Racial tensions between white people and people of color are reaching levels not seen since the 1960s and ‘70s.
Nearly five decades ago remedies were offered. The politicians of the day largely ignored them. Today, conditions for African Americans and other minority groups can be as bad or worse than they were in that period.
The summer of 1967 saw dozens of uprisings in urban centers across the nation.
Detroit’s was the worst.
Forty-three people were killed –most of them black. More than 1,000 other people were injured.
Thousands of national guard troops and thousands more police were already on the streets. The mayor and governor wanted more help. President Lyndon Johnson sent in 5,000 U.S. soldiers.
“I take this action with the greatest regret and only because of the clear, the unmistakable, and the undisputed evidence that Governor Romney of Michigan and the local officials in Detroit have been unable to bring the situation under control,” Johnson explained in an address to the nation.
The Kerner Report
Before the fires in Detroit were out, Johnson spoke to the nation again. He was appointing an 11-member special Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It was chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner and became known as the Kerner Commission.
“The Commission will investigate the origins of the recent disorders in our cities. It will make recommendations—to me, to the Congress, to the State Governors, and to the mayors—for measures to prevent or contain such disasters in the future,” Johnson announced.
The President wanted to know why the uprisings happen?
Within seven months the Kerner Commission had an answer.
Nathaniel R. Jones was Assistant General Counsel for the Commission.
“One of the conclusions of the Kerner report was that white racism was at work, was the cause of the upsets and the uprisings that we had. In fact, the report stated that white society created it, perpetuates it, and sustains it,” Jones explained, during an interview at his law firm in Cincinnati.
In other words, white racism, white attitudes were the underlying reasons for racial unrest in the cities. Many white politicians and news media vehemently resisted that finding.
Detroit had been seen by the nation as a model of race relations. Many black people were getting jobs in Detroit that simply were not available to people of color in much of the rest of the country.
Overlooked was the fact that Detroit African-Americans often were given the hardest and dirtiest jobs, often were passed up for promotions, and generally made less money. Housing was inferior. Unemployment among people of color was higher. Relationships with police were strained.
The Commission also blamed the violent outbreaks on federal and state governments ignoring the plight of black residents. It blamed mainstream media for ignoring the problems and consistently presenting only the white point of view.
“The Commission said in its report that there was a combination of complex social, psychological problems, poverty all tangled up, which create this feeling on the part of people that they can’t trust authority. And that was true as a lead in to what happened in the ‘60s, and it’s true now,” Jones said.
The report’s most quoted conclusion read, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white- Separate and Unequal.”
The Kerner Report was published in paperback. It became a best seller.
But President Johnson barely acknowledged it.
Joe T. Darden is a professor at Michigan State University and co-author of a book on the 1967 Detroit riots. He says the Kerner Report challenged whites’ attitudes about blacks. And he says that made President Johnson worry it would damage the Democrats’ chance to keep the White House.
“The report put the responsibility for all of this stuff on white society and white institutions. That, I think, was a surprise to some white Americans, and I think that was part of the reason he was very careful not to upset the large segment of white society. That was why I think it happened like that.”
Another factor in President Johnson’s silence on the Kerner report was his own ego. He felt the report ignored his accomplishments Great Society programs.
But in a 1969 interview for the LBJ Library Commission Chair, Otto Kerner said praising Johnson’s work would give the report a political flavor the commission members did not want.
Kerner said Johnson privately told him he was working quietly to implement Kerner report recommendations.
“He said, ‘You know, we've been trying to do these things that you've recommended in the report, and as you know Congress is not very acceptable to the things that I proposed. But I want you to know that I have the members of the cabinet and the White House staff people still trying to have accepted those things I've already recommended,’” Kerner recalled during an interview for the LBJ Library in 1969.
But that’s not what Johnson told one of his political buddies.
A phone call between President Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley reveals Johnson had problems with the report.
President Johnson’s former Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, was running for president. He pushed the Kerner report recommendations. But, Johnson felt Commission’s Vice Chair New York Mayor John Lindsay had pushed the Commission too far.
“And Bobby just gave me hell today for not carrying out the Kerner Commission study. Well, I didn’t realize when I appointed Kerner that this son-of-a-bitch from New York, Lindsey, would take charge. He did take charge and he recommended I hire two-and-a-half million people on federal payroll. And I just, I’ve not wanted to reflect on Kerner and criticize the Commission. At the same time, I couldn’t embrace it because I’ve got a budget,” Johson said in a secretly recorded phone conversation.
That Johnson budget had doubled because of U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam.
While Johnson saw it as impractical at the time, nearly five decades later, that report by the Kerner Commission is considered one of the most insightful documents on race relations and remedies for discrimination to ever be published by the government.
