Michigan Entrepreneurs Need to Confront White Supremacy

Posted by on Mar 26, 2013 in General News | 13 Comments

[Racial map of Detroit and surrounding suburbs; red is Caucasian, blue is African-American, orange is Latino, credit ATI and US Census]

If you work or live in Detroit you would have to spend a lot of time looking the other way to avoid noticing the rampant racial and class disparities surrounding you. It’s not just that there are a lot of impoverished people of color in Detroit (though that fact is also undeniable), it’s that impoverished people in Detroit experience greater immiseration than in many other parts of the country due to lack of public investments, from education to public transit to social services. And deeply ingrained historical forces have linked this cycle of geographically selective public dis-investment to de facto racial segregation that is still astoundingly prevalent in Southeast Michigan. Today, the City of Detroit is undergoing a supposed process of “emergency” macro-economic revitalization, but can it do so without addressing the historical scars of racial dispossession, and contemporary white supremacy? I’d like to argue that by failing to consider the role of race in contemporary economic development efforts, Detroit’s leaders and dreamers are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past, perpetuating structural violence against impoverished people of color in Southeast Michigan.

Start-ups and the entrepreneurs who run them are the great hope for economic development in the region. It’s what Rick Snyder ran on to win the Michigan Governor’s seat, it’s what county and city officials have been counting on with investments in high-tech zones, funds and incubators across the region. Detroit, in particular, features many (white) poster children for the new ethos of DIY tech-savvy bootstrapping and taking risky bets on new business models, hopefully creating jobs in the process. It’s the American Dream, isn’t it? The problem is that Detroit’s entrepreneurial community has become a powerful institution of complicity with the contemporary ideology of white supremacy. That means that to the extent that Detroit-based start-ups succeed in creating wealth, the distribution of that wealth will be unjustly stratified according to race. To the extent that these start-ups innovate they will likely displace more local jobs than they create. If entrepreneurs do not understand the racial significance of Detroit’s history, they risk re-enacting violent power relationships that further dispossess the region’s people of color.

[Median family net worth by race, 2009 – credit Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Brandeis University]

Why might entrepreneurs in particular bear a special responsibility in confronting white supremacy? It has a lot to do with the ideological premise of the entrepreneur lifestyle in the first place. Entrepreneurs often assume that everyone starts from an equal playing field from which the meritocracy of the market selects winners. Entrepreneurs are taught to “fail fast”, and that only rarely will one’s first or early venture succeed. Entrepreneurs need to be ready to tirelessly go back to the drawing board, to revise, to adapt. Yet according to antiracist activist Tim Wise, the very definition of “white privilege” has a lot to do with how many chances you get to fail and how many opportunities you ever had to succeed. The idea of starting a company and securing thousands in capital investments after seed bankrolling from “friends and family” is not a concept that is equally accessible for someone who grows up in Bloomfield Hills as it is for someone who grows up in Highland Park.

This disparity has a lot do with the difference in outlook and opportunity between an individual who graduates from a school with 95% of their class versus an individual who graduates with less than 30% of their class. Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Random House, 2005) points out that divided urban/suburban educational districts separate the experiences and expectations of black and white youth from an early age, making their social and economic communities mutually inaccessible. Through this educational geography of white privilege non-white youth suffer extreme disadvantages from school facilities to class sizes to accessible college counselors. The result is a disparity in graduation rates that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized as “…the civil rights issue of our generation.”

The concepts of personal responsibility and individualistic self-reliance are often core values in entrepreneurial incubator and accelerators. Implicit in these values are deeply embedded anti-government sentiments which carry over into the subtle political character of many who dream of being very rich; that wealth is solely the result of visionary hard work, that taxes are theft by the lazy and uncreative, that welfare is a hand-out. These Horatio Alger values are hardly historically innocent. Since the Civil Rights movement, the Gilded Age myth that “anyone can succeed with enough hard work” has been one half of a monumental propaganda campaign by anti-tax conservatives, the other half being that impoverished people of color “lack initiative” and are therefore undeserving of public goods. Economist and Professor Michael Perelman examines this relationship in his book Manufacturing Discontent (Pluto Press, 2005):

“…researchers suggest that racism might be involved in the unwillingness to give the state more of a role in protecting individuals. … states that are more ethnically fragmented spend a smaller fraction of their budget on social services and productive public goods, and more on crime prevention (Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote 2001: 229). Daniel Levitas, author of an extensive study on extreme right-wing movements, comes to a similar conclusion. He makes the case that the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and federal enforcement of the 1954 Brown decision, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, caused a sizeable number of white people to become more antagonistic toward taxes, believing that the financial product of their hard work was being used to support “undeserving” and “parasitic” elements of the population (read: black people) (Levitas 2002: 102—3).”

