Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Seeing Race

Our friend Claire Hitchins (far left) played a few songs
for us from her new album "These Bodies."
Pick it up on iTunes!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Ypsilanti, Michigan (pronounced ip-si-lan-tee).

Last Wednesday, at a community conversation hosted by the women of We the People of Detroit and Wayne State Law School, leaders shared data, evidence and research—despite many of their requests for information being denied by the city. In the last three years, 101, 752 households in Detroit have had their water shut-off by the city simply because they could not afford the rising rates. At the end of the night, about ten Flint residents came up to the podium to bear witness to how things have proceeded 1,188 days into their water poisoning nightmares. Practically nothing has changed.

In addition to deaths from legionaries disease, almost two hundred Flint residents have died from bacterial pneumonia and multitudes are suffering skin, blood and lung infections from taking showers. The presence of these "water warriors" was a reminder to us that the only reason that the Flint poisoning scandal was finally reported in the news 18 months ago is because these dozens of citizens (led by black women) organized themselves and, after hundreds of denials from elected and non-elected government officials, they recruited a team from Virginia Tech to test the water. These are real (s)heroes.

In Detroit, We The People of Detroit has organized their own research collective to provide data on rising water rates and shut-offs in poor black neighborhoods.  These women have discovered that, at the same time the city's water department was shutting off water to homes of poor black people, it was selling water wholesale to suburban municipalities. We The People is also working on a study showing the correlation between water shut-offs and ER visits to Henry Ford Hospital. Other friends in the movement are working to end illegal tax foreclosures. There is a state law that protects low-income residents from being foreclosed upon if they cannot afford to pay their tax bills. The problem is that these residents do not know their rights. And the city isn't helping. Thousands have been foreclosed upon.

 In addition, hundreds of millions of federal dollars earmarked for "mortgage relief" is being used for "blight removal" instead. This decision was made by a "blight taskforce committee" headed up by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, currently the subject of two federal investigations. Gilbert and a few other wealthy leaders visited the Obama White House a few years back and got the go ahead on this bait and switch.

And then there was this:

Last Friday, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit rebellion, Quicken Loans installed this poster in downtown Detroit. Quicken promptly took it down after justified rage exploded social media. Then, at 11pm last Sunday night, Gilbert posted his “apology.” He didn’t address race at all. He sound-bited “diversity” and “inclusion” over and over again. He said that their campaign was just “dumb.” Putting up this piece of propaganda, a poster of frolicking white folks in a city with an 83% black population, is far more than just dumb. It's 21st century racism.

Detroit is a city that has closed and defunded schools. Predatory. In the process of manufacturing a bankruptcy, elites raised rates on water and then shut it off to anyone who gets behind on their bills. Then, they cut pensions of long-time city workers. Predatory. Meanwhile, banks targeted black residents for sub-prime mortgages. Predatory. Then, after the federal government made available hundreds of millions of dollars to help these folks stay in their homes, the city of Detroit transferred that “mortgage aid” money towards “blight removal”—millions of dollars taken out of the hands of poor black people and given to contractors and developers. Predatory. Meanwhile, these elites gave hundreds of millions of tax dollars towards the construction of sports stadiums. Gilbert fully participated in all of this. It is a "comeback" manufactured for a few.

White people out here talk consistently about Gilbert’s “love for Detroit.” His love for the city, though, is exclusive. His “Detroit” is 7.2 square miles of downtown and the Cass Corridor. It is all the buildings he bought and refurbished (displacing long time residents in the process). It is the mostly white, upwardly mobile professionals moving into the city. The real Detroit is 139 square miles. It is 83% black. Gilbert is not only doing nothing to help real Detroiters. He’s making life even more unbearable while building a legacy for himself. Dan Gilbert is shaping Detroit into his own image. That’s not love. It is even worse than “color blindness.” It is predatory. It is white supremacy.

Our friend Jyarland Daniels (right) started up Harriet Speaks, an organization that partners with schools, businesses, faith communities and governments to help them communicate and develop strategies that increase equity and inclusion. She suggested that maybe folks ought to drive up into all-white suburban Birmingham and put up a big poster full of black people that says "See Birmingham Like We Do." Then: host a "community conversation" to talk about how people respond to that kind of messaging. Great point.

In The New Jim Crow (2010) Michelle Alexander wrote, “Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.” When we white folks proudly say that we “don’t see color” we are simply admitting that we don’t see the oppressive forces weighing down non-white people in American society. Those of us taking our cues from redemptive Love are called to bear witness to this predatory devastation and dehumanization. It was not just happening “back then.” It’s happening Right Now too.

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