Near the top of the list of the challenges Detroit faces as it starts its post-bankruptcy era is avoiding becoming two cities — one for the upwardly mobile young and white denizens of an increasingly happening downtown, and the other for the struggling and frustrated black residents trapped in neighborhoods that are crumbling around them.
Nobody wants to inject race into the marvelous story of downtown's rebound, driven largely by young creatives who grew up in the suburbs and are now fiercely Detroiters. I don't either. It's a downer, and the last thing I want to be involved in is another conversation about race. Druther have a stick for my eye.
But with racial tension simmering across the country, Detroit must heed obvious warning signs.
It's a clear red flag when you can sit in a hot new downtown restaurant and nine out of 10 tables are filled with white diners, a proportion almost exactly opposite of the city's racial make-up.
It's a warning signal when you go to holiday events for major Detroit cultural institutions and charities, and you can count the number of African-American revelers on both hands.
It should stop us in our tracks — as it did me the other day — when a group of 50 young professionals being groomed for future leadership shows up to hear advice from a senior executive, and there's only one black member among them.
Pay attention to the stories about the cool kids who are leading the Detroit revival by starting businesses, social groups and nonprofits. Overwhelmingly, the subjects are white.
I'm not disparaging the newcomers. Detroit was an opportunity sitting there for the taking, and they seized it. And what they're doing is miraculous. We can talk all day about why more African-Americans didn't do the same thing. It doesn't matter. We have to understand that we're buying trouble if we don't encourage more black participation.
This isn't about handouts or set-asides or affirmative action. Nor is it about gentrification, an absolutely ridiculous concern in a city that needs so much rebuilding. I don't even believe it's about racism.
Rather, it's about downtown employers making sure they're truly cognizant of the diversity of their workforces, and stretching a bit more to recruit and train native Detroiters, who will then help fill the lofts and nightspots.
It's about encouraging black entrepreneurs to come to or stay in the city, and recognizing there are cultural and opportunity gaps that have to be closed to create a vibrant base of small business started by people drawn from the city's neighborhoods.
And it's about the African-Americans who've already made it showing up in Detroit, putting their money and time into the city's civic, cultural and charitable organizations. Drawing affluent blacks back from the suburbs is also a key step.
Detroit is now the city of opportunity. Fairness demands that those who were here when no one else wanted to be share in the fruits of the comeback.
It's like playing with dynamite to have black Detroiters looking out of devastated neighborhoods at a downtown bustling with hope and hopeful young people, and not seeing their own children among that hip crowd.
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