Mayor Mike Duggan awakened the largely white and well-to-do audience at the recent Mackinac Policy Conference to the ills of Detroit by deconstructing the racial biases in economics that have long prevented the city’s majority black population from advancing.
That same message had been presented in various ways in previous years by mayors Dennis Archer, Kwame Kilpatrick, Ken Cockrell Jr. and Dave Bing but never to such acclaim.
Duggan used his May 31 speech to tell the story of redlining practices that impacted housing. By all reports, the speech was well received. Review upon review concluded that it was time someone told the truth about one of America’s misunderstood and mischaracterized cities. And there is no better person to offer the truths about how things fell apart than the mayor of the city.
But is the overwhelmingly positive reception to Duggan’s speech a case of white privilege? Would the speech have had such an impact before a mostly white audience of deep pockets if the mayor had not been white? Would the four former mayors in the last two decades — all black men — have received the same ovation if they had given a similar presentation 250 miles away from Detroit?
That contradiction lends itself to the burden of race. Unfortunately, who stands before an audience matters and what they look like matters too. Our hope — always — is that such would not be the case, that we can transcend the chasms of race. But our racial history and the continued pervasive inequities in the system reinforces — consciously or unconsciously — the perspective that color matters.
More so, this situation further underscores W.E.B. DuBois’ prognosis that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.
After Duggan’s speech, I reluctantly refused to give my opinion to conference attendees asking what I thought about what some were already calling a seminal presentation. I wanted some time to think through his postulations to ascertain whether this was election year posturing or an epiphany on race and inequality in Detroit.
In his remarks, the mayor sounded like he had reached the zenith where he can no longer appear to ignore the true political history and the moments that have defined the African-American journey in Detroit because as the essayist William Faulkner once famously said: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”
That is why the speech, which read like a treatise on white guilt, could be regarded as one of the most important speeches Duggan has delivered in his political career. Given that no other mayor in recent memory has done so eloquently and forcefully, explaining the painful struggles of race and economics, his Mackinac moment will be referenced for years to come.
That Duggan was willing to bring conversations that matter for problem-solving before unlikely audiences that make people feel really uncomfortable and sometimes squirm in their seats, he should be commended.
His remarks, coming at a time when the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots is underway, will not instantly change some of the conditions that led to that uprising. It will not end conversations about disparities between blacks and whites. It will not immediately change the landscape of opportunity for those who have access to resources and others who feel left behind.
His presentation renders an educated understanding and history of the complex racial problems that have plagued the city. From there, constructive solutions or recommendations can be made to begin to address the problems.
If we are honest with ourselves and accept the facts that Duggan laid bare, the city’s power brokers now have an opportunity to devote resources to help erase the disparities that are persistent in the comeback of the city.
But when talking to folks off Mackinac Island, the reception was mixed.
“For him to get up there and begin to talk about institutional racism, it was very moving for me. I was very impressed. He is a white man who can convey a message to people who otherwise would not care to listen,” said Tammy Ollison, 31, who lives in northwest Detroit. “We need more people like him to tell the truth because that took a lot of guts.”
Rufus Bartell, owner of Simply Casual clothing store on Detroit’s Historic Avenue of Fashion on Livernois, had a similar reaction.
“I thought the speech was very strong. I’ve never seen any recent sitting mayor chronologically describe what happened to Detroit,” Bartell said. “I certainly would have liked for the speech to be given in Detroit.”
Nzingha Masani-Manuel, 60, and a longtime resident of Detroit who now lives in Midtown, dismissed the speech.
“I did not identify with the speech at all. He was just another politician talking. I don’t believe anything he says until I see it,” Masani-Manuel said. “What we need right now is jobs and job training for young people. That would decrease the crime.”
Bartell asked: “The question now is what is the game plan? Who is called to the table? I think the citizens have more say in the direction of the city than they believe.”
Duggan’s speech on race was ground-breaking. Until we start seeing some shift of the pendulum as a result of it we will continue to ask, what now?
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.