Letter: Finley column points to key social challenge

Re: Nolan Finley’s Dec. 20 column “Black inclusion in Detroit’s comeback still lagging”: The column makes the important point, as Finley did a year ago (“Where are all the black people”), that African-Americans are benefiting far less than whites in the city’s turnaround. His point is evident from the many whites that are filling new jobs, tables at new restaurants, seats at entertainment venues and lines at new retail outlets in the city’s core. However with Detroit’s white residential population still small, but growing, in an overwhelmingly African-American city, every indication is that those who are benefiting most are from Detroit’s predominantly white suburbs.

Mayor Mike Duggan is doing as much as anyone could to spread the benefits throughout the city and to its African-American residents, but there is only so much any mayor can do. Development is in the hands of the private sector, not the government. Businesses will invest where profits can be made. In Detroit that has meant in the core area of downtown and Midtown, and a few select neighborhoods, catering to the middle- and upper-income population of the city and the region.

The city as a whole contains a very small percentage of this higher-income population. The median family income of Detroit residents hovers just above the poverty level. As a result, nearly everything constructed or substantially rehabilitated in most neighborhoods has a market value far less than the cost of construction, leading investors to concentrate on downtown and Midtown and a limited number of gentrifying areas of the city.

Prior to completion of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the entry of entrepreneur Dan Gilbert and Duggan’s election, Detroit was struggling to halt a half century of economic neglect and decline. The city’s misfortunes were weighing heavily on its remaining residents and on the suburbs, as well. The residents needed relief from a failing school system, joblessness of the semi- and unskilled, crime and blight in their neighborhoods. In contrast, the suburbs needed improvement in Detroit’s image to which they were tied, a vibrant urban entertainment core and an expanded skilled job base.

Private sector developments led by Gilbert and institutions, large and small, in the 7.5-square-mile city’s core have delivered impressively on addressing these three needs of the suburbs. Duggan, on the other hand, using all available, but limited, government resources has made material inroads in addressing the multiple needs of residents over the city’s remaining 130 square miles, particularly blight elimination and improved street lighting. However, meeting all critical needs of the city’s enormous expanse of neighborhoods is a Herculean task that will take considerable time to accomplish, chiefly because of the absence of major private-sector investment to rebuild the neighborhood economies.

African-American inclusion is lagging in Detroit’s turnaround and it is largely due to the large income gap that exists in the city, southeast Michigan and the country between the African-American and white populations. Closing the gap represents the biggest social justice challenge our society must address.

John E. Mogk, Wayne State University Law School