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Black political power grows, but prosperity remains elusive

Mar 11, 2016

America struggles with race and those struggles are intensifying. As the white majority has been shrinking, racial tensions have been rising. You can see it in anti-immigration movements. It’s in the feeling among some white people that they’re being oppressed.

Meanwhile, a new generation of black protest organizations has been taking to the streets as black Americans feel a greater threat from white-dominated politics and police.

Race relations have changed since the civil rights movements of the 1960s and they seem to be changing again.

When many cities in the U.S. erupted in protest, riots, and uprisings in the 1960s, most white people were bewildered.

President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Credit LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. He wanted to know why the rebellions took place.

White people were surprised by the findings. The Kerner Report indicated white attitudes toward black people led to the uprisings. White racism had built the society that suppressed the chance of equality for black people.

Some scholars argue that Americans – white Americans – have not learned the lesson of the 1960s uprisings or the recommendations to correct the problems.

“In the wake of the Kerner Report, we have created two societies that are deeply unequal. That is a fact,” said Heather Ann Thompson. She is a professor at the University of Michigan and wrote the book, Whose Detroit?

“The inequality, the income inequality, racial inequality, suburban/city inequality, job inequality  –we could just go on and on and on – is far worse and that is a deeply racialized inequality. So, we’ve done that. The question remains: What do we do next,” Thompson said.

There is resentment surrounding issues of race has been building over those decades; resentment among blacks who still find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder; and resentment among whites who’ve been knocked down a rung or two.

Paul Lee is a Detroit historian who’s written on the 1967 uprising in Detroit. He says things are not any better today than they were in the ‘60s and perhaps worse. He says the protests we’ve seen in the last couple of years are revealing.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“Our situation, that is, the situation of African-Americans in Detroit and throughout the country, I think is much more precarious than it’s been perhaps in a century,” Lee said.

He bases that on the loss of economic underpinnings of black neighborhoods. He cites the loss of black businesses as neighborhoods were destroyed by redevelopment. Added to that is the fact fewer blacks then and now own their own homes compared to white populations. Home ownership is a significant factor in building wealth.

The relatively few middle-class black families who could afford to move followed white families to the suburbs.

The relatively little economic power African-Americans had in the urban centers has slipped away.

But, in cities such as Detroit there was optimism because political power grew.

In Detroit, when the black vote grew in strength, Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young.

Young worked to make sure black residents were better represented in city departments. Paul Lee says that greater political power did not mean the majority black population actually ran the city.

“While I think black political power is important, I think if there’s no economic foundation then black power is relatively meaningless” Lee explained.

With recent investments by billionaires – white billionaires – in Detroit’s central business districts, there is a celebrated downtown revitalization. But that growth keeps investment in white hands with little benefit to Detroit residents.

Many long-time residents in the neighborhoods don’t feel they’re included. They don’t feel they’re sharing in that new prosperity.

While much of the American economy has been recovering, Detroit residents have been seeing a huge increase in tax foreclosures. Unemployment rates remain about twice that of state or national numbers. Poverty is widespread with about 40% of the city at or below the poverty line.

Under the same kind of circumstances, the 1960s and '70s saw a rise in protest organizations, some of them militant.

Former Detroit City Council Member Sheila Cockrel was an activist alongside her husband, Kenneth Cockrel. He was with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. She says the term “Black Power” entered the national lexicon. 

Sheila Cockrel.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“For many people it was an expression of the necessity of being at the table, if you will. That when decisions are made, that the voices of black people are part of the decision-making,” she said.

“Black Power” was an unsettling term for many white Americans. It challenged the racial dynamic of the time.

Since that time, there’s been a shift from “Black Power” to today’s “Black Lives Matter.” The movements seem to be transforming from a demand to have a seat at the table to the request, "Please don’t kill us."

But, “Black Lives Matter” isn’t the only protest movement. In Detroit, dating back to at least the take-over by an emergency manager and then bankruptcy, new groups have been raising their voices in and around the city. Groups such as New Era Detroit, the Change Agent Consortium, the Detroit Water Brigade. There are protests for economic inclusion, against foreclosures and water shutoffs, and against police brutality.

In nearby Dearborn, protests about the police shooting of Kevin Matthews. Among the chants heard in the street were “No justice, no peace,” and “No racist police.”

“I’m hoping that in that constellation of organizations and people that there’s going to emerge the next generation of authentic grassroots leadership that creates, that has a set of ideas that motivate people to act.”

Some of those ideas are based on the belief that government – especially state government – ignores the needs of people of color.

Rev. Charles Williams, II heads up the Michigan chapter of National Action Network.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“We’re skeptical of government because government isn’t serving us,” said Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan Chapter of National Action Network. He says people are frustrated that in many ways, life in Detroit is worse now than it was in 1967.

“As we see our struggle today, we see that some of those same issues are ahead of us. So, this is the reason we must continue to organize and it’s the reason why we continue to organize,” Williams stated.

Williams believes black voices are getting louder because white voices are getting louder. He says since Barack Obama took office, certain white groups have escalated the rhetoric of bigotry and given it a national stage. He thinks a lot of that has to do with the fact there is a black man in the White House.

“I think it had more to do not with his character, not with his willingness to go and meet and do and work, but the matter of fact is he’s African-American,” Williams said.

And a black president is seen by some as the ultimate threat to white power structure and privilege.

Many politicians who count on white votes are wary to do much to alienate those votes.

Heather Ann Thompson – the U of M professor – says policymakers today largely are ignoring the issues in the same way policymakers ignored them in the 1960s.

“The good news is that we now, I think, are really hearing from those people who have suffered this very directly. And that’s why Ferguson has blown up and that’s why Baltimore has exploded. And that’s why people in cities across America are speaking out and saying, ‘No. We need a different civil rights movement. We need a different moment of change.'”

And to be effective, that change will have to negotiate opportunities for African-Americans to be included in both political and economic power.

(You can see all of our Detroit Journalism Cooperative coverage here.)

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

Assistance in reporting this piece came from Bill McGraw with Bridge Magazine, a DJC partner, and Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek.