detroit: black problems, white solutions



Last updated 03/19/15:

  • Jon Chezick of D:hive BUILD Institute has graduated 400 from their program (56% black, 32% are white) via Deadline Detroit
  • Matthew Clayson, Director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center has had 70 founders, 42 white (60%); 23 African American (33%); 2 Asian American (3%); 2 Arab American (3%); 1 Latino (1%) via Deadline Detroit
  • Meeting scheduled with Graig Donnelly, Director of WSU Detroit Revitalization Fellows, “the stats for our program look right about at what you said.”
  • Panel and meeting scheduled with Challenge Detroit, Dierdre Groves and Shelley Danner
  • Contacted by ProsperUS: “About 90% of our participants are minorities, and over 80% are African American. We have trained 204 people in 5 Detroit neighborhoods:  Southwest, Lower East Side, Northend/Woodward Central, Cody Rouge (over by Warrendale), and Grandmont Rosedale.”
  • Contacted by Skillman Foundation for an interview in their Annual Report
  • Response from Kresge Foundation Communications Director, Cynthia Shaw: “Kresge is a national foundation with the goal of expanding opportunities for low-income people in America’s cities. That goal drives our grant-making and social investing. We have a dedicated Detroit program because Detroit is our home town. So, we take notice of data like that produced by Mr. Hill (and others).” via Michigan Citizen
  • Invited to facilitate at Youth Civil Rights Conference with the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at WSU
  • Contacted by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Detroit Office
  • Republished in Infinite Mile online magazine, Issue 11, November 2014
  • Data and research republished in column by Nolan Finley in the Detroit News


There are countless reports, maps, and statistics that demonstrate Detroit’s population changes over the years as well as the city’s decline. What is often overlooked in these figures are the social inequalities that fueled Detroit’s continued racial inequity. Structural racism is not easy to explain in a sound bite, but it has kept the scales tipped against Detroit’s black population for the last century. The effects of structural racism can be seen in the decades of black Detroiters being relegated to lower end jobs, rarely being promoted, being the first to be laid off, and being targeted for subprime mortgages.

Detroit’s revitalization is completely one-sided. The surge in investment in this majority black city is not going to black residents. I began noticing a troubling trend. First, at Whole Foods one out of the ten featured suppliers were black. Then again when the 2013 Detroit Design Festival interviewed designers and one out of eight were black. A recent United Way campaign featured eight Detroit leaders and only two were black. I could only wonder why these revitalization efforts were so lopsided. Finally, I couldn’t help but cringe at TEDxDetroit 2013 where 80% of attendees were white coming up with “solutions” for Detroit, an 83% black city. To top it off, Wayne State University’s student population doesn’t even reflect the city with almost 50% white students and 20% black with only 9% of black students graduating in 4 years.

I’m not alone in my concerns either. There is overwhelming evidence that our cities are becoming more segregated and unequal. Not to mention the racist mortgage lending practices of our country’s largest banks decimating black home ownership in major cities, specifically in Detroit. One journalist has asked “Is there room for Black people in the new Detroit” and others have lamented “Detroit doesn’t need hipsters to survive, it needs Black people.” The New York Times received a lot of push back after a travel piece only featured White-owned businesses in Corktown which then brought out a counter article, “Black-owned businesses are quietly fueling Detroit’s resurgence, but no one’s talking about it.” Aaron Foley recently wrote an excellent piece for Bridge magazine, saying:

“When “new” is basically used as code for “white” in a city where the “old” is “black,” it can drive someone like me [a black person in Detroit] to think they’re obsolete.” – Aaron Foley

There is a very real concern over the shifting interests and populations within Detroit where the benefits of gentrification do not trickle down, but rather force more hardship on those who cannot pay to play. Increased property values don’t solve poverty or crime, they just make poverty and crime more concentrated.

Last year, I began attempting to track and quantify the issue within Detroit’s revitalization as it relates to racial inequity. After working for 3 years with families across Detroit, I couldn’t help notice the absence of long-time Detroiters in development discussions, funding proposals, and the new “benefits” of a growing Detroit.

The title of this post, Black Problems, White Solutions, is a reflection that in Detroit problems are seen as being caused by black people, but the solutions are being powered by white people, neither of which are true.


My first challenge was that there is no demographic data (race, gender, age) published by small start-ups or even large corporations, or nonprofits. This meant that I would need to find the data myself. How could one white male possibly determine the race of hundreds of individuals involved in Detroit’s revitalization? short answer: I can’t.

