Blacks need fair share of demolition contracts, Jackson says

Bankole Thompson

Add the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to the growing list of those pushing for meaningful inclusion in Detroit's demolition contracts and economic recovery.

The diversity failures of the city’s $148 million federal Hardest Hit Fund, where minority participation is at an alarming 26 percent (and just 16 percent for blacks), has ignited conversations about the direction of the recovery. It has raised questions about how committed Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration is to providing access to opportunities for blacks and other people of color.

Jackson is weighing in on the issue not just because he is a global authority on issues of racial justice and equality, but because he was among those Duggan publicly credited with helping bring demolition dollars to Detroit. The mayor called the civil rights leader, who in turn pressed the firebrand California Congresswoman Maxine Waters to help push the award through Congress.

During a June 24 interview at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Jackson told me he has not monitored the diversity fiasco in the city’s demolition program. But he made clear that his expectations are that Detroit will do all it can to get it right. He said no one should be apologizing for demanding diversity at a time when the nation’s political temperature appears to be leaning toward anti-inclusive measures.

At 80 percent, Detroit is the largest black majority city in the U.S. So it is inexcusable and unacceptable that only 16 percent of federal demolition dollars went to black-owned firms. The Duggan administration needs to either cast a wider net and reach a more diverse pool of qualified black contractors or come up with creative ways to increase those numbers. 

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson speaks during a Martin Luther King, Jr. program in the Atrium.

“We can demolish houses. We can clean up vacant lots,” Jackson said. “There is nothing in demolition we cannot do. We should have the right to demolish where we live and what was taken from us by the banks.”

Jackson said the recovery of Detroit, a city that embodies the challenges of urban America, should benefit its people and that the demand for equity and access should not be misunderstood as an attack on whites.

“We are not trying to put whites out of business. We have been excluded,” Jackson said. “Today we are free but unequal. Inequality has a lot to do with capital. We have to demand the right to self-determination. That means our fair share of contracts, our share of land developments.”

He said the role of the banks during the financial crisis that began in 2007 and ravaged cities like Detroit by leaving countless homes abandoned and dilapidated - waiting to be demolished- should be an ongoing discussion in the recovery.

“It is not our fault. The banks foreclosed on our houses,” Jackson said. “The banks targeted black and brown homeowners, left our communities abandoned.”

Because of that, Jackson said, demolition funds should “take into account the community’s needs.”

When asked to respond to those who argue that need for racial diversity in the city’s contract opportunities is equivalent to playing the race card, Jackson shot back: “The race card is 246 years of slavery. The race card is 100 years of legal Jim Crow.”

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, is equally concerned.
“I think there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of the city and the community to bridge the opportunity gap,” Anthony said.

“Opportunity without participation is simply illusion. We must not delude ourselves into believing things will change unless we actively engage and enforce policies that will lead to an increase in actual participation.”

Anthony said he wants to see some action that will lead to inclusive growth in demolition contracts.

“The various ordinances that the city has must be enforced as it relates to minority participation, Detroit-based businesses and joint-venturing,” Anthony said. “Qualified and capable contractors must not only be listed but they must be enlisted in the effort to do the work in the city.”

He added, “We can overcome this reality if we all work to tear down any impediments, make sure everyone got the memo that Detroit wants minority participation at every level. The city must also hold accountable everyone that is not playing by the same rules. I’d rather see more equity in opportunity than a continuous cry for equality of opportunity.”

A lack of diversity can not only hurt the city but also affect its national reputation. Arguing that certain restrictions allow for only so much room for diversity is tantamount to surrendering on the battlefield for equality.

"If it’s a fair distribution everybody wins,” Jackson says.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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