These social histories do not disappear with time but rather form the backdrop through which racially privileged norms are unconsciously formed. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a wealthy lawyer. What’s the first image that comes into your head? Did you imagine a white man? Now close your eyes and imagine a homeless man. Did you imagine a black man? If so, don’t blame your imagination for being racist; credit it for picking up on on what you might experience if you strolled around the streets of Downtown Detroit. Now close your eyes and imagine an entrepreneur. What color is their skin? If you were to open your eyes after walking into the M@dison Building, Bizdom, DC3 or most co-incubating/accelerating spaces, you can answer that question for yourself as a matter of statistical probability. Or maybe you just don’t see race. Liar. There’s a reason that line is a recurrent joke on The Colbert Report.

[Colbert race meme – credit weknowmemes.com]

The norms of economic success and development do not exist in a cultural vacuum, but rather are deeply embedded within how we talk to each other about our shared futures. Like it or not, these visions cannot be understood as race-neutral. How many times have you heard about the strong history of black entrepreneurship in Detroit? Because most minority-owned entrepreneurship is constituted in neighborhood and family-owned businesses, it is often written out of the fast-paced tech start-up narrative that claims Gates and Zuckerberg for its laurels.

Few of Detroit’s shiny new entrepreneurial facilities pay homage to the legacy of Black Bottom, or Paradise Valley. During the days when most affluent neighborhoods, restaurants and hotels were “White Only”, Paradise Valley was Detroit’s Harlem; a place for working people to get together and have a good time. This area, centered in what is now known as Harmonie Park, stretched south down the Detroit River and was an early foothold for Detroit’s nascent black middle class, and at one time boasted one of the largest cluster of black-owned businesses in North America. Sounds like a great entrepreneurial success story, right?

Unfortunately, during the last “urban renewal” of the postwar years the shoddily constructed buildings built by German immigrants a hundred years before drew the ire of Detroit city planners and the entire neighborhood was razed. The dispossessed residents and yes, entrepreneurs of that neighborhood — few of whom were compensated at all for the massive destruction of wealth — were displaced to other neighborhoods, as few could afford the new residential developments in Lafayette or Harmonie Park, even if they could find a realtor who would rent to a black family.

[View of I-75 and surrounding developments in what was once Paradise Valley.]

According to Dr. Thomas Sugrue’s award-winning The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton University Press, 1997) it is precisely these destructive “urban renewal” policies explicitly designed to reinforce black poverty which are directly responsible for the City’s problems today. And yet why is it that, when entrepreneurs discuss how start-ups are going to “save Detroit”, discussions of the racial causes of the City’s ongoing fiscal catastrophe are almost always ignored? That’s because, like many episodes of historical violence enacted by white people, contemporary white Detroiters would just as soon let sleeping dogs lie. But with the rhetoric of “urban renewal” once again on the march, how responsible is it for the visionaries of Detroit’s future to ignore these episodes of historical violence? And what’s to prevent history from repeating itself?

It’s no secret that Detroit has an issue with urban blight. Across the city there are thousands of unoccupied falling-down houses that are quite expensive to demolish. Enter John Hantz with an interesting proposal; to buy up thousands of these unoccupied residences at below market rate, demolish them at private expense and plant 70,000 trees with a promise to clear and maintain the land. For an area that has been struggling with the costs of urban blight, this sounds like a win-win, right? Witness the controversy as community groups assemble to block the vote on Hantz Woodlands, many of them chanting “Remember Black Bottom.” The reporting on the Hantz Woodlands controversy is surprisingly divided along racial and class lines. Outside observers are confounded at the mere existence of the controversy, while long-time black residents of Detroit paint the entrepreneur’s vision as a profit-driven “land grab”.

Episodes such as this demonstrate the challenge for Detroit’s entrepreneurs in negotiating the region’s profoundly racist history. It is certainly true that John Hantz’s personal identity as a white male is inseparable from the debate about his entitlement to buy the land at below market-rate, where less-recognized entrepreneurs of color have had to pay more for each lot. Is this racist history repeating itself; a black man paying more for the same lots as a white man? Or is it simply a case of a community too mired in past injustices to accept a good deal when it’s offered to them?

