insider, outsider, detroiter

Race, regionalism, and reconciliation are the three core issues that Dr. Peter Hammer talks about related to Detroit’s future plans and revitalization efforts. I agree with his assessment that the Detroit Future City (DFC) plan does not account for any of these frames, nor are any of them mentioned in the report. The DFC strategic framework is 319 pages of bureaucratic planning with a mere 24 pages on civic engagement. I think this speaks volumes as to the direction and focus of the foundations, administration, and others working to “revitalize” Detroit. There is a pervasive desire to forget or erase history: racial and regional.

If Detroit is to be successful again, then Detroit as its current population, as its regional namesake, and as its national brand needs to bring people together in meaningful and innovative ways to create and implement equitable plans that connect the past to the future.

#detroit

Detroit is both a marginalized city bounded by its city limits and a broad concept that has a wide geographic footprint. The largest geographic concept of “Detroit” includes a 7 county region that encompasses all of Southeast Michigan.

detroit100

There are approximately 713,777 people who live inside the boundary lines of Detroit while there are 3,734,090 people within the Detroit Urban Area (DUA; Census Bureau 2010).  Here are some more pie charts:

detroit_urban_area

Looks familiar right? The pie chart of the left is essentially a mirror image of the pie chart that I put together showing the imbalance of “Race and Revitalization in Detroit.” I received many comments that argued that the data showed the same regional breakdown of population demographics. I also received too many “So what!” comments that demonstrated common misunderstandings related to the data that I presented. The majority of the DUA is white, the majority of Detroit is black. Many people from the DUA are moving back to Detroit with ideas and hopes for revitalization. That isn’t a problem as long as it is not creating harm for people who have been living, working, and sustaining Detroit over the last half century. Since the 1970s, migrating white families moved to the outer suburbs of Detroit, while during the same time black families were only able to move to different areas of Detroit where they were no longer restricted by racially discriminatory housing policies or to the inner-ring suburbs. In order for equitable change to occur in Detroit new residents to the city need to remember that they are outsiders to a system that has a long and charged history.

Within discussions of “two Detroits” or New and Old Detroit, there is a thread of conversations that debate, “When are you officially a Detroiter?” Beyond the disparaging comments and false urban rites of passage there is an important disconnect between those living within the city limits and those living within the idea of “Detroit.” The comments and feedback that I received seemed to fall along those same distinct lines of understanding Detroit as outsider vs. insider. “Detroit” is a broad concept that goes beyond the city limits and that is often why many people in the region feel so strongly about the city and what is happening to revitalize it.

Having an idea of Detroit versus living or experiencing the changes occurring in Detroit are completely different, compelling narratives.

Those who disagreed with my assessment were largely living outside the city limits and had a wide range of issues with black people and statistics. Those who agreed with my piece mostly lived inside the City of Detroit and had two main responses: one of support and one expressing that this problem of racial equity was nothing new.

#privilege

It was very unsettling to see the posts on my Facebook timeline flip from featured images of my data pie charts to images of my own face. It was unsettling because I quickly became concerned that my young, white, male face was becoming the story rather than the racial inequity of revitalization. I could not control who my parents were just as much as I could not control the socio-economic situation of my family. Yet, in all of this talk of racial equity, I have to accept my privilege as well as my own responsibility in working towards more equitable solutions. I can’t just say, “So what?” and pretend that I don’t have a role to play. (Read the full comic strip on understanding white privilege)

“For white people to acknowledge white privilege they’d have to acknowledge a stake, no matter how small, in the ongoing injustice.” – Herb H.

My first consideration was that data is very buzz-worthy right now. I had personally noticed racially skewed programs, but many of my data choices came out of conversations with community members. Countless Detroit residents have been watching these changes and some have experienced the lack of resources available to community groups working to improve their neighborhoods. It was readily apparent that my status as a white male in Detroit allowed my data and writing to be more easily digested and shared. Some community members reacted saying:

“If I had tried to publish the same thing, it would have come off as the ‘angry black person.'”

