- [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.
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.
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.
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.
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.