For better or for worse, values such as “innovation” and “efficiency” which are recurrent in the entrepreneurial vocabulary are not socially neutral — “doing more with less” is often a management-driven strategy for shedding jobs and stagnating wages without diminishing productivity. Even “social ventures” which claim to supplant failing public programs by offering community-oriented goods and services may be regarded with suspicion, as they are sometimes vehicles of the de facto racist process of divesting in publicly owned goods. The danger is that a “Whites Only” approach to economic growth will serve the interests of multinational corporations only too happy to usurp the roles of black-managed public works and services. Of course, innovation is often socially beneficial, and proposals such as Loveland Technologies’ modest proposal that aim at restoring the City’s flagging tax base exemplify an approach to entrepreneurship that targets deep historical causes rather than popularized symptoms.

[Rev. David Bullock of Rainbow PUSH calls on Obama to intervene against Emergency Manager takeover]

Unsurprisingly, the way social entrepreneurs situate their “market pain” relative to Detroit’s violent history of “urban renewal” plays an outsized role in how they formulate their solutions, as well as how those solutions are perceived by Detroiters of different socioeconomic and racial background. Just look at the current political fights over Detroit’s new Emergency Manager. Does anyone truly believe that race politics does not play an outsize role in igniting widespread anger at Lansing? Regardless of the Emergency Manager’s success or failure, the move is currently being framed in explicitly racial terms by the opposition, as Councilwoman JoAnn Watson stated: “There exists irrefutable evidence that EFM’s imposed by the state of Michigan and municipalities and school districts predominated by people of color have not solved financial deficits.” (my emphasis) Given Michigan’s history of structural racism, has Lansing given community groups any good reason to simply trust that the state government “knows what’s good” for Detroit now?

When I was a kid in grade school we typically discussed the history of racism once a year on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Going through some of the less gruesome details of chattel slavery, a teacher posed the question to us: If we had been living as a white person in antebellum South, would we have had the courage to be an abolitionist, or even to participate in the Underground Railroad? Each year, this question gave me and my classmates pause as we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of someone of that bygone era, and hoped that we would indeed have been able to overcome prevailing social biases and act on our better natures. Today, as we witness more black men in prison than were enslaved at the height of chattel slavery in 1850 the question is no longer academic, if it ever was to begin with. Life in Southeast Michigan’s apartheid geography is a catastrophe for many people of color, and a complicated series of moral choices for this system’s white beneficiaries. Entrepreneurs of all races have an opportunity to make a huge difference in this struggle, if only they realize that the decision is theirs to make.



  • Hey Edmund, thanks for the thoughtful article!

    My name is Scott Lowe, and I’m an aspiring entrepreneur who moved to Detroit a few months ago through a program called Venture For America. I’m also extremely liberal politically: I advocate for a much broader social safety net that would include basic access to the internet, housing, food, and transportation for those in need in addition to a much more progressive tax structure to fund these programs.

    I’m also highly aware that the homeless people I walk by on the way to work are predominantly African American while the tech entrepreneurs in the Madison are predominantly not, and I don’t ignorantly assume that everyone starts on an equal playing field. I studied physics and view the world as a complex collection of systems; if everyone started on the same playing field then economic success should be randomly distributed, and it obviously is not.

    However, inequality is an inevitable consequence of a capitalistic economy due to the difference between the two income mechanisms: wages and investments. Those who do not have sufficient wealth do not have access to investment income and the exponential growth of wealth and income that it allows. Inequality will continue to increase as time goes on unless significant redistribution occurs through major market catastrophes or government intervention in the form of progressive estate and income taxes.

    To truly solve this inequality problem, I believe that a cultural shift is necessary. We must abandon the competitive rat race and work towards creating a more collaborative society that celebrates the shared success of the collective. Open source software development is a powerful example of this kind of paradigm shift, and Rachel Botsman goes so far as to argue that trust will become the currency of our new economy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTqgiF4HmgQ). I hope she’s right. 🙂

    All that said, what am I supposed to do in the meantime besides advocating for these ideas?

    • jmusa

      Thank you Scott Lowe for your thoughtful comments

  • I remember last year, a performer from Midtown donned blackface to put on a performance as Michael Jackson. The video they posted of it got a lot of likes, to my disgust. When I said something about it, I was told I was being overly sensitive and that there was nothing wrong with blackface. Of course, these were the same group of people who thought it was funny to utter racial slurs as a joke for Traffic Jam’s open mic night…

    My point is, this type of insensitive nature can pose a serious problem, if enough people take it up and integrate it into their lives. It may not seem like anything to them, but can be pretty destructive and hurtful, to those who are a minority and want to be a part of Detroit’s future.

    • Guest

      Thanks Scott Lowe for your thoughtful comments.

  • Edmund, this is a very well written and historically rich article. I’m glad someone took it up to paint this picture.