My next challenge was that I had to construct ideas about race in order to categorize individuals. I was extremely hesitant because I know that race is socially constructed, that individuals self-identify in very different ways, and that identity can and does change over time. It is important to note that discrimination affects minorities no matter how one self-identifies. Over a period of July – August 2014, I combed the websites of Detroit companies and start-ups for information about their staff. I, obviously, had to base my categorizations on my own assumptions and perceptions of race. I pulled headshots from individual biographies posted publicly on fellowship programs, academic profiles, and many “About” pages. All this data was then compiled into the database that I later analyzed.

My analysis brought to mind the PBS project where user can sort photos of individuals by “race” where the main takeaway was:

“Classifying them [headshots] into groups is a subjective process, influenced by cultural ideas and political priorities.”

The article “Stereotypes drive perceptions of race” demonstrated that changes in racial categories “were driven by changes in the people’s life circumstances and common racial stereotypes.” There is also evidence that Latino individuals often choose to check the “White” box on the Census form as a sign of status. There is a similar issue where “Arab” populations are lumped into the “White” category by the Census Bureau. Our official systems to categorize race are both flawed and inadequate.

Note: “American Indian” was excluded even though there were around 2,500 individuals living in Detroit from the 2010 Census, the American Indian population makes up less than 0.5% of the total Detroit population, but also bore the brunt of early slavery in Detroit.


What I found, unfortunately, confirmed what I had been seeing. Detroit’s revitalization is made up of a majority of white people. That isn’t to say that Detroit’s black population isn’t contributing anything to revitalization, rather it suggests that there is a deliberate racially unequal distribution of support and funding. In total 818 individuals were identified from fellowship programs, business incubators, universities, foundations, and other “innovation” programs.

Across all of the programs 69.2% of individuals were classified as White and only 23.7% as Black (1.6% Latino, 4.8% Asian, 0.7% Arab). Looking at this new data, it is clear that there is a serious imbalance of both opportunity and outcomes in Detroit.

image (2)

The majority of programs and institutions that were checked were grossly out of balance in terms of racial equity. The only program that had less than 50% white individuals was the D:hive BUILD small business incubator. The Urban Innovation Exchange featured profiles also came close, but tended to feature 50% white individuals and 50% of all other races. The Wayne County Community College District notable had the most black Presidents and Vice Presidents.

Those who hold the decision-making power with private funds, institutions of higher learning, and foundations support members of their own race rather than the majority race of the residents of Detroit.

Note: The degree to which other minority groups besides “black” are under-represented is also a compelling result that warrants further investigation.


In many ways Detroit has become the national test case for various issues: municipal pension issues, economic decline and resurgence, as well as monetizing or privatizing city services. There is potential for Detroit to become the test case for racial equity in urban centers. Detroit is at the very beginning of its efforts to revitalize and reinvest. During this period it is critical to ensure there is a structure that promotes equity in training, hiring, bidding, and selecting individuals who are the city’s present and will be it’s future. This is the critical moment where Detroit should try to lift all residents and not just those who can drop multi-millions for an expressway ramp or swoon decision-makers with a new stadium plan.

Mayor Duggan has said that every neighborhood has a future, but does every neighbor have a future in Detroit?

Detroit can build itself to be the city that prioritizes its people first by going beyond “community engagement.” If the city pushes for a strong community based redevelopment model from the bottom-up it could allow for a more racially equitable path forward. The city and its various supporters need to both ask Detroiters what they want to see in their communities and give them the tools, training, and support to make it happen. There is no reason that community development can’t also lead to citywide revitalization.

Thanks to the many people who gave me comments and feedback throughout the process of putting this together. 

39 thoughts on “detroit: black problems, white solutions

  1. Are these results based upon participant racial self-identification? I’d love to see more metadata about the data used in this project, and specifically see how it was collected. Very interesting work.

    1. Unfortunately, no. See methods section. May be potential for larger and academic study? I can’t see corporations and organizations voluntarily sharing demographic data any time soon.

    2. Suffice it to say, that the Black Detroit Community has had a fair chance at “revitalizing” Detroit for the past 40 Years and counting. I believe the Black Community should be appreciative that other people are interested to bring Detroit to prominence. Let’s stop with the Black, White, Latino, Asian analysis and let’s ALL start rebuilding Detroit to the splendor it was and still can be. Let’s not make this revitalization into a White/Black issue. Instead, let’s all work together and move forward and acknowledge that through diversity of opinions we will move mountains.

