Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
February 15, 2015
Mayor Mike Duggan is getting rave reviews for his State of the City address last week. In a conversational, open manner, the Mayor talked for nearly an hour assuring us that we are headed in the right direction. We have not done enough, he said, but he is delivering on his promises. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press described the main theme saying: “Duggan spent nearly all his speech Tuesday night talking about Detroiters and the places most of them live, as well as the services they count on. It was a nuts-and-bolts speech, focused on what he’s doing and how it’s working. There were almost no rhetorical flourishes about hope or inspiration.”
There should be no question that the Mayor provided a refreshing tone, acknowledging the City Council, his staff and department leaders. He thanked everyone he could think of and managed to find a contribution to highlight from almost everyone. He ended the speech celebrating the intellectual abilities of Detroit’s children, especially those of the 3rd grade students from Chrysler Elementary who won the national chess championship.
But the upbeat, congratulatory tone emphasizing streetlights, busses, blight and response times, glossed over serious questions we need to talk about openly.
The first, most critical question is the increasing racial divide in our city. Most of the people in our neighborhoods feel under assault by the forces running downtown. Tensions are mounting as water shut offs continue; democratic spaces shrink; foreclosures loom, even in the wealthiest of neighborhoods; and small businesses struggle with aging infrastructure, taxes, and lack of transportation for needed customers. Police and community tensions are increasing as the police commission is denied meaningful power.
The growing racial divide was invisible in the speech. The Mayor asserted he should only be “judged on one standard. Is the population going up or down?” This, he said, is the “one true gauge” of his performance. This blindness to the history of racism, white supremacy, and the expansion of power and privilege at the expense of people of color and all working people is the reality we need to address.
Everyone knows that no city has managed to “revitalize” its downtown without removing large numbers of African Americans.
In 2011, for the first time in 51 years, the African American population of Washington DC dropped below 50 percent. As the first city to achieve majority black political power, DC became the first to lose it. With polices creating street car lines, supporting new businesses, and encouraging young hipsters downtown, DC saw a major demographic shift in the first decade of this century. This demographic shift was the results of policy choices. In an article frighteningly reminiscent of Detroit today, the NY Times reported of DC:
“The white population jumped by 31 percent in the past decade, while the black population declined by 11 percent — many less affluent blacks say they are feeling left out of the city’s improving fortunes. In April, the Census Bureau reported that Ward 8, in the city’s mostly poor and black southeast, had the highest jobless rate in the country.
“Change is good, but it kind of kicks some of us to the back of the bus,” said Shirley Parnell, a Department of Motor Vehicles worker who recently inherited her mother’s house near H Street, which came with $11,000 in back taxes.”
More recently, Austin, now the second fastest growing city in the country, has a rapidly declining black population. A recent NPR story about racial tensions there reported
“From 2000 to 2010, Austin’s general population jumped 20 percent, but the number of African-Americans shrank by 5 percent. Among the reasons given in the study: high property taxes, bad relations with police and disparities in public schools.”
Racial disparity, racism, white supremacy, and the protection of power and privilege surround issues of development. This reality will not go away because the Mayor choses to cover it over with sanitized terms like “inclusion.”
The history of Washington DC and Austin are not the result of natural forces. The removal of African Americans to “redevelop the city” has a long and painful history. This removal is the direct, predictable result of policies enacted by leaders who refused to acknowledge this history of racism or to commit themselves to a different future.
We in Detroit have the opportunity to confront our past and to create a city based on justice and a new vision for how we can live in communities that respect life and the earth.
This will be the true gauge of all our legacies.