    I’m not sure what the solution might be, to a more diverse entrepreneurial community that is, and I’m not going to pretend to even try. As you note, the problems are deeply rooted, and heartfelt, genuine dialogue needs to be had between all parties before any solution can be met (if it can be met).

    When I think Entrepreneur in Detroit, though… I can honestly say, It’s not just the white guys walking into the Madison that I think of. Eddie Lee led a team to build the awesome Detroit Young Professional (DYP) community, Hajj Flemings has more grind and hustle (Grustle, as he calls it) than anyone I’ve ever met, and Howie Long is one of the most brilliant minds in town. What is unfortunate, is that I can’t name many others like Eddie, Hajj, and Howie.

    A question that I have to raise is, while we know that the identified community is seriously lacking in diversity. Is there a predominantly black entrepreneurial community in Detroit that is not being identified and given credit due. While not afforded the resources as the “M@dison community”, I believe there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.

    I want to be clear in that I’m raising a question as to the size and presence of other communities, and not access to capital or resources.

    Again, very well written article. It’s a tough read, but it’s an honest reflection on the state of the community and region. I for one, hope that it can improve and become much more diverse.

  • nicely done, Edmund! and thanks for compiling and expounding on all of that information. It gives a nice background to the racial tensions happening today.

  • Thanks for the comments! I have gotten a bunch of feedback on this post in the past couple days and would like to respond to a couple general questions that I’ve gotten from a few people.

    Q – Are you saying that all white entrepreneurs are racist?

    A – No, however I am saying that white entrepreneurs, and especially social entrepreneurs, ignorant of race relations and the history of Detroit often frame their goals in race-neutral terms which perpetuates the myth of a level playing field to erase unsavory episodes of Detroit’s history. Colorblindness wielded as lens for economic development produces perverse inequalities because social actors do not make decisions in a race-neutral manner. This creates geographical separations of public goods based on race/class residency (e.g. Southeast Michigan’s urban/suburban divide) that facilitates greater exploitation. To the extent that social entrepreneurs reify these dynamics of public divestment, they form an invisible complicity with Michigan’s economic apartheid. Entrepreneurs should chose not to be colorblind.

    Q – Isn’t your argument really more about economic class than race per se?

    A – The way in which racial privilege and exploitation is manifest in Southeast Michigan is through structural limitations on economic opportunity (e.g. access to high-quality public education, social networks of liquid capital, living-wage employment, credit and home ownership loans) that target racially segregated geographical regions. Poor whites who live in “black neighborhoods” are often also affected by the hollowing out of public services that have been starved by tax flight to racially segregated suburban enclaves. Class inequality is the means of manifesting systematic racial discrimination, used as a filter in determining whether an individual is qualified for a particular economic opportunity. This manifests in profiling heuristics in employment and otherwise which are often based on race. The case of rampant “linguistic profiling” illustrates how this racial discrimination can be particularly pernicious.


    Q – I’m a white liberal. I voted for Obama. I support progressive policies and social welfare. Isn’t that enough?

    A – No. Though the current GOP’s anti-government/anti-welfare policy stance — following Reagan’s legacy — has resulted in more immiseration for people of color than policies advocated by progressives, there is little indication that either political party or ideological affiliation has taken great pains to place racial equality at the forefront of their policy agendas. Interesting post on the data of race/party politics:


    Placing economic equality at the forefront of development is not only possible but suggests a framework for decision-making that entrepreneurs and social advocates can employ when considering strategies for growth. Here’s an interesting example:

    Q – Okay, I really want to combat violent racial inequality. What are some things I could do?

    A – Like a lot of problems, gaining greater understanding of what’s really at stake in these debates is of fundamental importance. If you don’t grasp the historical significance of race relations in Southeast Michigan, I seriously doubt how any attempt you make towards social justice can be very effective. To that end, here are some suggestions:

    ***Make race relevant to your start-up decision-making — hiring, firing, goals, philanthropic priorities, employee empowerment, product design and market research. Recognize that race plays a role in how people use and sell products and socially communicate more generally. I recently had a conversation with an entrepreneur of color about “black Twitter”, the social network between African Americans on Twitter that employs different digital slang and types of messaging. Is your marketing strategy-race neutral? Is your communications strategy race-neutral? What about product development? Then you are probably not truly understanding how racial geograpies are manifest in digital space. Colorblindness puts many tech start-ups that rely on user acquisition at a competitive disadvantage, as well as an ethically questionable alignment with violent power relations. Here’s an interesting post on this:


    ***Treat racial difference as a positive externality in internal team-building and external business relations. Racial monocultures produce intellectual monocultures and foster narrow-minded groupthink. More here:


