior ensuring the salvation of Detroit’s future, a mechanism for reviving the wellbeing of a growing city, and a far-fetched, naïve dreamAnalysis demonstrated that metaphors from The Detroit Free Press reflect and reinforce white support of urban renewal programs while metaphors from The Chicago Defender reflect and reinforce black opposition of urban renewal programs.  Overall, these findings provide insights into past experiences of urban renewal in Detroit and demonstrate that public opinion of urban renewal differed dramatically depending on racial identity.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Your essay sounds poignantly relevant to how urban planning continues to be carried out in the city. Our projects line up rather well, actually, as mine is discussing the 1967 Uprising, a response to a series of injustices including urban renewal. If you’re willing, I think we could both benefit from having each other do an ending proof-read before the final submission of our projects. In any case, it wouldn’t hurt! And I would love to read your paper.

    Let me know!


    Comment by Athena Zissis | April 10, 2017 | Reply

  2. This paper sounds very interesting. I would love to hear more about how you choose the dates 1940-1960 for the focus of your research. Was there particularly historical events for Urban renewal that were occurring during that time period? Otherwise, I like the comparison in using a majority black readership newspaper with a majority white one. I would be interested in see how other forms of media treat and use metaphors surrounding urban renewal, but that seems enough for a whole another paper entirely.

    Comment by Elizabeth Riedman | April 15, 2017 | Reply

  3. This is a great topic that really focuses on elements of communication that often seem to be overlooked. While I realize it is outside the scope of your paper, it would be interesting to see if there are parallels between metaphoric constructions discussed in your study and those in use today.

    Comment by Hanne Willeck | April 18, 2017 | Reply

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