Michigan State University Professor Joe T. Darden says the cost of ignoring the Kerner report has meant further decades of less opportunity for African-Americans.
“That would have eliminated this separation we have: central city/suburb, white suburb/black central city, white affluent/black poverty. That would have prevented that. They didn’t take that alternative, what the Kerner Commission really wanted society to do,” Darden said.
What has that meant to America in the intervening decades?
It’s meant a quietly ever-more divided country. Quiet, until the last couple of years.
The news has been full of stories in recent years about police killing unarmed African-Americans.
Those reports have been disturbing.
The nation watched video of Eric Garner repeat over and over again, “I can’t breathe,” as New York City police put him in an apparent choke-hold to arrest him.
In Baltimore Freddie Gray died after being arrested and thrown in the back of a police van.
In Cleveland, video captured images of 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he was shot by a Cleveland officer.
And in Ferguson, Missouri, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead in the street.
That shooting in the summer of 2014 led to 17 days of protests.
Outraged people marched in and around the St. Louis suburb carrying signs which read “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Night after night they faced a huge police presence. On both sides, it was not always peaceful.
These events and others have increased racial tensions in cities across the nation in a way not seen since the 1960s.
One woman in Ferguson, who only gave her name as Keyla, explained that summer why so many people protested this latest shooting death.
“I believe it was because you’ve had so many within maybe the last two years. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like, this is it. I’m done. I’m tired. Something needs to be done,” she said.
Nearly two years later, Ferguson, Missouri residents are still concerned that police are too quick to shoot unarmed black people.
On a recent spring night, people lined up to attend a City Hall meeting. As usual, there were more people than seats. Police used metal detectors to scan everyone who entered until capacity was reached.
Winfred Cochrell has been speaking out at City Hall meetings again and again because he thinks racial bias might have been behind the shooting of Michael Brown.
“Stop looking at me, the color of my skin, judging me. Everybody stop. Just stop. And let’s figure this out,” he said to city council members, adding, “We got to make things better for each other.”
Cochrell was trying to persuade the Ferguson City Council to accept a Department of Justice agreement to better train officers to work with the community.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission was concerned about both the police brutality that triggered some of the uprisings and riots across the nation as well as the response of the police to the protests. They Kerner report called for the demilitarization of police forces.
Today, protests, peaceful protests are met with military vehicles, SWAT teams, and police in riot gear.
In St. Louis County, Missouri, the largest police force –one of the 50 departments at the Ferguson protests- is the St. Louis County Police Department. The County Police Department leads the area’s Police Academy.
Although his department is not required to, Police Chief Jon Belmar has been talking with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services about how police could have handled police actions better during the protests.
Belmar told reporters he asked the feds, “Well, where do we focus the areas?”
They discussed policy and procedures regarding the shooting, and a review of “after actions” concerning the protest.
That “after action” by police was highly criticized.
A report from the Department of Justice found police actions inflamed tensions by deploying dogs, putting snipers on armored tactical vehicles, and inappropriately deploying tear gas without warning.
The Department of Justice is also encouraging “bias-free policing.”
Some researchers believe this different kind of police training can reduce the number of shootings of unarmed people of color.
This fairly recent idea is based on research which first appeared in a Florida State University study. It found some people have an implicit or unconscious racial bias.
“I think that there’s implicit bias research and shooter bias research that make it clear that there is a majority of people, disproportionately white, that view black people as a danger, as a threat, as a body that needs to be controlled,” explained Blanche Cook, an Assistant Professor of Law at Wayne State University.
That “shooter bias” research found during computer simulations, some officers were initially more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.
But Cook says the researchers also found with extensive training, officers were able to eliminate the bias. It can be reversed once it’s recognized.
“If the flip side of the argument is that people cannot control their implicit bias, then that means they can’t educate us, they can’t police us, they can’t ever have any kind of authority over us because they’re going act on that implicit bias at a subconscious level and never be able to control it and we simply can’t have that kind of world,” Cook said.
Back in Ferguson, Missouri, talking just outside City Hall, Winfred Cochrell said beyond police shootings, he thinks there’s a larger matter for the nation to discuss.
“My thoughts of it is it’s time to finally put the big issue on the table: race. We keep avoiding it like the plague. It’s time to talk about it. It really is. We need to sit down and have this conversation. It’s long overdue,” Cochrell said.
That’s a conversation that’s desired by many African-Americans across the nation.
Kwasi Akwamu is an activist, small business owner, and former journalist in Detroit.
“There’s never been a period when we’ve never been lynched, we’ve never been slain in the streets for suspicion of an act. You know, the lynchings and the accusations of rape, those things are part of our history. It hasn’t changed. It’s just changed form,” Akwamu said.
