Stir it up: Why cities need sustenance 

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Apparently we've reached the limits of relentless optimism, Gov. Rick Snyder's remedy for anything that he can't throw an emergency manager at.

At the Politics and Pancakes forum last week, Snyder went through a mantra of all the good things he's done for Michigan. He covered Detroit, referring to the city as "exciting." He said Michigan has created more private sector jobs than any other state over the past few years, and that personal income is going up and unemployment is down.

However, all that optimism depends on which way one is looking. For instance, the Michigan Municipal League (MML) has analyzed census data to highlight how Michigan has diverted $7.5 billion away from local municipal services over the past decade. That puts Michigan in last place for municipal revenue growth in the nation.

"We are the only state in the country that is providing less resources, investing less, in their local governments than they were in 2002. The only one," says Anthony Minghine, the MML's associate executive director, in a video on their website.

"Ohio is the next closest one," Minghine adds. "They're up over 30 percent and the [national] average is over 50 percent.

So let me get this straight: The national average is 50 percent and we don't even get 1 percent. Something is seriously wrong here. Especially because, while revenue sharing was going down, Michigan's revenue went up by 28 percent. They just weren't sharing it with the rest of us.

Over the past 30 years, the state government has been disinvesting in our cities, education, and the most vulnerable. Michigan began taxing the pensions of retirees while cutting taxes for businesses.

If we want Michigan to be the kind of place that is pleasant to live in, investment in our cities has to be a priority.

And I'm not saying that just because that's the way I'd like it to be. There are facts to support this conclusion. The Pew Charitable Trusts' American Cities Project tells us that 80 percent of state's gross domestic product comes from cities. Big cities drive a state's economy, and it is in a state's economic self-interest to invest in them. I'm not sure what Michigan has been investing in.

Here is another dynamic that fits into the complicated puzzle. The Brookings Institution recently released a report titled: "Five evils: Multidimensional poverty and race in America." The five evils discussed are: limited education, poor locale, low income, unemployment, and no health insurance. The point of the report is that, for blacks and Hispanics, if you suffer from one of these evils, the likelihood that you suffer from the other evils is much higher than for whites. That means that if one has limited education, the chance that you live in a poor locale, have a low income, or are unemployed is higher.

By the same token, when one of the evils is eliminated, then there is a better chance that the other evils are less prevalent. It's not a big leap from having a higher income to having health insurance.

However, state government has chosen to put the squeeze on cities. Attitudes in Lansing regarding places like Detroit and Flint have been downright racist. I was often told this confidentially by lobbyists who worked in the capital. Any type of positive legislation for Detroit could go nowhere in the Republican-dominated legislature regardless of who was in the governor's office. It was sort of a "When I say Detroit, you say no" kind of a thing.

The point of this mosh pit of statistics is that, regardless of Snyder's claims, things are not going well in Michigan at all — especially when you consider the disinvestment in the cities that drive our economy.

I'm not saying legislators need to dump truckloads of cash on the city streets. What I am saying is that the history of the past few decades has shown a lack of nurturing and vision. And nothing in the emergency manager law is set up to offer the kind of sustenance cities need to thrive. It's all about cutting cash.

And when you start cutting pensions, which happened in Detroit under emergency manager Kevyn Orr, you worsen one of the five evils and bring more of them into play. The same thing goes for education. As bad as things were in Detroit Public Schools, they're worse under emergency management. That's because the only thing emergency managers do is cut and cut. They don't nurture.

And as my mother used to say, that's cutting off your nose to spite your face.

So Snyder gives us his relentless positivity and tells us how well the state is doing. Maybe his aides should tell him about our last-place status when it comes to municipal investment. But I wouldn't count on it. The way Snyder tells it, none of his aides informed him that they were poisoning the people of Flint. It didn't fit the narrative.

Don't bring the white guy:

During interviews for the release of the movie Miles Ahead, actor Don Cheadle (who plays jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in the film) discussed his decadelong struggle to get the project financed. He said he did not clear the final hurdle for financing until the script included a strong white character. That character came in the form of a Rolling Stone writer who was a composite of a number of characters in Davis' life.

Think about the movie The Help. Would it have been as popular without that cute Emma Stone driving the story?

The bottom line is that studios know they will not make as much money on a movie with an all-black cast, or one where all the main characters are black. It is a sad throwback to the days when jazz musicians were advised to get a white guy in their corner if they wanted to be financially successful.

The same rule of thumb has often applied when women and people of color who have founded businesses seek funding to take their businesses to the next level — you have a better chance of getting that money if you bring a white guy to the meeting.

So it was interesting and heartening when I came across a story last week titled, "Leave your white guy behind." It was written by Charlie O'Donnell, a white guy with the firm Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.

In the article, O'Donnell bemoans his experience in meetings with women and people of color who brought white guys who apparently knew little about the business and were obviously window dressing. O'Donnell addressed the issue because he heard about an entrepreneurial event where a black woman was told she should hire a white guy to be the face of her organization.

O'Donnell wrote of his experience with that kind of meeting: "Their presence only served to successfully do one thing — undercut the founder's presence. It made the founders seem less formidable, less confident. The person I wanted to speak with was the person who was passionate about the idea, not some hired part-time gun. ... The best person to speak for a business, regardless of their gender or ethnicity, is the founder — the person who is most passionate and most knowledgeable about the business."

This underscores on yet another level that racism is and sexism is pervasive in our business world. Diverse people are encouraged to be entrepreneurs, but too many people don't believe they have the wherewithal to be successful unless there's a white guy involved.

Miles Davis was an American icon, one of the greatest musicians and composers of the 20th century. But a movie about him couldn't be sold without a strong white character. I can imagine what spicy language Miles would have used to describe that. But it is probably unprintable.

More by Larry Gabriel

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