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Economic inequality has long been viewed as the result of the actions of individuals as opposed to the function of systems and institutions controlling our lives. 

Rugged individualism emphasizes performance as the key condition deciding who is wealthy and who is poor rather than the role a government plays in determining policies that could alleviate the challenges of those who need relief. 

But Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday the nation will be honoring on Jan. 20, laid the responsibility of addressing structural inequities that keep people in a cycle of poverty at the feet of the government. 

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift themselves by their own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps,” King said. 

And if you are looking for a stark example of where the government has failed to guarantee economic parity for its people, and yet has demanded them to step up, look at Detroit. A recent Detroit News investigation revealed that homeowners were overtaxed by $600 million between 2010 and 2016. According to the report, of the more than 63,000 homes that are currently in a tax debt, more than 90% were overtaxed by an average of at least $3,700. The report also found that about 28,000 of the overtaxed properties were foreclosed since 2013. 

More: Detroit homeowners overtaxed $600 million

Quantifying for the first time the burden placed on Detroit homeowners by an unfair tax system, the report offers a good reading of where the city is. It reveals an existing underprivileged class in Detroit that has long been shielded from the glare of mainstream conversations. 

Detroit simply needs to wipe away the debt of these homeowners and give them a fresh start. Mayor Mike Duggan needs to step up and be the leader of the “one Detroit” he proclaimed after his reelection, and move with all deliberate speed to nix this lingering debt. But when confronted on this issue, Duggan pivoted to his usual excuse of how existing law doesn’t permit him to take any corrective measures. 

But history has shown us that the leaders who made the most difference in the lives of impoverished communities were those who did not blame the law but instead galvanized movements to change existing laws to help those who are far removed from the American Dream of dignity, well-being and comfort. 

The current measure to push for legislation to get rid of some of the debt of qualified low-income homeowners is a piecemeal solution that won’t get anywhere. Duggan has shown that when he is truly invested in solving any particular issue, he can move mountains to get it done like he did with the auto no-fault insurance reform legislation.

But his administration’s overall response to the latest debt crisis involving homeowners in the city has been nothing short of callous indifference.

Pressure needs to be put on City Hall from a cross-section of the community, including those black civic leaders who always toe the line of the Duggan administration. This debt cannot stand. It is a shame to our collective conscience. 

During the King holiday, we will hear Duggan and other politicians around the state talk about the values of fairness and equality that King stood for. But to truly honor King would be to completely wipe away the debt of Detroit homeowners who were overtaxed. 

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNewsCatch 

“Redline with Bankole Thompson” is broadcast at 11 a.m. weekdays on Superstation 910-AM.

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