He believes the recent protests are not a new black uprising. They are African-Americans continuing a struggle they’ve been fighting for a very long time.
“They come from the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, we struggled against brutality. This is not the first era of the struggle against police brutality and violence,” he said.
And all evidence indicates the struggle is not over. That’s especially true in predominantly white suburbs with growing black populations. The racial make-up of the police force often does not reflect the racial make-up of the community.
Blanche Cook at Wayne State says that implicit bias, the unconscious bias, of some white people leaves them wary of people of color.
“You’ve got people who feel threatened by black and brown bodies,” Cook said.
Much of white America’s vision of home has been predominantly white people of a certain class. That’s been dramatically changing in some suburbs over the last couple of decades.
“They feel particularly threatened when they’re seeing their world become more diverse. They’re workplaces are becoming more diverse. Their neighborhoods are becoming more diverse. Their communities are becoming more diverse. And their claims to supremacy are also being challenged,” Cook said.
Getting to the heart of society’s issues with race can’t be solved by re-training police alone. But, the police might be the most important starting point.
Cook says testing police applicants for implicit bias might be considered. She suggests when there are killings by police, special investigators should be appointed, as well as special prosecutors, and perhaps special grand jurors. Cook sees a conflict of interest when law enforcement investigates law enforcement and when law enforcement prosecutes law enforcement.
The larger issue is this: Americans have to honestly come to grips with the racial tension, white attitudes toward black and brown people. If that doesn’t happen, the nation is doomed to see a repeat of these cycles of unarmed people of color being killed and outraged citizens taking to the street because there seems to be no other way to make the powerful listen.
“Until we deal with the way in which white supremacy, racism, and implicit bias frames the way in which we look at the world around us, we’re going to continue replicating this problem again and again and again,” Cook concludes.
Much of white America views the demonstrators as rioters who should let the justice system do its job. They defend the police in nearly every situation.
Much of black America thinks the justice system is rigged against people of color and feel the only way they will be heard is through organizing protest groups and taking their grievances to the streets.
That’s what it took in the 1960s and ‘70s in order to be heard. Many of those grievances are the same ones outlined in the Kerner Commission report published in 1968.
The underlying issues
While police brutality and the justice system were two of the triggers that led to the civil disturbances. But it was their everyday life underlying discontent. African Americans didn’t think their kids were getting a proper education, they felt they were not being treated fairly in getting jobs or equal pay. They knew they were paying more for housing, but that housing was inferior compared to where white people were living.
All of those grievances still are issues. And in Detroit and other cities it’s gotten worse in the decades since the Kerner Commission report was released.
For example, the Detroit Public School system struggles to properly educate kids. Even a recent bailout and restructuring effort won’t make Detroit schools as good as the mostly white schools in the suburbs.
The district went from a peak of 300,000 kids to 47,000. It went from 370 buildings to 91 buildings in an effort to save money. But ironically closing schools has actually made the decline in school finances worse.
“We’re inside Hutchins Intermediate School,” said John Grover with Loveland Technologies. The doors were open. All the windows had been removed. The only barriers were piles of broken concrete and bags of leaves dumped on the property.
“Hutchins was built in 1922. It was actually one of a few prototype schools. It was very innovative for its time. In the early 1920s, the education system as we know it was really starting to come together, in particular public education,” Grover explained as we walked on broken glass and fallen ceiling tiles.
John Grover and Yvette van der Velde co-authored the report, A School District In Crisis. We’re walking through Hutchins because the authors think it’s a classic example of how nearly 200 buildings have been closed in the last 20 years, how neighborhoods have suffered because of the empty buildings, and how the Detroit School District continues to spiral downward.
“Hutchins was one of the first purpose-built intermediate schools. Before, a lot of junior high schools and high schools were just old, converted elementary schools. But Hutchins and its twin on the other side of the city, Barber, were designed for junior high school students,” Grover explained.
LG: And when was it shut down?
LG: That recently?
“The damage that you see here was done in maybe six months. Some of it was longer term. The weather does a lot of it. The tiles coming off of the ceiling, that’s just the result of water getting in. But, these used to be lockers here, you know, this giant gap in the wall. The scrappers would just come in and rip out the entire bank of lockers and walk straight out the door with them,” Grover explained.
Since 2000, the Detroit Public School District went from 162,000 students to 47,000 – a loss of 115,000 students. Back at the Loveland Technologies office in downtown Detroit, John Grover explained what they found as they studied the history of Detroit schools.
Grover said it was thought closing schools was necessary because of the shrinking number of students. Actually, closing schools exacerbated the problem.
