Alex B. Hill noticed the same thing a lot of others have about Detroit's resurgence: Too few of the front-line players in the city's recovery are African-Americans.
"Detroit's revitalization is made up of a majority of white people," Hill writes in "Detroit: Black Problems, White Solutions," a blog post that incorporates his research into the racial make-up of the city's leading revival organizations.
Last year, Hill began attempting to quantify the racial disparity in the groups that are leading the development discussions in Detroit and grooming the city's future leaders.
What he found, "unfortunately, confirmed what I had been seeing," writes Hill, a community researcher with Wayne State University. Participation by blacks in these groups was far lower than the city's 83 percent African-American population.
Some examples he cites:
- At Challenge Detroit, which recruits fellows to provide brainpower to support existing projects in the city, just 23 percent of the 91 fellows were African-American, while 69 percent were white.
- Detroit Revitalization Fellow, which has a similar mission, does slightly better, with 34 percent of its 50 fellows African-American and 64 percent white.
- Only 19 percent of the executives at Detroit-focused foundations are black.
- At the celebrated TedXDetroit conference, 76 percent of the speakers offering ideas on bringing back one of America's blackest cities were white. Just 17 percent were black.
- Of the 195 employees of start-ups backed by Detroit Venture Partners, 87 percent are white.
- The D:hive Build small business incubator was the only major program with less than 50 percent white participation.
"Across all fellowship programs, business incubators, universities, foundations and other innovation programs," Hill writes, his research found that 69 percent of participants were white and 26 percent black.
"Detroit's revitalization is completely one-sided," Hill concludes. "The surge in investment in this majority black city is not going to black residents."
Is it any wonder, then, that the hot bars and restaurants and the trendy lofts downtown have an overwhelmingly white clientele, or that mostly white faces are featured by the media in reports about Detroit's rebound?
Hill, who would not be interviewed for this column but agreed to have his work featured, writes that his research doesn't mean "Detroit's black population isn't contributing anything to revitalization.
Rather, it suggests that there is a deliberate racially unequal distribution of support and funding. Looking at this new data, it is clear that there is a serious imbalance of both opportunity and outcomes in Detroit."
Graig Donnelly, who heads Detroit Revitalization Fellows, won't comment specifically on Hill's findings, but acknowledges diversity "is an issue."
In putting together the first two groups of fellows, Donnelly says, the organization didn't ask applicants to identify themselves by race. "But we're making a concerted effort at outreach in our next cohort," he says, and this time around there's a more diverse applicant pool to select from.
Donnelly says they've learned that creating a representative group in Detroit requires more deliberate action. So they've been holding information sessions in neighborhoods and working with community leaders to identify prospects.
"A lot of the great new programs here look very white," he says. "So it might be easy for someone who is not white to assume they are not for them. So we are being conscious of telling them they're welcome."
That's essential in a city where trust between the races has always been tenuous.
An enthusiastic white newcomer to the city might have been able to look past the fact that only 20 percent of presenters at a conference focused on rebuilding a predominately African-American city were black. A young African-American, already skeptical about how he or she fits into the new Detroit, might walk away with their fears confirmed fears.
In a city where racial suspicions run strong, inclusion can't be left to chance.
"We're doing strategic outreach," says Deirdre Greene Groves, executive director of Challenge Detroit, who has held coffee meetings throughout Detroit to recruit talent, with mixed results.
"We don't always see the passion and participation we expect," Groves says. But those home-grown Detroiters who do sign up are among the most passionate advocates for the city, she adds.
It's about more than optics. The people coming out of these revitalization programs are the likely future business and civic leaders of Detroit. They're getting ground floor exposure and experience.
If African-Americans aren't more fairly represented we are inviting a future in which racial relations continue to be strained, conspiracy theories multiply and mistrust threatens Detroit's potential.
Hill didn't launch his project out of hostility to the organizations engaged in Detroit. But his data raises a very important red flag about creating the perception that the white calvary is moving in to fix Detroit.
"In Detroit, problems are seen as being caused by black people, but the solutions are being powered by white people, neither of which are true," Hill writes.
The bottom line is that making Detroit's revitalization more inclusive gives it a far greater chance of success.
From "Detroit: Black Problems, White Solutions"
There is a very real concern over the shifting interests and populations within Detroit where the benefits of gentrification do not trickle down, but rather force more hardship on those who cannot pay to play. Increased property values don't solve poverty or crime, they just make poverty and crime more concentrated.
Last year, I began attempting to track and quantify the issue within Detroit's revitalization as it relates to racial inequity. After working for three years with families across Detroit, I couldn't help notice the absence of longtime Detroiters in development discussions, funding proposals, and the new "benefits" of a growing Detroit. …
In many ways Detroit has become the national test case for various issues: municipal pension issues, economic decline and resurgence, as well as monetizing or privatizing city services. There is potential for Detroit to become the test case for racial equity in urban centers. Detroit is at the very beginning of its efforts to revitalize and reinvest. During this period it is critical to ensure there is a structure that promotes equity in training, hiring, bidding and selecting individuals who are the city's present and will be its future. This is the critical moment where Detroit should try to lift all residents and not just those who can drop multi-millions for an expressway ramp, or swoon decision-makers with a new stadium plan.
Detroit can build itself to be the city that prioritizes its people first by going beyond "community engagement." If the city pushes for a strong, community-based redevelopment model from the bottom up it could allow for a more racially equitable path forward. The city and its various supporters need to both ask Detroiters what they want to see in their communities and give them the tools, training and support to make it happen. There is no reason that community development can't also lead to citywide revitalization.
— Alex B. Hill