Commentary: Questions of Race

Apr 6, 2012

Throughout Detroit’s financial crisis, the governor has had a consistent message: This is about money and financial mismanagement, not about race. This didn‘t have anything to do with  the bitter racial issues that have plagued Detroit and complicated the city’s relationship with the suburbs, and the state, and itself.

Well, in a technical sense, he was right. Accountants know  numbers only come in two colors. The population of Michigan’s largest city may be mostly black, but Detroit has been bleeding a sea of red ink. But behind those numbers lie a thousand racial issues.They start with the white corporate executives who moved their homes, factories, and jobs out of Detroit over the past five decades. They go on to include black leaders who were determined to go it alone, to run the city the way they saw fit, and show whites that they weren’t needed or wanted.

That helped lead to attacks on the city that seemed racially motivated. Detroit’s sad legacy includes demagogues and criminals like Kwame Kilpatrick who blamed racism for their own failings, and accused those exposing them of racist motivations.

Stereotypes flourish because they contain some kernels of truth. But these particular ones are going to have to be overcome if the new city-state consent agreement partnership is to work.

This isn’t going to be easy. Racial attitudes and fears honeycomb this society, and there is national proof of that right now.

We’ve just gone through the biggest crisis Detroit has faced in modern times. But what story do you think people have asked me about most this week? What story is gripping all America?

You know the answer. Trayvon Martin. As Detroit veered towards collapse, everybody in Michigan was talking about the case of the black teenager in Florida who was shot to death in February  by a man who said he was a neighborhood watch volunteer. The shooter was armed; the teenager wasn’t.
And that’s about all anyone agrees on. Whenever I’m asked about this case, I say something like “I don’t know what really happened, and neither do you.”

That startles people. What do you mean? they say. I answer, “We weren’t there. We are in Michigan. This happened in Florida. We simply don’t know what went on. We may never know.”

But those asking me about the case then say, “Well, I think this,” and then tell me what they think happened.

What’s fascinating is that whatever they say tells me absolutely nothing about Trayvon Martin, and volumes about the person pontificating about it. This reminds me a great deal of the early phases of the OJ Simpson case nearly 20 years ago.

But it also serves as a reminder that all of us, of all colors, have deep racial prejudices. And  that is directly relevant to the future of Michigan and Detroit. The state and the city now have to work together and make some very tough, politically difficult decisions.

It will be hard for both sides to get beyond their prejudices, memories and attitudes. But they are going to have to.

Otherwise, this consent agreement doesn‘t have a prayer. Michigan can’t have a prosperous future without a successful Detroit.

If that’s not the bottom line, we don’t have a chance.