“Studies found that about 30% of the students from a closing school would leave the district altogether and go to different schools. With each student having a price tag on their head of between $6,000 and $7,000 a year in student funding. The loss of those students is a tremendous financial hit. You’re talking about losing hundreds of thousands of dollars just by moving the school from one location to another," Grover said.
"Then there were the follow-up costs. When they were doing some of the closings in 2004 and 2005, they found that the anticipated cost-savings from closing those schools was actually more or less wiped out in the first year by the one-time costs of moving everything out, the logistics of moving the students to a new building, preparing the building to receive them, then securing the old building, and maintaining the old building," Grover said.
"And as the years went on, the amount of money that they sank into securing the buildings – especially after the scrappers started to come in, they would break in, damage the water pipes, start ripping out the electrical wiring – the cost of keeping up with the scrappers, keeping the building secure, dispatching the police every time that they had a burglary alarm going off was extremely high as well. And then, after the building became essentially a rotted-out husk, now they have to come up with money to demolish them which can range anywhere from $130,000 for a small school building to upwards of a half-million to a million dollars for a larger building," Grover continued.
"Those costs, all those costs after the closure were not factored into the anticipated savings. And the loss of students, the permanent loss of 30% of students when you close a school as well as all of those after-the-closing costs have essentially made closing the school building not practical anymore. And that’s why Detroit Public Schools haven’t closed any schools since 2013. They know that the benefits of closing the school are outweighed by the costs of closing it,” Grover said.
The decline in the number of students since the Detroit Public Schools’ peak in the 1950s and ‘60s was dramatic. By the 1970s only one-in-three kids was a white student and they were concentrated in mostly white schools in the city.
It could have been different
The U.S. Department of Education says kids at mostly black or Latino schools don’t get as good of an education as kids at mostly white schools. Generally, teachers are not as experienced and buildings are in worse shape.
In the 1970s there was a major court case that could have ended segregated schools in Detroit and the rest of the country. It would have made it possible for children to get a good education no matter where they lived.
The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education ruled that the idea of racially separate, but equal was anything but equal. In the South, government began enforcing school integration.
In the North, it was a different story. By the 1970s, things were actually getting worse.
“While the decisions in the Southern states, the Southern school districts, were moving toward implementation, the segregation and isolation, racial isolation in the North was increasing,” said Nathaniel Jones.
Jones is the same attorney who was on the legal staff of the Kerner Commission. A few years later he was hired as the top lawyer of the NAACP. With a new law in Michigan that actually encouraged more segregation, Detroit became a target for a desegregation lawsuit.
The case became known as Bradley versus Milliken. Ronald Bradley was a young student in Detroit and the first plaintiff named in the suit. William Milliken was Governor of Michigan.
Joyce Baugh is the author of The Detroit School Busing Case.
She says judge found there were not enough white students in Detroit for any meaningful integration. He decided the only way to end segregation was by busing black Detroit students to the white suburban districts and suburban kids to Detroit. White suburban residents were outraged.
“They were basically saying that they didn’t think that their kids should have to go to schools with these black kids because there would be all kinds of problems and, you know, more racial problems, their kids wouldn’t get a good education, they would be subject to violence. All of those kinds of things,” explained Baugh.
To give you an idea of how unpopular busing was, just the year before a lawsuit to integrate Pontiac schools had argued for busing. Thousands of white parents and their kids took to the streets to protest. Before the school year started, the Ku Klux Klan used dynamite to blow up 10 empty Pontiac school buses.
The NAACP’s lawyer, Nathaniel Jones argued that school districts were basically units of state government since the state had authority over them. So, state policies led to segregation throughout the Detroit region.
The State of Michigan and the mostly white suburban districts fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the arguments archived by Illinois Institute of Technology, Michigan Attorney General at the time, Frank Kelley, argued the state was not responsible and the suburban districts did not cause segregation.
“The trial court ordered a desegregation plan including 53 school districts involving 780,000 students and requiring at least 310,000 of them to be bused daily on the school days so that each school, each grade, and each classroom would reflect the racial make-up of the entire 53 school district area,” Kelley told the justices.
When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the summer of 1974, it ruled Detroit schools with its 35% white student population would have to figure out how to desegregate itself without the help of the ring of white suburbs surrounding it.
Thurgood Marshall dissented.
He saw the ruling in Milliken versus Bradley as a dismantling of the landmark ruling of Brown versus the Board of Education which he had won just 20 years before.
“Our nation, I fear, will be ill-served by this court’s refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will learn to live together and understand each other,” Marshall stated.
Today, the Detroit Public School District is 84% black.
The district has been a financial mess with deteriorating schools for decades. A recent restructuring and bailout is not expected to make Detroit schools on par with surrounding mostly white districts.
