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Commentary: Detroit and the State - Two Worlds

Yesterday, I was driving across Michigan and listening to the coverage of Detroit’s financial crisis, when I realized something.

Detroit must seem like an alien world to many who don‘t live in the city. And the reactions of many Detroiters, including some members of city council, must seem both baffling and irrational.

Take Brenda Jones, one of three council members who I call the “irreconcilables.” They seem unwilling to consider any agreement in which they give up some of their power to the state. Even if the alternative means losing ALL their power to an emergency manager. When asked about this, Jones uses the term “disrespect.“

Any form of state intervention, she seems to feel, needs to be resisted because it shows disrespect for the people of Detroit.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the city is close to running out of cash entirely. Nor does it matter that for decades, Detroit leaders have made unwise decisions that helped land the city in this mess.

What’s this all about? Last weekend I was in Charlevoix, almost 300 miles from Detroit, where nearly everybody is white and nearly everybody thinks Detroit’s leadership is crazy.

“They always have to try to make everything about race,” said one man in the 7-Eleven. He thought that was ridiculous. For him and for many of us from Monroe to Marquette, this isn’t about race, but money. The governor would say the same thing, that this is an economic emergency, and injecting race into it is illegitimate and counter-productive. But in fact, race is a big factor in all this.

You cannot separate the legacy of race and racism from what’s happening in Detroit and understand why people are reacting the way they are. The bottom line is that Detroit is now almost all black and largely impoverished. Detroiters feel, rightly or wrongly, that their financial troubles are largely the legacy of a long history of discrimination. The Detroit Free Press quoted one woman  who said “we know this is all backed by racism and prejudice and all of the things we've been fighting as black people all our lives.“

But whites outside Detroit tend to see this as one more cop-out blacks use to avoid taking responsibility for their own mistakes.

Sadly, the truth is that both sides are right -- and wrong. Detroit has been ill-served by leaders who made bad financial decisions and used the race card to deflect criticism.  But Detroiters also have endured decades of sneering contempt. Nearly 40 years ago, when financial assistance to the city was first proposed, Brooks Patterson, then the Oakland County prosecutor, suggested we fence Detroit off instead, treat it like an Indian reservation, and give the inhabitants blankets and food.

The night Coleman Young became Detroit’s first black mayor, he wrote that he felt he had won because the whites didn’t want the city any more, “and they were more than happy to clear out and leave it to a black sucker like me.“

He wasn’t all that wrong. Detroiters have felt besieged and have been fiercely determined to resist giving up any power or control. Somehow, both city and state have to get beyond this. That is, if there’s ever to be any hope of a better future for us all. 

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