Much has been written and said regarding the racial explosion in Detroit during the summer of 1967.
A colorful exhibit retelling how this city was fractured half a century ago has been curated at the Detroit Historical Society for posterity. The national media has come and gone, churning out commentaries before and after the anniversary commemoration.
What we are left with in Detroit, after all the colorful events organized to showcase to the world what 1967 meant to the city, are the same problems that pummeled us long before the anniversary fanfare.
There is undeniable abject poverty affecting many children and families. That hasn’t disappeared. It is still here, more so because there is no clear-cut strategy from our city leaders to address the economic malaise that defines a significant part of the city — outside of downtown and midtown.
And it will probably be here in the next 50 years and showcased in the revolt’s centennial celebration because poverty, even though it is a major problem, is not what drives policy conversations for politicians these days.
The politicians are simply looking for fast or immediate media coverage. Just like race, poverty is often viewed as a hot button issue that has the propensity to pit one class of people against the other.
Yet, it remains the greatest social challenge to the city’s recovery even as most politicians appear to carefully avoid the subject.
But we should not fool ourselves that maintaining an optimistic outlook about the future without first engaging in problem-solving and demanding specifics from the drivers of the recovery will deliver the much-needed goods.
If we are not careful, Detroit’s comeback will be equivalent to building castles in the air — if the majority of residents continue to live in desolate socioeconomic conditions without serious and concrete intervention programs in our neighborhoods.
This is not about advocating for a welfare check or a culture of dependency. It is about providing an opportunity for a fresh start to families whose lives are defined by the jaw-dropping numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau about income inequality.
A recovery will only matter on paper, but not in real life, if children — who are the most vulnerable in our city — continue to live in conditions that speak volumes of inequality and social exclusion.
I saw this unacceptable reality in 2010 when a sleeping 7-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed during a fatal police raid at her home on Lillibridge on the east side. When I visited her neighborhood days after the incident, the debilitating impact of poverty in that community was evident.
The environment wasn’t one that was conducive for any child to grow. In fact, no child should be raised there.
But that is life in real time for poor children in Detroit who for the most part don’t have anyone championing their cause at city hall. At least, not in the way others have powerful advocates paving and prodding their causes, through the mayor or city council. It is as if the poor are always made to pay a price because they don’t have a voice and as a result they remain invisible.
They are the “other Detroit” swimming in a pool of destitution and misery and forcing all of us to morally reconcile the powerful contrast between a Detroit that is coming back and one that is stagnant and reminds us of life in 1967.
The families of these children can only pray that one day their communities too will experience some transformation like the few designated neighborhoods targeted for revitalization.
Yes, they are now confined to praying and hoping that their condition will not only come to the attention of the powers that be, and more importantly, the people of conscience when something tragic happens to them in their ignored and relegated neighborhoods.
A missed opportunity during the remembrance of ’67 last week was not having a broad range of key stakeholders commit to a landmark initiative to address the unacceptable poverty in the city. Such would have been a significant step toward tackling the needless suffering this city has grappled with in the last 50 years, and the need to massively invest in our distressed neighborhoods.
While police brutality was the principal instigator that ticked off the social unrest of 1967, there is no doubt that economic segregation evident then (and now) helped to foment the crisis.
There should be a need to fully develop sound and well thought-out strategies that would help those who are marginalized.
Some of the analyses about 1967 centered on a central question: Can it happen again?
I hope not.
But we can minimize the potential for a similar event if we begin to address the needs of communities that are excluded from the renaissance that is taking place.
While we must acknowledge efforts been made toward addressing the challenges facing the city, we should not be sanitizing the problems either.
Because Detroit mirrors exactly what the U.N. Committee on Racial Discrimination observed about the United States when it stated that “racial, ethnic and national minorities, especially Latino and African American persons are disproportionately concentrated in poor residential areas characterized by sub-standard housing conditions, limited employment opportunities, inadequate access to health care facilities, under-resourced schools, and high exposure to crime and violence.”
And regrettably, we have not yet made serious and smart efforts to reverse it.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.