Overcoming inequity

Mar 3, 2004 at 12:00 am

The Detroit City Council says African-Americans are the city’s “majority underserved population.” In other words, black Detroiters don’t have an economic stake in this city that reflects the fact that they make up 81.6 percent of the population, according to the 2000 Census.

To help remedy the imbalance, the council has hired Dr. Claud Anderson, president of the Bethesda, Md.-based PowerNomics Corp., and one of the nation’s most prominent African-American economists and authors.

Anderson will spend the next year tailoring PowerNomics — a social, political and economic package of principles and strategies aimed at boosting economic development in predominantly African-American areas — to fit Detroit. His contract is worth $120,000.

The PowerNomics plan is more of a concept than a solid product. Anderson says its principles, once applied to business or through government, creates economically self-sufficient African-American communities.

“This is not an exclusive plan for African-Americans,” Anderson says, “but it emphasizes development for African-American businesses.”

Though the council approved the contract, some worry that Anderson’s contract could turn out to be another example of city officials looking for outside expertise to help revitalize the city when local know-how has the advantage.

“We keep seeing people going out [of town] to get expertise that is here,” says Kurt Metzger, research director at Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies. “I think economic development for any people is good. My concern is that the [outside] experts tend to have tried-and-true methods, but not the local knowledge. They don’t have that local focus. They just try to fit you in a local theme.”

Metzger suggests that Anderson’s plan will have to coexist with projects implemented through the mayor’s office, such as the Office of Neighborhood & Commercial Revitalization.

Because Anderson is a council appointee, there was no approval or concurrence required from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, according to Llenda Jackson-Leslie, spokesperson for Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who came up with the idea of hiring Anderson.

“Even if it’s the best plan in the world,” Metzger says, “I’m afraid in the end no one benefits because there’s no buy-in” from both branches of city government.

The mayor’s office was unavailable for comment.

Anderson’s demeanor was frank when he spoke to council and explained how he planned to balance the "racial inequities" that plague the city.

His promise is to design the Detroit model in three phases, and deliver a “cookbook-style” list of recommendations at the end of the contract.

The first phase will last until April, and will involve the writing of an overall policy framework.

The second phase will last from April to October, and will entail the development of key elements to the Detroit PowerNomics model.

Phase three will last from October to December, and will define the role of the city’s legislative branch in the plan.

The City Planning Commission will be responsible for coordinating the project on council’s behalf. Marcus Loper, deputy director of City Planning Commission, is the lead staff person assigned to the endeavor.

Anderson says that if the city decides to put financial backing behind the plan once it’s done, it should contribute to the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts by economically empowering its largest cultural group. He says it will also help transfer blighted, underutilized land into productive use.

Anderson is considered by many to be one of the country’s most progressive thinkers on economic development strategies for African-Americans. An outspoken critic of what he calls America’s racial “inequities,” he’s authored three books, including the best-selling Black Labor, White Wealth; Dirty Little Secrets About Black History, Its Heroes and other Troublemakers; and PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America.

All three books made the best-seller lists for Essence magazine, Black Entertainment Television and Blackboard.

Anderson served as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Jimmy Carter, where he led the Coastal Plains Regional Commission and directed economic development activities for governors in Southeastern states.

While in that position, he awarded a record 37 percent of available federal contracts to African-American businesses.

City Council members say his experience, fiscal expertise and concern for African-American communities is strong enough to make a significant contribution to Detroit’s resurgence.

“We have a blessing to have a homegrown hero here to implement this vision,” says Watson of Anderson, who was born in South Carolina but raised in Detroit.

He admits, however, that Detroit is the first municipality to hire him to design a PowerNomics model for an entire city. That, he says, will be a challenge.

He also says it must be done. African-Americans, according to Anderson, comprise the only cultural group that’s been forced to go about the business of economic development backwards. And it hasn’t worked.

A task force made up of black business owners met with Watson and Anderson after the council meeting to exchange business philosophies and ideas. Their concerns ranged from the amount of economic assistance given to blacks through organizations like the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. to the lack of African-American business centers in the city.

Anderson says African-Americans need to relearn how to approach business development in Detroit.

“Blacks approach economic development by looking at education first, then politics, and then economics,” he says. “Every other group of people in this country does it the opposite way around. First, you build wealth. Then, you build politically. Then you deal with education.”

He says that is also the reason black people “don’t have one community in America, just neighborhoods. Communities provide goods and services, codes of conduct and an elected government.”

Anderson theorizes that when these three factors exist simultaneously in a cultural group, the community is then defined, and economic empowerment comes part and parcel with the established society.

Black Detroit, he says, with an elected government, state-controlled educational system, and predominantly non-black business base, doesn’t qualify.

He has implemented miniature versions of the plan in cities such as Chicago, East Cleveland and Buffalo. People who followed Anderson’s plan in those areas established African-American economic centers similar to Detroit’s Greektown, but with less financial leverage, such as Chicago’s Bluestown.

He says a lot of people are watching Detroit.

"Black people all over America are going to watch to see if PowerNomics works," Anderson says.

Detroit’s heavy black population, he says, means the city has the best chance to make PowerNomics work.

"[Slavery] was never corrected," he says. "America was designed to maldistribute wealth, power, resources, privileges, income and all levels of government to a dominant white society."

Anderson is not concerned about Detroit being his biggest test. If the city gets behind the finished product, he says, his plan will move from rhetoric to reality within five years.

Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected].