Stir it up: The bottom line

Mulenga Harangua looked stern as he stood in front of his ramshackle squatter house on a lost and overgrown Detroit block. He'd sent me an email from a computer at the public library to come see him. He'd hinted that something big was afoot.

When I got there a few days later it was like he knew exactly when I was coming. He waved a handful of papers at me. "I've got proof of the racist plot to hold people of color down," he said. "How the white power structure is willing to give up billions of dollars every year just to hold us down right here in Michigan."

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Did you get the secret charter of the Ku Klux Klan or something?"

"No, this is even deeper," Mulenga said. He held the papers out for me to see.

"The Business Case for Racial Equity in Michigan" was written across the front page. It was a report from the Altarum Institute that was funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

"That doesn't look like some kind of racist plot to me," I said.

Mulenga shook the papers like he was trying to shake some sense into me. "You've got to read between the lines," he said. "You've got to know how to analyze and interpret the information."

"Well, in my case I would have to read it in the first place before I look between the lines," I pointed out.

"Well, look at this," Mulenga said, pointing at something he'd underlined. Actually, damn near everything on the page was underlined with a thick, heavy pencil lines. Mulenga read the passage to me: "If the average adult of color achieved the average income of his or her white counterparts at each age, total Michigan earnings would increase by 7.5%, or $16.2 billion in 2012."

"Wow, that's a lot of money!" I said.

"And that's just one year," Mulenga said, his voice beginning to pitch upward as he became more excited. "If Detroiters had been pulling down that kind of money, there would never have been a bankruptcy."

"That's nice to say, but that one point about income equity doesn't show the causes and solutions," I said.

"This whole report shows that," Mulenga said, rifling through the pages. "This whole thing shows how educational inequities, health care inequities, law enforcement inequities, all that stuff holds us down. It's a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, as my mother used to say. They are so busy trying to hurt us, they end up hurting themselves."

He pointed to another heavily underscored section. "Read this," he said as he proceeded to read it to me: "Legacy effects of racist laws and practices have segregated communities of color into lower quality residential neighborhoods, affecting health, wealth accumulation, and quality of education and employment opportunities."

"Hmm," I said, taking the pages and smoothing them out so I could get a better look. "Hey, here's something interesting. It says that the state population growth is coming exclusively from communities of color and that by 2040 that population will rise from 24 percent to 31 percent. That's an awful lot of people to be a permanent underclass."

Mulenga was so excited he was walking circles around me. His arms were beginning to twitch and shake. "Amen!" he shouted. "Can I get a witness?"

"Mulenga, do you think we're at church?" I asked.

"It feels like that when I start seeing truth like this coming out," he said. "It looks like it pays to be a more nurturing and tolerant place." He pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and blew a couple of bars of melody from "Amazing Grace." The part about "saved a wretch like me."

"Well, it looks like it would have behooved us to be doing that already, but it looks like folks around here would rather spend money on jails than on education," I pointed out. "It says here that Michigan spends a higher percentage of its budget on corrections than any other state in the nation. Our costs are more than 30 percent higher than the national average."

Mulenga started playing something that sounded more like a chain gang work song. "I thought presenting some sensible facts behind me would make a difference," he said.

"It will make a difference, but it's the kind of thing that should be considered in all kinds of ways at all levels, from neighborhood issues to education and politics, for the long haul. If money and finances are so important to how we do things, then showing how equitable policies lead to economic advantages is another piece of the argument. But you know, when it comes to racial equity there's little that responds to logic. Look at all these clowns running for president. They just make things up and it doesn't matter when those things are shown to be lies. It's going to take a long time to dig out of this hole."

Mulenga turned to go back into the house. His shoulders sagged a little. "I thought it might be time for me to come out of the shadows. Now I'm thinking that I just want my 40 acres and a mule." He waved his arm at the empty lots on the block. "I'll take mine right here."

"Then they'll say that you just want free stuff," I said.

"Maybe if I tell them it'll be cheaper than throwing me in jail it will make sense," Mulenga said. He looked up at the sky and blew a piercing note on the harmonica that sounded like lightning ripping across the sky.

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.