Continued poverty is the result
The bottom line is that too many black kids are not getting an adequate education to go on to college or to get a job in the skilled trades.
A construction company owner who lives near the Chandler Park neighborhood on Detroit’s east side says he hires young Detroit workers. He finds too often they can barely read or solve math problems on the job.
Zachary Rowe is with Friends of Parkside, a nonprofit that helps residents of the public housing project. He says he’s sometimes experienced the same problem with kids who went to both Detroit Public Schools and nearby charter schools.
“We have summer youth workers that work with us during the summer and they’re between the ages of 14 and 24 and I’m sort of surprised when it comes to some of the students have trouble doing basic math problems,” Rowe said.
The Chandler Park is part of the most impoverished census tract in Detroit. Recent data posted by Detroitography show since 2000, this area has seen one of the largest increases in racially concentrated poverty.
That’s not the narrative you hear about Detroit. The story is most often about downtown’s resurgence.
Since downtown is booming, you might think these residents would be headed there for work. Keven Boyle is an author and history professor at Northwestern University. He grew up in Detroit. He says there are few opportunities for Detroit residents in downtown.
“Because what the downtown is doing is it’s creating jobs that poor people aren’t going to get. It’s creating high tech jobs in a city in, at least by one estimate that I’ve seen, say 47% of the adults in the city of Detroit are functionally illiterate. Now, that’s not going to translate into high tech jobs downtown,” Boyle said.
Even if a job in downtown was possible, getting there is difficult.
I met Walter Brown at a Chandler Park Neighbors and Partners Association meeting. He says one of his adult daughters is living with him.
“She’s been in and out of jobs, you know, basically because she doesn’t have transportation. She can’t afford the insurance. And, I think that’s what comes down on a lot of young people with being able to find a job if they don’t have the transportation method to get there,” he told me.
Public transportation, the bus, is often not a solution. Many employers won’t hire people who depend on public transportation because it’s not considered reliable.
That means for many people options for work are limited to nearby retail stores. Brown says that’s not enough.
“I mean, these little jobs at the restaurants and little party stores, [for] a single mom, it’s very difficult for her to make a living off of that and raise the kids,” Brown said.
Kevin Boyle at Northwestern University says it’s good that Detroit’s downtown areas are doing better, but until all of Detroit can share in the newfound prosperity, too many are being left behind.
“And, that’s what you’re seeing inside the city of Detroit today. You’re seeing, to a really dramatic extent, an economic revival in the city of Detroit that is not completely white, but is white-dominated. And a dramatic level of poverty and inequality for large numbers of African-Americans who live in the city,” Boyle said.
He added Detroit must find solutions for transportation, work skills training, and the other obstacles to residents in the neighborhood. Until they’re able to get good paying jobs, Boyle said there’s very little to celebrate.
The housing and tax foreclosure crisis
Without access to jobs, many families’ lives are precarious. Eviction and homelessness are often a real threats.
At one time, Detroit’s black families had one of the highest home ownership rates in the nation. Now that rate is among the lowest. Every year in Detroit, thousands of people lose their homes to tax foreclosures. In many cases, it is unnecessary. The city is accused of illegal taxes and denying tax exemptions homeowners deserved. And homeowners are not the only ones affected.
When I got to Darryl and Alisa Beavers house, I was greeted by Jackson, their small dog. They’ve been living in a three-bedroom, two bath, 1,600 square foot home in Detroit’s East side. There are a lot of nice houses in this neighborhood.
The Beavers have been renting with the idea of eventually buying the home from their landlord, a friend. But Alisa says a few months back, they didn’t see or hear from the landlord for a while.
“And so we went over to his house and that’s when he found out the landlord passed away. And then we found out it was like maybe four years’ worth of back taxes owed,” Alisa said, her husband Darryl adding, “So, we got a foreclosure letter.”
This is more than an inconvenience for the Beavers. It’s more than just having to move. They’ve been working and spending their own money on this house.
“We fixed the house up to move into it, to live in it. We painted everything, we fixed everything in the house. The floors, we did everything. And the kitchen as well,” Darryl explained.
The couple also invested in a furnace and a hot water heater. They were invested in making the house comfortable with the expectation they’d one day buy it.
The house was auctioned off for taxes.
The Beavers saved some money and worked with the United Community Housing Coalition to put in a bid for the home.
They didn’t get the house.
It sold for $4,400. It’s worth around $40,000.
When we talked, they were supposed to meet with the new landlord soon to determine what the rent would cost, or make arrangements to purchase the house –presumably at market price, or learn when they have to be out. They’d already received an eviction notice.
The Housing Coalition will help them find new place to live if it can.
Ted Phillips is the executive director of the non-profit advocacy group. The Coalition helps thousands of people facing tax foreclosure in Detroit to stay in their homes.
