Bankole: What Harvard forum missed about Detroit

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

It was billed as a forum to discuss the rebuilding of Detroit featuring Mayor Mike Duggan, JPMorgan Chase chairman Jamie Dimon and Peter Scher, the bank’s global head of corporate social responsibility.

But the April 11, hour-long conversation at Harvard University Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, which was live-streamed, appeared more like a carefully orchestrated public relations and “job well done” session for JPMorgan Chase, or at best the case of a bank issuing its own report card about its involvement in the city’s recovery.

While Duggan, who was the main attraction of the event, touched on some of the efforts his administration has made to create opportunities for Detroiters in concert with JPMorgan Chase, poverty, the greatest challenge to the city’s revival, was not given the deserving spotlight.

They referenced the mayor’s race speech last year without in-depth analysis about it. Listening to the entire exchange about Detroit, one would think the speakers were talking about a completely different city, not the one that is today the headquarters of poverty in America, as the 2016 Census shows Detroit leads the nation among the largest cities with poverty at 35.7 percent.

If you are unfamiliar with the crime index of Detroit, you would be hard-pressed to believe that the three-person panel led by Duggan was talking about a city that is now No. 1 in violent crime in the nation.

The forum left me baffled.

How can a discussion about rebuilding a city like Detroit not first acknowledge the problem of poverty, which is central to achieving even-handed recovery?

It is said that a problem that has been well diagnosed is half-solved. But if we keep shying away from the proper diagnosis, how can the problem be solved?

The problem will only continue to linger.

Sometimes, we tend to use cosmetic approaches toward addressing economic inequality, which only looks at the appearances and symptoms, not the rudiments of the issue.

I appreciate the role that JPMorgan Chase and other entities are playing by investing in certain targeted neighborhoods. Detroit needs as many partners as possible in turning the tide.

But the fact remains that while some neighborhoods are poised to revive and soar, the vast majority of them are nowhere close to experiencing economic salvation.

As a result, Detroit has remained a city of different and especially unequal neighborhoods where the future of the city’s kids is determined by ZIP codes.

“Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings,” President Lyndon Johnson said during a 1965 commencement address at Howard University.

Johnson’s comments given five decades ago, at the nation’s pre-eminent black institution of higher learning, captures the current realities of life for many in Detroit, where children wake up frightful and go to sleep hungry in high poverty neighborhoods.

While the Harvard panel lauded the achievements of Duggan and JPMorgan Chase, it failed to delve into the spectacles of destitution and misery that have created the “two Detroit” phenomenon.

At the very least, the forum could have done a great service by applying the Socratic dictum that “in order to improve yourself, you have to know yourself.”

That, in other words, means Detroit’s leaders must first acknowledge that poverty is real, not a myth, and then work assiduously to address it.

An omission like this often leaves some people with this question: who is the city coming back for?

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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