To that end I have been very conscious of interview requests. I am not interested in allowing the lopsided media narrative of Detroit revitalization to continue, but rather I am interested in continuing genuine conversations about racial equity in Detroit. In order for the genuine conversations to occur there needs to be many people in the room, which includes the voices of community members who have too often been excluded from these conversations.

“The idea is that only whites are getting a seat at the table of revitalization. If the pool is being pulled from elsewhere, it’s a good time to question why that decision is being made. If Detroit is what is in need of revitalization, why are we giving the help and expertise to people not from the city?” – u/FakeFaked

Detroit is at a critical moment where people have excitement, interest, and money that they want to put into the city. For Detroit’s revitalization the means need to justify the end. We can’t just hope for all “good” efforts to make a better Detroit, we must be conscious of who is at the table and most importantly who is not at the table and why they aren’t there.

“We’re not angry with them [white kids], we’re pissed that we weren’t given the same opportunities and aren’t in the game now.” – Barbara W.

“And I imagine they [foundations] haven’t the first idea what’s going on in the black community in Detroit. I’m also guessing from some of the responses here that people don’t understand the history of Detroit either.” – Sean P.

 Finally, the most stand out response to my piece was that my writing had become a perfect illustration of the problem that I am trying to highlight:

“[dislike] Shit we’ve not only been saying, but ALSO been experiencing, but it’s never valid until it’s cosigned by the white guy.” – David N.

In all of the comments and conversations I have had I think it is just as important to acknowledge the privilege of being silent. Race doesn’t affect everyone in the same way and white people are often able to live their entire lifetime and not feel a need to talk about it or discuss how they fit into a racially unjust system.

#equity

Racial equity and revitalization have not gone hand in hand. As I wrote above, the DFC framework doesn’t include race or regionalism. Race is only mentioned on one of the civic engagement pages to show the breakdown of who participated in surveys. The increased use of “revitalization” by many of the programs that I researched assumes that Detroit is already not vital. This links to the concept of “Detroit as a blank canvas” and the common misperception that you can do whatever you want in Detroit because there is nothing here. Revitalization is a broad term that means different things to different people.

Currently, there is a need to better understand how different people see revitalization in their own communities.

In Detroit, “revitalization” is also a fairly new term (see also: renewal, resurgence, recovery, rebirth).

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 9.30.22 PMGoogle Trends demonstrates that “Detroit revitalization” is a term that came about in 2011, which is the same year that many of the programs I profiled began. The term has seen greater use in 2013 which has continued up until recently this summer (July 2014). The “Detroit recovery” has been discussed for much longer and likely will continue to be used by the mainstream media. Looking more closely at these terms is important in order to better understand how the narrative about Detroit’s revitalization is being constructed. (“Detroit resurgence” wasn’t significant and “Detroit rebirth” was skewed by J Dilla’s musical release with the same terms in the summer of 2012.)

Many of the programs that I evaluated have a strong focus on diversity. However, diversity does not equate to racial equity. Diversity when applied to individuals is simply a group of people with a variety of different identities and ideas. In the same vein equality is not the same as equity. Equality means that everyone gets the same, but that isn’t enough when different races of people have historically been denied opportunities and aren’t starting on a level playing field.

“[…] when you walk into a room to listen to a conversation about mass transit and the racial make up of the group is 95% white. That is inequity. When I asked the organizer why he doesn’t have more folks who actually use public transportation on the panel […] he says “he doesn’t know any,” that seems deliberate. Maybe not deliberately excluding but definitely deliberately including folks who are similar to him. It’s evidence reflected in my personal experience.” – Terietta I.

Detroit doesn’t have a problem with diversity, but there are large gaps in equity that need to be addressed.

“I agree with you. It’s about equity, giving groups what they need in order to be successful. Unfortunately, we are so stuck on equality, giving each group the same thing. I also wonder whether or not we have the political will to create race-based programs.” – Ron T.

The equity gap is one that is not new, nor is it one that many Detroiters need data to make it real.

