Bankole: Don’t distrust all white people in equality fight

Bankole Thompson
Eleanor Josaitis, co -founder of Focus: HOPE smiles next to Noel Tichy as she watches a benefit walk for her organization in Detroit in 2009.  October 11, 2009.

The political atmosphere we are in is so racially charged that there is a tendency for some blacks to want to distrust all white people.

“White people are taking over,” is the refrain I hear from everyday Detroiters who walk up to me at public events lamenting the state of the nation under President Donald Trump as well as the slow and complicated comeback of the city under Mayor Mike Duggan.

Because many black families are left behind in this recovery, the blame is also placed on some of Detroit’s powerful white economic elites who some residents claim are only interested in converting downtown into their playground.

No matter how explosive such a charge is, it further heightens the suspicion many folks cut out of the economic boom in the city have about the developments taking place downtown. And their worries about the direction of the city shouldn’t be ignored, especially after the rating agency Moody’s rendered its own verdict of the economic revitalization recently by noting that it’s time to expand the recovery to neighborhoods and not just downtown.

These recent conversations with residents across the city have left me thinking about race, white privilege, equity, access and opportunity. But they also got me thinking about the place of whites in this majority African-American city. No matter how uneven the recovery is, it shouldn’t leave us doubtful about the commitment of every white person who is involved in bettering Detroit. We would be making a mistake to ascribe a dubious distinction to the efforts of some simply because of their skin color.

Because this city’s history is also rooted in the transformative and redemptive work of some bold and courageous white community leaders. Among them was the late Eleanor Josaitis, who co-founded Focus: HOPE, out of the ashes of the 1967 racial explosion. Josaitis, a remarkable human being used her white privilege to fight for many poverty-stricken families through Focus:HOPE, which she created as an economic justice organization.

Josaitis wasn’t a mega downtown investor. She wasn’t a foundation president beating their hands to the chest while doling out millions to projects that are sometimes too difficult to measure in terms of their real human impact and need.

She was a simple white Catholic woman who had a deep conviction about equality and wanted to put a smile on the faces of many black families, which she did. Her organization gave real hope to young African-Americans by training them with the necessary skills to enter the workforce.

When she passed away in 2011, I attended her funeral at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament to pay my last respects to a woman I periodically would meet for lunch at La Dolce Vita restaurant on Woodward and listen her recount countless stories of racism towards blacks.

The first time we met for lunch she asked me to pick her up from her office, and after a tour of the organization, we drove to the restaurant. Our lunch meetings were like oral history sessions because she would share with me how she faced racial resentment from some in the white community for embracing Detroit as her heart and soul.

Josaitis talked about how her own home was firebombed when she moved to Detroit after the riot of 1967. Because she decided to stand and fight for black equality, she was the target of those who believed that white privilege should always be in the service of other whites, not blacks.

But what stood out in most of our conversations was how Josaitis repeatedly used the power of her white privilege to morally convict some white corporate leaders in Detroit, to move beyond their comfort zones and put resources behind meaningful efforts to lift people out of poverty. She would mention former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and others and how she got them to come around social justice issues.

Josaitis was white and at the same time a champion for black equality. The two are mutually inclusive because all it requires is for one to have a true sense of fairness and justice. If you believe that others outside of your own world and privilege should be guaranteed equal access to opportunities for advancement, then you shouldn’t have a problem adding your voice to the call for racial equality.

Eleanor Josaitis demonstrated that pushing for social equality in Detroit shouldn’t be predicated on skin color, and as a result we shouldn’t be distrustful of all whites no matter how you feel about a recovery that is still struggling to give birth to real economic equality.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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