Will the largest city in history to file bankruptcy receive a death certificate, or will this action result in a new birth certificate for the Motor City? Of course, a city as large and as well situated as Detroit is will not die. Already there are plans for a $400 million hockey stadium, despite all the tales of woe and danger put forth by various media. All things considered, will Detroit’s majority population remain Black and will Black people play a significant role in its economic rebirth?
The answer lies in the hearts of Black Detroiters and in their will to do what is necessary to gain ownership and control of a portion of that city’s asset base. Detroit’s recent history shows why it is important for Blacks in Motown to get on the case when it comes to economic empowerment and self-determination.
In 2004, I participated in an effort, under the leadership of Claud Anderson, to develop and build a Black economic enclave. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of Detroit stepping up and leading way for other cities to build similar enclaves and finally move toward true economic freedom.
But after our conference, I also remember the Black mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and a couple of Black city councilpersons, supported by some in the Detroit print media, coming out against the plan calling it “divisive,” “separatist,” and “scary.” I recall several articles in which one Black councilperson said it would be “a suicidal form of ‘reverse racism’ and a bad deal for Detroit.”
This same person was quoted as saying, “African Town will actually create a negative environment that will drive businesses from Detroit and create a climate of fear that will eliminate Detroit from serious consideration as a location to develop or grow a business.” She concluded, “I am not a hyphenated American. I am an American. This council needs to understand that so we can make decisions that don’t make Detroit an American embarrassment.”
Imagine that. Detroit would have been an “American embarrassment” if Africa Town had been developed. What a silly statement. I wonder what she and others think Detroit is now that they refused to develop the enclave. Another question: Why isn’t Detroit called an American embarrassment because it has a Greek Town, a China Town, a Polish Town, a Mexican Town, and even a ‘Corktown’ in the midst of an 85% to 90% Black or African populated city? For a Black person, in a nearly all Black city, to label Black economic empowerment suicidal and embarrassing is absolutely ridiculous.
Let’s move on to the current status of the Motor City. It has filed bankruptcy, it still has the poverty and crime, it still has the dilapidated and abandoned houses, and maybe even some political corruption is still going on. But Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, a Black man, says, “Detroit can rise again,” in his recent Wall Street Journal article. I know there are some Detroiters who don’t like the governor’s decision to appoint Orr, and they may have a good argument against it. But that’s not my fight; again, this is about Black economic empowerment in Detroit, emergency manager or not. If Orr is right, will Black people rise along with the city of Detroit?
Two intelligent and savvy guys, James Craig and Odis Jones, both Detroiters who held the positions of police chief and economic development director, respectively, in Cincinnati, returned to Detroit recently. Craig took over the police department and Jones is the CEO of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority. I have to believe they know something positive is taking place, having left pretty good jobs in Cincy to go back home to a bankrupt city. As far as I know, no one rowed out to the Titanic to get on board when it was sinking.
Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans, and now Casino mogul, owns so much land in Detroit that it is measured in square miles rather than acres. Surely he knows something, too. The hotel industry is flourishing, according to a recent news report. They must know something, too.
I hope and pray that Black Detroiters know what’s up and will get engaged in the economic growth of their city, and show us how it’s done. In 1968, Detroit icon, Albert Cleage, said: “…This marks a new day for Black people. The Black community… must control its own destiny…this means political control of all areas in which Black people are a majority. Politics is only one aspect, however. It is also necessary for Blacks to have economic control of their community. In Detroit we are trying to invent strategies for this, such as the development of co-op retail stores, co-op buying clubs, co-op light manufacturing, co-op education…These ventures will give Black people a sense of their economic possibilities and a realization of their need for economic training.” Cleage was right then—and he still is.
(Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people.
He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his website, <blackonomics.com>.)