Explore | Battle Creek, Michigan
Explore Battle Creek and the surrounding areas by scrolling through the interactive maps, video clips, and descriptions below.
We chose Battle Creek (Calhoun County, Michigan), population 52,000, because its racial demographics approximately mirror those of the Midwest as a whole. As the “cereal city” (both Kellogg’s and Post were founded here; Kellogg’s headquarters and foundation are still here), it has a fascinating history and present. Like much of the Midwest’s “rust belt,” the manufacturing sector in and around Battle Creek has been steadily declining for decades. Calhoun County is also politically interesting because it is a presidential swing county, having voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping to Trump in 2016. Much of Calhoun County is also rural, which allowed us to speak with people outside urban and suburban settings, who are often harder to reach. Below, we discuss in greater depth the demographics, socioeconomics, and politics of Battle Creek and its surroundings.
As of 2016, Battle Creek was 67% white, 18% black, 6.8% Hispanic, 4.7% mixed-race and 2.5% Asian, approximately mirroring the Midwest as a whole except with a higher proportion of black and mixed-race people (as would perhaps be expected of a city of its size). Battle Creek’s black population exists primarily in the center and north of the city. Besides these neighborhoods, every census tract within Battle Creek is majority white. Its Hispanic population (over 70% Mexican) exists most prominently in the south-central part of the city, and its Asian population, primarily Burmese due to decades of Burmese immigration, resides across the south side of the city and in nearby Springfield. If you were to drive straight into Battle Creek from most directions, you would, as with most American cities, pass through almost entirely white rural areas, followed by increasingly less white and less wealthy suburban areas, until you enter the mostly non-white (likely black and/or Hispanic) city center.
In the video clips below, Facing Whiteness participant Dale Bennett gives one of our researchers a driving tour of Battle Creek. She speaks about the racial history of Battle Creek, specifically the history of black neighborhoods in the city and the transformation of Central High School, now a majority minority high school (42% of the student body is black). In contrast, Lakeview High School, located in a wealthier part of Battle Creek, is 66% white (and 9% black). Despite Central’s history of academic excellence, Lakeview currently far outperforms Central on standardized testing.
On average, Battle Creek is moderately less wealthy than the rest of the state and country: median household income in 2016 was just above $38,000, compared with almost $51,000 for Michigan as a whole. Even the wealthiest area of Battle Creek, where median household income averages $73,000, can’t compare with the wealthiest parts of larger Michigan cities, such as Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Detroit. The residential areas immediately surrounding Battle Creek’s downtown (see map below) have the lowest median household incomes in the city, despite the city’s efforts to revive the downtown.
Many of the people we interacted with were directly involved in efforts to revive downtown; we even shot the Facing Whiteness interviews in the storefront of a recently rehabilitated building. Despite these efforts and the history and beauty of these buildings, Battle Creek’s downtown can be downright empty on even the nicest of days. The video to the right was shot by one of our researchers on a spring Saturday morning.
Within Michigan, Battle Creek is known as a blue-collar city, perhaps due to the once plentiful cereal manufacturing jobs. These jobs have slowly trickled away, as companies have both sought cheaper labor elsewhere and automation has replaced human labor. Still, Battle Creek remains a manufacturing city: over one-quarter of employed Battle Creek residents work in manufacturing, compared to 13% in nearby Kalamazoo and 18% in Michigan as a whole. In Springfield, located within Battle Creek but technically a separate city, over 40% of the employed population works in manufacturing. Though several factories are visibly in decline and stories about layoffs at Kellogg’s abounded when we were in town, the rate of Battle Creek residents employed in manufacturing remains the same since 1980 (see map below). The areas surrounding Battle Creek, however, have not fared as well: between 1980 and 2016, the rate of Calhoun County residents employed in manufacturing dropped from nearly 32% to 24%, a net loss of 4,000 jobs. During the same time period, Michigan’s manufacturing job rate went from 30% to 18%, part of a decades long loss of manufacturing jobs that has greatly impacted the economic landscape of the heartland. Despite these losses, since the 2008 financial crisis, manufacturing across the nation has had a slight resurgence. Calhoun County, for example, has added 2,200 manufacturing jobs since 2009, many of which are in Battle Creek. A sizeable portion of these new jobs is in the automotive industry: one of Battle Creek’s largest factories, Denso, is a Japanese automotive components manufacturer. In the videos clips below, Facing Whiteness participant Dale Bennett gives her perspective on the manufacturing economy in Battle Creek in 2017.
In the 2016 general election, Trump won 53% of the vote in Calhoun County, while Clinton won 41%. This represented a major loss for the Democratic Party in Calhoun County, where Obama had taken 58% and 50% of the votes in 2008 and 2012, respectively. 2016 was only the second time Calhoun County had swung Republican since 1988, the other time being 2004, when Bush won by a much narrower margin of 3.5%. In the United States Congress, Justin Amash, a Republican who identifies with libertarian values, represents the district that includes Calhoun County. During our time in Battle Creek, we attended two town hall meetings hosted by Representative Amash. Even if attendees didn’t agree with Amash, they expressed their thanks for being heard. In the Michigan House of Representatives, Calhoun County is divided into the 62nd and 63rd districts. Republican John Bizon, who recently secured the Republican nomination for the Michigan Senate’s 19th district, represents the 62nd district. While in Battle Creek, we spoke to many Democrats who were upset by the very close victory of Dr. Bizon over his Democratic rival in 2016. Republicans will very likely continue to control the 63rd district past the 2018 elections. At the level of state government, Michigan leans Republican, with 57% of the House and 73% of the Senate controlled by that party. Nationally, however, Michigan has tended to lean more Democratic: 2016 was the first time Michigan had swung Republican in a presidential election since 1988, and both of Michigan’s senators are Democrats.