“Don’t need a pie chart to see the deal but glad he did the research for those whose didn’t know. So now what should be done? Detroit will never fully prosper unless everybody gets a piece of the pie. Must be mindful to never repeat mistakes of the past.” – Wendy D.

#detroitfuture

Everyone has a stake in Detroit’s future, but the larger questions need to be asked about whether program constraints, organizational values, or the privilege to not care allows Detroit’s revitalization to be exclusive. It is unlikely that you would build a tool shed in your neighbor’s yard without asking. The same goes for development efforts in Detroit.

We are all neighbors within the city limits and throughout the metro region.

Let’s have some more conversations about the impacts of our actions as they relate to racial equity and Detroit’s history of racial discrimination.

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detroit: black problems, white solutions

 det-race-equity6

Updates

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

Introduction

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.

Methods

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.

Results

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.

Conclusion

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. 

why #OccupyDetroit won’t work

The #OccupyWallStreet protests have been incredible to watch. The protestors picked a great target for their message, organized without planning for a one day event, and have been building support ever since. I’ve spoken with friends involved in spinoff occupations and many ask me when “Occupy Detroit” is going to begin. Since then I’ve been throwing the idea around in my head and it never quite fits for Detroit. Just today I discovered that “Occupy Detroit” has already started to be organized for October 21, 2011.

1. What to Occupy

Interestingly the meeting point chosen is the iconic Detroit symbol of “ruin and decay,” Michigan Central Station. A large, empty building near Corktown, privately owned is not a great location to bring a large group of people to protest. I understand it is just the meeting point and protests will take place downtown, but that is where everyone should meet – downtown. It seems like the larger problem is that there is a group of people interested in occupying something, but they aren’t sure what to occupy yet.

The biggest corporate symbol in Detroit is GM Tower, right downtown by the river. The problem with protesting GM is that Detroiters and Michiganders are sick of being angry at the auto companies. It is a protest fatigue, everyone and their grandmother has something to say against the auto companies. It is an argument that doesn’t hold passion anymore. So what is next? Therein lies the problem. Detroit, corporately, is pretty small. The best large corporations that are in the city worth protesting are the banks. Many of the banks backed out of home loans for many Detroit residents during the recession. Just recently Citizen’s Bank was taken to court because of racial discrimination and unequal lending practices in Detroit and Flint.

Corporations take advantage of Detroit’s population in poverty all the time. A perfect example is Chase Bank, they have their community giving initiatives to look good, but where does the money they give away come from? It comes from all the people whose houses they foreclosed. Chase has set up a number of simple drive-through banking stations across the city. They’ve used technology to offer their service and avoided placing people in buildings to serve communities. Chase is notorious for its predatory lending services for home mortgages.

Chase Tower is located downtown, in the middle of an area where many wealthy people from the suburbs like to frequent. A potential place to make a statement in Detroit.

In the end, occupation in Detroit will be difficult. Many people “camp out” everyday for lack of a home or place to sleep. It is a divide between those who choose to take to the streets and those who have no choice. Another issue is that much of Detroit is unoccupied, so the message of an #OccupyDetroit effort may be easily lost.

2. Who will Occupy?

The other major problem that I see is that the young, white activist community in Detroit is doing the organizing. This is a far cry from the locally run organizations and neighborhood block clubs where the real effects of corporate greed are hardest felt. Many times African American residents of Detroit are very skeptical of young, white people making a lot of noise.

When the United Stated Social Forum (USSF) came to Detroit in the summer of 2010, there was a deep divide between the white activist community in Detroit (and the US) and the majority African American residents of the city. I was asked by many people, “what is going on?” and “why are all of these people here?” That isn’t to say that there was no racial diversity at the USSF, but unfortunately those who represented Detroit were a majority white activists disconnected from those living in Detroit.

I recently attended TEDxDetroit which was again a majority white. Detroit’s population is 76% African American, but TEDxDetroit was easily 80% or more white individuals with ideas to bring into Detroit without involving those who already live here. Why can’t organizations find and highlight the work done by people already here?

