Monday, December 29, 2014

Could racism be in the age of the beholder?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 29, 2014 at 9:00 AM

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the last decade when it’s been this hard to simply live in Detroit without feeling self-conscious about it.

Two weeks ago, Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley questioned “where are the black people” in his column. I was invited to comment on it for a radio segment, and then I later expanded upon those thoughts here in MT. Loads of tweets, Facebook comments and a Reddit thread later, Finley has posted a follow-up that’s a bit more nuanced than the original piece, and – gasp! — actually features a photo of black people.

The same day Finley’s column ran, he appeared on WDIV’s Sunday talker “Flashpoint” with political strategist Adolph Mongo, former city councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, and city of Detroit attorney Portia Roberson – who was caught in a nasty racial profiling incident in Grosse Pointe this summer. Finley’s column came up, and the panel discussed it while being moderated by Devin Scillian.

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Something’s missing from both the column and the panel, and I figured it out after Mongo said “young white folks” for the umpteenth time. It’s age diversity.

We know that white Brooklyn reporters who parachute into the city only see what they want when they report back on the city’s progress, and they’ve been rightfully chastised each time. But on the homefront, could it be that the perceived lack of racial ethnic diversity in downtown Detroit (and Corktown and Midtown) is because it’s only being seen through people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s?

Walk with me a bit here, and keep in mind that this is not to say that anyone over a certain age should be ignored.

I posted my thoughts on Finley’s column to Facebook, and out of all the responses I got, the one I’d trust the most came from Molly Abraham, the News’ food critic. “I spend a lot of time in downtown Detroit restaurants, and the diners are a melting pot!” Abraham wrote on a friend’s page who had shared my blog. It seemed to reiterate what I had just written, that if you spend enough time out regularly in a wide variety of places, you’ll find the black people you’re looking for. And they’re everywhere!

But I still can’t help but think that some of the biggest fears of certain areas becoming too white are rooted in fears of the past, and driven by old racial divisions. As an experiment, I’ve been keeping count of black people I see out and about in downtown Detroit. I really don’t want to do this; I myself don’t like being measured, being tracked, being part of a headcount or quota, I’d just like to have a drink. I’d tweet my findings and see if others would do the same. (“Three languages at Selden StandardHalf-black crowd at the DIA! Twenty blacks at Punch Bowl Social!” Things like this can get ridiculous quickly.)

I was out at Wright & Co. downtown on Christmas Eve, where I counted two black patrons out of four when they first opened. I also counted a black bartender, a Latino bartender, and at least two black cooks. A black woman walked in alone, and was charmed by the black bartender, who made her a special cocktail. Yes, this was definitely weird, to basically monitor black people trying to either do their jobs or relax in a new establishment. But this is where we seem to be in Detroit now, this odd discomfort of simultaneously belonging here and proving that you belong here.

The day before, I went to Motor City Wine in Corktown, because I hadn’t been there in a while and it was a quiet place where I could get some writing done. A black man came in to buy some bottles of wine. Two black women came to sit at the bar. And the bartender commented to a group of very obviously suburban visitors, “the Quicken Loans employees aren’t our clientele.” That comment is a discussion for a different day.

(I count white people in black neighborhoods, too. There was a white woman and her son at Food Farm, my local supermarket on Dexter Boulevard, and a white woman at Captain Jay’s chicken on Meyers and the Lodge. And then the other night, I was the only black person at Taqueria Camino Real on Lafayette and Central. Try counting people who are or aren’t like you in any establishment, and see how awkward this feels.)

Monica Blaire, the widely renowned soul singer, sang at HopCat – the same HopCat that was featured in the now-removed photograph of Finley’s original column — on Friday night. I’ve never met her, but I am 99.9% sure based on her press photos and music videos that she is a black woman. Black friends of mine (oof, the sound of that…) tweeted about being at that concert.

But Monica Blaire isn’t Anita Baker. Or Aretha Franklin. Or the late Alberta Adams, or Regina Carter or Ortheia Barnes. I’d imagine her fanbase trends much younger than any of those other gifted musicians. I can’t imagine Mongo or Finley being in attendance that night.

On “Flashpoint,” Mongo talked about his brother’s place, D’Mongos, being full of young white folks and that’s Larry’s client base. OK. But if all you do is spend your time in your brother’s place and never visit, say, anywhere else? Could it be that your view might be a bit jaded?

But once again, this is too much talk about restaurants. (And “Flashpoint” dedicated a good chunk of time to it as well.) One cannot boil down black participation in Detroit based on who ate what at Craft Work. In the grand scheme of things, this is black Detroit’s least of all worries – especially when we’ve got the evidence that there are black folks eating at the Craft Works of Detroit.

Again, mainstream outlets ignore the musical talents (like Blaire, but also Sheefy McFly, Tunde Olanrian and so many others), the art scene (where’s Joy Hakanson Colby when you need her?), the political movements, even the religious scene (I was rightfully corrected that even black people can be found at the Downtown Synagogue), and the contributions of black residents outside of downtown. Mongo spoke of “two young white people buying old buses and getting on the front page of the Free Press” – I do believe he was referring to Andy Didorosi’s Detroit Bus Company – but I truly wish he would have countered that argument by shouting out the black-run Safeway Transportation instead of continuing to rant about the things he’s not seeing. (I did bring up this exact same comparison once, for the record.)

To Finley’s credit, he did mention the city’s broken public education system (he wouldn’t be the first, but he will certainly be given the credit), and mentioned how diverse hiring seems to be nonexistent. That makes me wonder if some of our esteemed business leaders are actively hiring minority talent, or are they privately going along with a good ol’ boy system while publicly wringing their hands.

(Finley also mentions a Chicagoan who’s a former News staffer. If he’s talking about Tony Briscoe, who jumped from the News to the Chicago Tribune this year, the question Finley should actually be asking is “when was the last time the News hired some black talent?”)

But if there’s something to be said about this whole conversation, it’s that younger people need to be invited to it. Finley talks about his readers; how old is the average News reader? I still maintain that the answer he’s looking for is out there, staring him right in the face.

We should also be careful to avoid needlessly dividing downtown from the rest of Detroit, when we all know that the recovery for the city as a whole is going to be a long, drawn-out process. I’m fearful that these types of concerns may drive longtime Detroiters who have stuck it out to feel less than a Detroiter because they don’t live downtown. Is it absolutely necessary to live downtown to be part of the revival? Who do you think are maintaining the communities outside the 7.2? It seems like those Detroiters are the last prideful people that are left, and they’re constantly attacked from all sides.

It shouldn’t be this hard to live here. 


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