“[We] make sure that if there are ways to get out of foreclosure, there are various kinds of payment plans and what have you, we work with them to do that. We try to work with them so they’re not throwing money away. And what I mean by that is if somebody owes seven, eight, nine thousand dollars worth of taxes, they have no business paying two or three thousand [dollars] and losing the house anyway. So, we try common sense kind of stuff,” Phillips explained.
Phillips says the city has worked to reassess properties that were over-valued and over-taxed. But the job is not finished. Some people are paying a rate five times what they should.
In many cases, the homeowner should not be paying taxes at all. Their income falls below the federal poverty guideline and they should be getting an exemption.
“Very often the common scenario that we see is that somebody comes in for tax foreclosure, they should have been getting it [poverty exemption] forever, for that matter, you know, they’re 70 years old, their income hasn’t changed in years, but they didn’t know about it and they first time they hear about it is when they’re in foreclosure and about to lose their house,” Phillips said.
Some homeowners are getting hit with both barrels. They’re eligible for the poverty exemption, but not getting it. And they’re charged taxes at an unreal rate.
Walter Hicks says the assessment of his house on Detroit’s west side is ridiculous.
“Because what they had the house worth was, I think, $30,000 to $40,000 and I got the house appraised, it was appraised for $9,000,” Hicks said.
On top of that, Hicks has been eligible for the poverty exemption in the past. His income has not changed, but he was denied the exemption a couple of years ago. The city said he owned another house in the city. The city said that made him ineligible for the exemption. It turns out that it’s someone else’s house. The man has the same first and last name.
The clerk at city hall told him nothing can be done that. It’s too late. Hicks still has to pay the taxes. Hicks has repeatedly explained the situation to the city. His story has been reported in the news media. Still, he’s heard nothing from the city.
“Not a thing. To rectify the problem—I know they done heard me, I know they know the issue. You know all I want them to do is to correct the error that they made,” Hicks said.
Now, Walter Hicks is plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
“The bottom line is people are losing their homes with inability to pay taxes that they should never have had to pay in the first place,” said Michael Steinberg with the ACLU.
The lawsuit originally charged the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office and the City of Detroit with violating the Fair Housing Act. That’s because black people in the county face tax foreclosure at a much higher rate than white people. A judge dismissed the case against the county, but the City is still in court. The ACLU’s The ACLU also says the city is breaking state law for failing to assess property values properly.
“It’s tragic. You know, the fact that the city is starting to come in line with state law helps people going forward, but it really doesn’t help people who –and there’s tens of thousands of them—who have lost their homes over the past five years,” Steinberg said.
In emails responding to our questions, the Detroit Mayor’s office showed progress on re-assessments of property. They noted a dramatic drop in foreclosures this year, about half of what they were last year. Many people were put on payment plans. Many people are getting poverty exemptions.
The City calls the ACLU lawsuit “recklessly irresponsible” and says it would “threaten basic city services to all Detroiters.”
The city’s future is threatened regardless. Here’s why: without stable home ownership in a city, nothing is stable.
“One of the most important ways in which people acquire wealth, have that wealth increase and transfer that wealth from one generation to the other is the house,” said Peter Hammer, a professor of law at Wayne State University.
That increase in wealth happened for the white middle class. New Deal programs during the Great Depression helped white people get ahead and buy homes. It did not help black people.
Many African-Americans who did by a home, bought it in inner-cities. Values in those locations often have plummeted. Instead of increasing wealth, many black families lost it.
“You look at the household and then you look at the city which really an aggregation of all the households. And the same things that are preventing the average household from aggregating wealth and being prosperous is also undermining the ability of the whole entire city of aggregating wealth and being prosperous,” Hammer said.
In an effort to keep the City of Detroit afloat, it’s already taxing at a higher rate than anywhere else in the state. Its residents are among the poorest in the state. If the City is ever to see prosperity, it has to find a tax rate its citizens can afford or it will continue to force thousands of its residents out of their homes each year. If history shows us anything, many of those homes simply will be abandoned, deteriorate, and eventually have to be demolished at city expense.
Responding to systemic racism
America still struggles with race in many of the ways it did after the uprisings and riots of 1967, but those struggles are changing.
Since the Kerner Commission submitted its report in 1968, the white majority has shrunk. As a result of that and the recent white supremacist resurgence in the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign and election, tensions have been rising. You can see it in anti-immigration movements. In the feeling among some white people 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.
When many cities in the U.S. erupted in protest, riots, and uprisings in the 1960s, most white people were bewildered.
Even today, 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?”
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.
“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 redevolopment . 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, black political 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 percent 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.
“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.
