Reckoning with race

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My last column, “Detroit’s year of reckoning,” was intended to stir passions and even to make people mad, and I succeeded. I expected that two sentences in particular would provoke a lot of reaction. For once, I wasn’t wrong.

“Detroit is not really a flesh-and-blood city so much as it is a rotting black ghetto with office buildings, sports arenas and casinos,” I wrote. Later, noting that regional metropolitan government is unlikely, I added: “and so what Detroit needs instead is a whole lot of white people with kids and dogs, and a strategy to get them there.”

That got some attention, all right. Rhonda Anderson was one of a number of angry readers. In an acidly humorous letter, she noted, “My 19-year-old daughter loves this rotting black ghetto.” She thinks African-Americans were in some ways better off in the era of segregation, and when whites offered their racism straight.

Not to worry; there are still some who don’t need code words. “No white person in the suburbs would stand for this in their community. Detroiters seem to take it bending over,” wrote a reader who identified himself only as Bob. “What really needs to happen is for black leaders and workers (to) stop raping their own citizens and run the city with the responsibility of a suburban city.”

Those were exactly the reactions I had hoped for.

The fact is that how we feel about race is the tyrannosaurus in all of our front rooms. Every one of us has been shaped by racism. Too often today, we deal with this by making nice, by pretending, at least in public, that we’ve gotten past all that.

Everyone knows better. Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X were perhaps the only major political figures who tried to confront our racism head-on, telling their own kind things they didn’t want to hear.

RFK allowed angry blacks to scream at him, and listened. And he also was capable of telling whites that this mess was largely their fault, and they would have to fix it. When a smug white medical student asked him from where the money would come, he shot back, “From you.”

Malcolm X, we all know, lit in to the white devils. But he also gave it to blacks, and many young African-Americans who like to wear “X” caps know nothing of his blistering critiques of black society. In words that sounded like something our old Bob might say, he once wrote bitterly that if white America were to hand all their assets over to blacks, “they’d have it all back in six months.”

Malcolm and Bobby tried to be truth-tellers. But both were murdered four decades ago. Today both races are mostly making do with leaders who have no more vision than Jet Ski salesmen and even less willingness to confront hard facts.

Now let’s turn to what I said. Take the “rotting black ghetto” comment first. Rhonda and other readers fixated on that, without noting what followed, where I said that the real problem is “there are insufficient stable middle-class Detroiters of any color.”

Yes, “rotting black ghetto” sounds very harsh. But what is a ghetto, anyway? According to my old pal Webster, it is “a quarter of a city where members of a minority group live because of social, legal or economic pressure.”

Hello! Is that not Detroit? The core housing stock is rotting from years of neglect and not enough money. Yes, there are nice places. Eddie Hejka writes to tell me his neighborhood is wonderful. I know that; a close friend used to live on his street.

But there are more dreadful streets than nice ones. Even in nice areas, the cost of city services is far higher than in the burbs, which helps keep people from moving into Detroit. For many, not moving into Detroit is not a racial decision, but a rational economic one.

Look further into the census numbers and you’ll see today’s problem is black flight. Middle-class blacks, especially with kids, are fleeing the city for points north. If you don’t stop that, you don’t have a city at all. You have, simply, a rotting ghetto.

What about my statement that Detroit needs “a whole lot of white people moving in?” That is only common sense. The last census found 99,000 white people in the city out of 951,000. Fifty years before, there were 1.6 million of them.

What is so magic about white people? Let’s get right down to it: Am I saying they are somehow holier, smarter, sexier, richer and inherently better than blacks?

Aw, shit. Look. By any rational measure, African-Americans are the best Americans there are. Last weekend I went to a wedding reception for one of my favorite students who married a U.S. Marine staff sergeant who may be sent to war.

Lots of his buddies were there too, African-Americans nearly all. And I was faintly amazed, as I always am, at how many young black men would give their lives for a country that has so often given them the back of its hand.

But the fact is that the vast majority of us Americans are white. If you want a city that truly represents the diversity of this area, a place many people can identify with and care about, it doesn’t need to be all white, but it does needs to look more like America.

There is, too, this germ of truth in Bob’s rant. Whites tend not to put up with bad city services and bad schools. Mostly, they flee. They need to stay and demand better. Rhonda, we tried separate. But it is never equal. We don’t have to love each other, but we do have to, somehow, work this out. So if we have to clear the air and call each other a few names, that’s fine. Maybe healthy. But then, let’s do something different.

Let’s try.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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