  2. So. . . people from metro Detroit whose families lived in Detroit for several generations (perhaps not including the last one) should be EXCLUDED from the process of revitalizing the city because of the color of their skin, in order for more black people (who have been the majority in the city for only a small portion of its history) to have more representation in these revitalization efforts? is that basically what you’re saying—that despite the fact that the metro area is a lot more diverse than the city itself and that those—like yourself—who were born outside the city but in the region don’t have as much as a say in the revitalization in the city that ties everyone together because they were born the “wrong” color? would a black suburbanite Detroit Revitalization Fellow be better for the city in your view than a white kid who grew up in Delray?

    Your display of these statistics is interesting, but I think you are using statistics to score a white privilege zinger here rather than really examining the reasons why this is the case. For every optimistic young white revitallizer getting accolades for fixing up his shitty $500 house and writing about it for Buzzfeed or whatever, how many houses are abandoned every week by black folks fleeing dying neighborhoods for the suburbs because living in the city just isn’t feasible for them anymore? The fact is these young white people are optimistic for the city’s future and that’s what gets attention and foundation dollars, not the depressing reality for so many people who are desperate to get out and find a safe place for their kids.

    1. Excellent comment, thanks. This is a broad analysis and cannot account for the stories and experiences of individuals. I in no way make an argument for the exclusion of anyone in revitalization efforts, rather I would prefer to see programs that look to build equity vs. uphold the status quo.

      This is meant to be a critical look at white privilege. Your point that young white people make headlines and get foundation funding is exactly my point. The black-owned businesses and innovators in Detroit have unequal access to accolades and funding. Black ventures aren’t often recognized for contributing to Detroit’s economy and turn-around.

      1. Great response — you took the words out of my mouth.

        From what I’ve seen, the foundation community has established this funny little “Save Detroit” economy. It’s dominated by middle-class white liberals (mostly urban planner-types) who spend most of their time posturing at “Save Detroit” events, debating among themselves in the “Save Detroit” echo chamber (via an endless stream of think pieces in HuffPost and Model D), and obsessing over “cool” “projects” that make more of an impact the media than in the community. I’m only being partially sarcastic.

        The way the initial commenter here ended up unconsciously (and amusingly) supporting your point is indicative of how these “Save Detroit” folks (however well-intentioned they may be) end up giving each other the inside track on these cushy foundation-funded jobs and fellowships. Nancy DiTomaso (a management professor at Rutgers) wrote an interesting book on it recently called The American Non-Dilemma:

        “The way that whites, often unconsciously, hoard and distribute advantage inside their almost all white networks of family and friends is one of the driving reasons that in February just 6.8 percent of white workers remained unemployed while 13.8 percent of black workers and 9.6 percent of Hispanic workers were unable to find jobs, DiTomaso said.” (Source:

        “There’s nothing illegal about giving a hand to a friend or family member who’s looking for a job. But when whites do it for other whites, blacks get stuck on the outside looking in. Most blacks still lack the networks to boost them into the kind of good jobs that whites take for granted.” (Source:

        Just my two cents. Keep up the great work.

  3. I think your research proved exactly what I saw everyday. The type of event impacted what type of Detroiter you would see there. Usually the location, who is hosting and how I found out about it would dictated which type of Detroiter I would see.

    In my humble and limited opinion, I think its a two part conversation: 1. New Detroiters need to do a better job of reaching out to people who dont look like them. It is disrespectful for move into a community and attempt to change it without engaging the folks who are already there. 2. Old Detroiters should be get involved in the new things that are happening. It is your obligation as a citizen to get involved with the things that are happening in your community.

    I would describe the solution as I have done many times before. You start saying “Hi!” to folks. New and Old Detroiters need to start speaking to each other. This will help the line between them/us disappear.

  4. I curious to see these same surveys asked in a socio economic light. I’m a white male, I recognize my privilege BUT it doesn’t compare to the privilege that people with wealth get. I have great ideas for Detroits revitalization. I’m slow to being a part NOT because I lack ideas or desire to be a part BUT because my access to the money to get these ideas off the ground is very limited.

    Without writing a book here I will sum up my thoughts. It seems like many non “white” people are under the perception that just being “white” gets you in the decision making clan. NOPE. Money.

    1. Wealth cannot be separated from race in both the US and metro Detroit context. In the last 25 years the wealth gap between white and black families has tripled.

      It is also well-documented that being white is a far greater advantage to gaining more wealth than being black. A major component of building wealth has been home ownership, which as we’ve seen in Detroit, black home ownership has been decimated by predatory lending of Chase Morgan.

      1. obstacles to black home ownership in Detroit (and the rust belt in general) run a lot deeper than just Chase Morgan predatory lending. Redlinging policies by the Federal Government in the post WW2 was arguably the single greatest contributor to the current ownership gap.

  5. This analysis was at best functional on some level probably with the bandwidth of whites who culturally and historically ignore and dismiss Black folks inferences and opinions about reality based upon our experiences ( It is a cultural thing I get it White folks need hard data regardless of its accuracy and worth)… Yet from my optics as a Black person this post advances nothing and only confirms the obvious certainly from the optics of Black folks in and outside the hood…I am mindful of the era where every insane idea from pedestrian white folks was given some juice and money from angels while the creative ethos of Black was never recruited ..WTF

    1. I agree. The sad fact is that most white people today have no idea how large this privilege gap is. Many are under the illusion that the Civil Rights movement magically wiped the apartheid state clean. Since they have little contact with the Black experience they need this sort of research to provide a solid understanding, at least on an intellectual level.

  6. Great piece Alex. It hits on an issue that is critical to city and regional success. I wonder if, in your research, you have identified any cities or urban centers that are doing more to highlight the successes and contributions of minority-owned businesses and developments? If so, what have the results been?
    Thanks for your research, far too few people are critically looking at privilege and its repercussions.

  7. Hey Alex,

    Interesting work. Question: Do you have any idea if whites are disproportionately represented because they are disproportionately selected for participation in these programs or are they disproportionately represented because they disproportionately apply for participation in these programs? I think we need to know the answer to this question to put these number in context.

    1. Thanks Noah, it was difficult enough to track down the info that was used here. Volume and demographics of applicants would definitely have to come internally from each org/ company and I’m not even sure if that info is tracked.

  8. Hey Alex,

    Build has graduated over 400 entrepreneurs. They graduate 37 each quarter. Thanks for making the correction!

  9. Great post and interesting analysis. Not to turn this comment into a methods analysis, but I think that the sample size and selection of organizations also fall prey to the same sort of self-baised selections that causes the innovation narrative to be so white-focused. There are plenty of other programs that focus on revitalization, entrepreneurship, and community development that aren’t made up of primarily white participants; they just don’t receive the same coverage as the 9 organizations you chose. You’ve got organizations like ProsperUS, Global Detroit, Skillman Good Neighborhoods, Focus Hope, the multitude of business associations across the city, and more all working on similar goals. There is definitely a problem in the hiring and application process at a number of these organizations your profiled (I am one of the white guys in two of the organizations), but it’s also in the narrative and the marketing around revitalization. There’s not a lack of black participation in revitalization efforts, it’s that it get overshadowed and ignored by the “sexier” stories of young white people moving into “save” Detroit.

    1. Thanks Dylan, this analysis is definitely subject to my perceptions and biases. My selection was largely based on the groups that a part of the media narrative around revitalization. Groups like Skillman and Focus Hope fell under the non-profit category, which did not capture info from individual programs. Thanks for highlighting other groups!

  10. Alan,
    While I appreciate the updated statistics from D:Hive, it is not Alex’s work that Jon was questioning. Rather, you misread Alex’s pie chart. His clearly states that BUILD graduates are over 50% black. Additionally, he looked at one class of graduates, but that statistic holds true for the 400 graduates of the program.

  11. The banks foreclosed on our homes and sold them to whites or Europeans for 3 times what they paid at sheriffs sale, but refused to work with the owners of those homes they stole….gentrification!!!!

  12. Alex: I am proud to see you are doing such important work in and on Detroit. This article should prompt some scrambling on the the part of organizations that work in Detroit to provide some transparency on how their projects and programs are working (or not). This is a great effort.

    Louise Jezierski

  13. I’d be very interested to see the same survey done BUT instead of surveying race, they surveyed economic status.

    I think you’d see that economic status played a BIGGER role than race.

    I don’t think you can fix racisem without addressing classisem.

  14. Suffice it to say, that the Black Detroit Community has had a fair chance at “revitalizing” Detroit for the past 40 Years and counting. I believe the Black Community should be appreciative that other people are interested to bring Detroit to prominence. Let’s stop with the Black, White, Latino, Asian analysis and let’s ALL start rebuilding Detroit to the splendor it was and still can be. Let’s not make this revitalization into a White/Black issue. Instead, let’s all work together and move forward and acknowledge that through diversity of opinions we will move mountains.

  15. really? a white person so preplexed by this? The city USED to have upscale neighborhoods…..Highland Park once was a wonderful place… seems when the white people left….the city….went into the gutter. Where is some great black business men now rebuilding the city? Because your skin color you are not owed a house or a job. I have dozens of friends who are black business owners…and they dont want any part of Detroit. It has sat and fell apart for so long now… hey it was a city up for grabs to people wanting to bring it back. I mean before now..that does not look like it went to well….the police even had given up

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