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 Matthew. Among the chants hear in the street was “No 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.
“We’re skeptical of government because government isn’t serving us,” said Reverend Charles Williams II. He is the 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.
A 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 policy makers today largely are ignoring the issues in the same way policy makers 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.”
To be effective, that change will have to negotiate opportunities for African-Americans to be included in both political and economic power.
Black Lives Matter
That’s part of the goal of Black Lives Matter. It is the most well-known national movement. It’s also a target, being blamed or at least associated with the shootings of police officers in Denver and Baton Rouge.
John Sloan, III is a member of Detroit’s Core Leadership Team of the Detroit chapter of Black Lives Matter. He says the group started with protests because of the killings of unarmed African-Americans, but it’s not about one issue and it’s not about violence toward police.
“I want to be sure to make it clear that we are not an organization focused on one singular issue,” Sloan said. “We’re not working just against the issue of police brutality, we’re working to make sure that all black lives matter,” he continued.
What follows is a transcript of an interview conducted earlier this year. It has been edited for brevity.
LG: We’ve not seen the kind of events that led to Ferguson or Baltimore. It’s been suggested that since Detroit has a black and popular chief of police, James Craig, and the majority of the police force is made up of African American officers, things won’t explode in Detroit as they have in other cities. Do you think that’s true?
JS: Detroit is the blackest (major) city in the nation. So, yes, I think those factors exist and they could work to mitigate that type of Ferguson and Baltimore type of violence. But, that’s not to diminish the violence that exists on a daily basis. I want to be very clear, we’re not walking around trying to accuse individual police officers. What we’re talking about is the system at large. So, while you might have individuals who work within that system and do the best they can, that might be good, solid, upstanding individuals who are our neighbors, and our brothers, and our sisters, and you go to school with their kids, and you cook out with them on the Fourth of July and other holidays. What we’re talking about is a system that is inherently antithetical to racial equity, that inherently works against black and brown bodies and criminalizes them, and creates violence and perpetrates violence against them on a systemic level. And as long as that system is in place, you’re going to have this inequity inherent to our culture and society. This is not something that just came up. Right? That just started happening three or four or five years ago. The difference now is that everybody has a camera. Everybody’s a citizen journalist.
LG: In fact, there was a study at Harvard that found we’re not seeing any more black people shot by police than we did before. We’re just seeing it on social media.
JS: Absolutely. I do think, though, there’s a risk and a concern about backlash. And what we want to be careful about -because we are a completely non-violent movement- is making sure that we are aware if police officers are feeling a certain pressure, there is the potential –because everybody’s human- for retaliation. Is there evidence that has happened? No. But, I think we, as an organization, as a culture, as a society, have to be careful about how we have the conversation. There’s a lot of talk whenever something happens that we have to have this national conversation and there will be a panel and there will be a police officer and a reverend and everybody will pat themselves on the back and that will be the end of it. How you have the conversation, how you follow through with the conversation is why an organization like ours still exists.
LG: At the national level, there’s been an effort to tie Black Lives Matter to the shooting of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. One of the shooters made some kind of statement about Black Lives Matter. Although, it didn’t appear there was any real affiliation with the group. But, it does bring you to the question: are all your members committed to non-violence?
JS: I can’t speak for every single person in the country that has joined a chapter, but what I will say is that organizationally we are absolutely a non-violent group.
Attitudes about race
In looking at racial issues in America, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative conducted a poll this year. It found attitudes about race have been improving in southeast Michigan, but there are still wide gaps on some issues between white people and black people.
The survey included people from mostly black communities, mixed communities, and mostly white communities in the Detroit metropolitan area. It’s results should not be interpreted as a view of the population at large. This was intentionally designed as a microcosm of black, white, and mixed race communities.
When asked to rank the importance of race relations, black and white people ranked it below issues such as education and crime.
Bernie Porn is with the polling firm Epic MRA. He says the historic divide between white people and black people in the Detroit metro is changing. Older white and black residents tend to be further apart on many issues while younger people are closer.
“If we were to compare how things were –which was the general objective of the survey- from ’67 when the race riots occurred to now, clearly there has been an evolution of opinion and changing demographics,” Porn explained.
He thinks part of the reason is more socialization between the races, especially in suburbs close to the city.
However, black people and white people are far apart on a handful of important issues.
One of the poll respondents, an African American man who only gave his name as LaMar, says being black today still means discrimination.
“When I go to get my interest rates in terms of my borrowing, my mortgages, etcetera, all of those things. Also, I can’t go shop in a mall without being profiled and followed as if I’m a thief,” LaMar said.
He added in Michigan it’s chiefly the black communities which are being taken over by state appointed emergency managers. He also notes people in black cities are subjected to some of the nation’s highest auto insurance rates.