Detroit is full of vibrant ideas and interesting people. The problem is that the residents of Detroit who are facing the most difficult issues aren’t downtown. Most residents of Detroit live out in the neighborhoods and can’t often benefit from the downtown developments created to bring people in from the suburbs.

3. Already Occupied?

It is safe to say that many of those who live below the poverty line are less concerned with occupying something downtown and instead working on advancing their status in life. Detroit has a high percentage of its population living below the poverty line, hungry, without health insurance, and many without good paying jobs. The residents of Detroit are already occupied with making their lives and city a better place.

The recent Census showed that Detroit’s population is decreasing. Many people that I have talked to, including, Detroit high school student talk about getting out of Detroit and leaving for something better. How can a generation that wants to get out of Detroit be motivated to occupy what they don’t want?

If there is any sort of occupation in Detroit, it will represent the economic and racial disparities in the city and demonstrate the deep need to build real connections across communities. A real movement in Detroit would involve Block Clubs and Neighborhood Associations.

grand rapids can’t afford for detroit to fail

One of the recent articles from “Assignment Detroit” in Fortune Magazine attempts to say that Detroit needs to learn from Grand Rapids. The content that follows in the article goes on to prove that Grand Rapids is not like Detroit at all.

The article was titled, “A Michigan Success Story” with the tagline: “Its not the kind of view you expect these days in downtrodden Michigan”. It seems they can never give a clear message about Michigan or Detroit. Its a success, but downtrodden. Its working hard, but never making the mark. Let’s jump right in – so it is true, Grand Rapids is growing, has retained young people, and has significant investment in higher education and medical services – but that does not mean Detroit can replicate the business successes of this tiny West Michigan city.

Grand Rapids is not similar to Detroit. They had different industries, different populations, and different mean levels of income. From the article:

“thanks to a combination of business leadership, public-private cooperation, and the deep pockets of local philanthropists.” 

This picture is not as visible in Detroit, the deep pockets of philanthrophy don’t reach as far in a significantly larger city with a larger population (ever with Detroit’s population decline). Retired Chairman and CEO of Old Kent Bank, John Canepa is quoted saying,

“But Grand Rapids had an unusual set of assets. The wealth in this city in proportion to its size is extraordinary.” 

The Amway corporation and family, DeVos (whose name appears on far too many things in Grand Rapids), Steelcase and Meijer.

“The founders of those companies and their descendants still reside in Grand Rapids area, and match their deep roots with deep pockets of philanthropic dollars.” 

The article’s author is defeating his own argument with each quote he gets from local Grand Rapids leaders. They recognize that there were some similarities in how the decline in industry had effects on both cities, but are not as naive to think that what worked for Grand Rapids will work for Detroit.

Unemployment in Grand Rapids is still very high and not surprisingly this disproportionately affects minority communities. Detroit is a city of minorities, unlike Grand Rapids that holds its roots in the white, anglo-saxon, protestant traditions with traceable histories, long roots to local areas, propped by family assets and connections. The city government of Grand Rapids is also facing serious budget cutting and is working with unions to decrease benefits.

Grand Rapids is the “greenest city in the US” with more LEED-certified buildings per capita. This could also be attributed to the growing trends in environmental sustainability and the wealth that exists in Grand Rapids. Where Detroit can take a lesson is in offering more opportunities for Green Jobs. The Grand Rapids Community College just opened excellent training courses for various “green” industries. I will begin writing more about “green” solutions in following posts.

Detroit doesn’t have the hard cash wealth that Grand Rapids has, but it does have other rich assets when it comes to new ideas and initiatives for improvement. As in Grand Rapids, these ideas don’t come from the government or its funds.

A last final and important take-away from the article was a quote from Mayor George Heartwell, “we can’t afford to see Detroit fail. But if Grand Rapids recovery took two decades, how long will it take Detroit?”
No one can afford for Detroit to fail.