    ***Despite its profoundly troubling issues with gender/sexuality, I’d contend that if you read one book about race relations in Southeast Michigan and more generally, it should be “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” with Alex Haley. Fascinating read, and extremely eye-opening in terms of Detroit history http://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-Malcolm-X/dp/0141032723/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364505512&sr=1-1&keywords=malcolm+x

    ***Join the NAACP, or if you’re feeling particularly radical, identify with the legacy of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party



    ***Attend local community organization events on race relations, such as this symposium recently hosted by WSU: “Debunking the Post-Racial Myth: The Profiling of Detroit’s Most Vulnerable Populations”


    There are lots of online resources for people exploring this issue further, here’s a short resource toolkit: http://www.antiracistalliance.com/whiteness.html

    Hahaha this response is WAY too long, but thanks again for everyone’s feedback!


    I agree with you that there are many prominent entrepreneurs of color in Detroit and the surrounds. My issue is that in the “new Detroit” the race-neutral approach to economic development unjustly advantages white entrepreneurs at the expense of local entrepreneurs of color. Consider that the Detroit Future City plan does not explicitly deal with the issue of race relations, even though it plays a significant role in future resource allocation decision. It is this race-neutrality I am objecting to — if possible it would be great to highlight the stories of successful entrepreneurs of color in public events and to hold networking events explicitly aimed at building bridges between white entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. One of the best cases of this today is the Lift:Detroit gala, which if you’ve ever attended an event at M@dison provides a pretty different picture of what’s happening in Detroit’s entrepreneurial scene http://www.liftdetroitgala.com/

    @Scott Lowe

    If trust is the new currency, then the fact that Southeast Michigan’s racial geography isolates an internalizes trust within racial in-groups is an even bigger problem for the region’s future growth and inequality. Racial and economic inequality does not foster trust

    @Kelly Guillory
    That is shocking, but not entirely surprising. Humor and especially irony is often a convenient mask for white racism today

    @Kaitlin Flynn

    Thanks for your comment!

    • jmusa

      Wow, Edmund Zagorin. A very well written, researched and referenced article. It’s very enlightening for those who care enough to read it. Thank you so very much for the knowledge!

  • He is my loaded, self-serving question. Why does an entrepreneur (race irrelevant) need to worry about anything other than his own success (or failure?) His own rational self interest is what is driving him to start his business. He may want to make money or have common human goals, but he is focused only on the success his goals. He will mortgage his house, quit his job, max of credit cards, borrow from friends and borrow from banks. And he will still most likely fail. And then he may or may not try again.

    Having said that I will ask the question again – Why does an entrepreneur (race irrelevant) need to worry about anything other than his own success (or failure?)

    • If entrepreneurship is only about making the founders a lot of money, then I think that your question makes a lot of sense. I’d still argue that there are still ethical constraints that founders should place on profit-motive. Rational self-interest becomes suspiciously similar to psychosis when no ethical limitations are placed on it. Profit for profit’s sake.

      However, if entrepreneurs are supposed to “rebuild Detroit” as articles such as this Fast Company article propose, then the way they go about it will determine what the future of the City will be. That’s something we all have a stake in


  • C M

    I’m a Detroiter, and I believe the only way to overcome the race issue is to stop talking about it. Why should we continue to perpetuate this ideal, that we’re different because our skin color/ethnicity/culture is different from our peers? Are whites not capable of this? Are blacks not capable of this? Are “Latinos” not capable of this? It’s time to stop telling people they’re different or less important because they’re black, or that they’re somehow more important because they’re white. Everyone is human, we all bleed red. It’s time to stop this. Something like a “racial map” only intensifies the division we already see in this great city. I’m embarrassed at the behavior of some of my neighbors in the city, taking Oreo’s to Kevyn Orr’s office – that’s not racist? Come on now!

    • Andrew Cooper

      “I believe the only way to overcome the race issue is to stop talking about it. ”

      Because if there’s one sure-fire way to get rid of a problem, it’s to ignore it!

  • sandrayu

    i think there are a lot of entrepreneurs in “black, low income” detroit. the low-income part is kind of complicated. it certainly is often lower income… but i see a lot of cash-based catering and well, drug dealing. in that sense, nearly everyone on my block is working… so you’re right – the networks, resources, industry knowledge are in two different worlds for the richer white folks vs the low income black folks. but the entrepreneurial talent and sales/marketing skill is surely abundant! there’s a lady on my block who makes gift baskets of naughty toys to raise money for her daughter’s school trips! but it’s a classic issue that comes up in developing world business development – you only really make it when you are selling to wealthier markets. that’s where the drug dealers really do have it right…!