“We’re still very much redlined. So, by choosing to live in Detroit and not choosing to live in the suburbs, I have to pay what I call a ‘black tax,’ where my insurance rates are astronomically high,” he said.
The survey revealed more than half of the people of color say they are treated as a suspect in a retail store or treated as if they are not smart .
But a researcher says those are things that only society can change. You can’t pass a law or make policy requiring white people to treat black people with respect.
Joe T. Darden is a professor at Michigan State University. He says the most important findings in the survey are white attitudes toward the black responses about their treatment in housing, loans, education, and voting.
“Do whites believe that blacks are treated differently and do blacks believe that blacks are treated differently?” Darden asked.
And in many cases, this survey shows there are major differences. Despite research showing African Americans and Latino Americans are discriminated against by real estate agents, bankers, in employment opportunities, in the courts, and by police, many white people don’t believe it.
“Whites say things or think things that are just not consistent with the research. When they believe that blacks, for example, are treated the same when it comes to mortgage lending, if they believe that, it’s just not true. And so in a sense, that has to be corrected,” Darden said.
He says lawmakers and policy makers need to be better informed about these issues and make adjustments to ensure equal treatment of people of color.
“Those are key because if blacks feel that they’re not treated the same as whites, grievances emerge that may be potentially dangerous down the line,” Darden said.
Darden says that’s exactly what happened in Detroit in 1967. While there is greater agreement between whites and blacks, even today there are still some huge gaps in how whites understand the experience of being black.
Can we talk?
As noted, police are not killing any more or any fewer black people than they have in the past. Technology has just made more people of all races aware. Some white people have been alarmed and surprised.
“For people of color, we always knew that happened. Like, I’ve been stopped by the police for no reason. My mom referred to it as “driving while black,” DWB. The media attention to those stories just brought it out to everyone who wasn’t a person of color,” said Lauren Hood.
She conducts diversity training for corporations and works to encourage dialogue about race in Detroit.
Hood says for many white people, race is a very difficult thing to discuss. That’s even true if you think of yourself as enlightened, or progressive, or liberal.
“It’s a place most people aren’t willing to go and particularly people that are liberal and think they’re doing the right thing all the time. So, if you think you’ve already arrived at some point of consciousness and someone tells you you’re not quite there yet, you’re not ready for it. You get defensive,” Hood said.
If improving race relations is a goal, getting defensive instead of talking is a problem.
“Especially right now with so much national news and conversation happening around these topics too, you’d think more people would be plugged in, but personally my experience is that some of my closest friends, who I think are progressive, don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about these issues,” ovserved Claire Nelson.
She runs an organization called Urban Consulate. That organization brings together economic developers and investors with people who want to start new small businesses. Recently it’s been inviting the people who live in the mostly black neighborhoods. The idea is to sit down and talk.
“Often times when you’re talking about development, investment, the people speaking about that are the people who are representing the banks or commercial interests.” LG: I’m guessing that’s a lot of white faces. “Yes. And so, we’re trying to flip that a little bit and have the voices leading conversations be more community based, or who are creative artists, or who’ve been around a little longer, can share some history and context,” she said.
Nelson, who is white, says including more diverse voices, people of color, people who actually live in Detroit, hearing those concerns in the conversations about economic development has been an eye-opener for some people, including her.
She says in the past, she saw segregation as a matter of the white suburbs versus the black city.
Now she says she can see segregation up close, at the neighborhood level because of those talks.
Just as the Kerner Commission reported in 1968, today racism is about white attitudes toward people of color. Sometimes that’s because of bigotry. Sometimes it’s unconscious bias.
Lauren Hood says the only way to begin to fix that is to talk to people who are subject to that bias.
“In order to move forward, we just have to be fearless in having these conversations,” she said.
Fearless conversations. African Americans believe racism is a white problem. Whites are the majority. White people hold most of the political power. Whites hold most of the economic power. For generations white people have benefitted from a system that they designed and puts people of color at a disadvantage.
It’s up to white people to start talking about our nation and ask why our people are ard two societies, one black, one white- Separate and Unequal.”
Production assistance for “Separate and Unequal” came from the Oral History Project at the LBJ Library, Michigan Archives with the Michigan Center for History, and from St. Louis Public Radio.
Assistance in reporting came from Bill McGraw and Mike Wilkinson with Bridge Magazine, Sandra Svoboda with WDET, and Sarah Cwiek with Michigan Radio.
This documentary was edited by Sarah Hulett and Vincent Duffy.
The Detroit Journalism Cooperative is a collaboration by Detroit Public TV, Bridge Magazine, WDET, New Michigan Media, and Michigan Radio.
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism, the Ford Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.