Talking Poverty Among Wealthy Whites at the DAC

By Bankole Thompson

In his magnum opus, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community,” the Rev Martin Luther King Jr., laid out the blueprint for black economic survival in an America with extreme poverty. At the same time King warned of the dangers that could happen if nothing gets done to immediately address the needs of the majority of poor blacks who are ignored and trampled upon by “the iron feet of exploitation.”

Dissecting the widening racial economic wealth gap between our cities and the suburbs, King, sought to explain an existential black suffering that goes unnoticed.

“Most people are totally unaware of the darkness of the cave in which the Negro is forced to live. A few individuals can break out, but the vast majority remain its prisoners,” King said. “Our cities have constructed elaborate expressways and elevated skyways, and white Americans speed from suburb to inner city through vast pocket of black deprivation without ever getting a glimpse of the suffering and misery in their midst.”

The suffering reality of black life that King eloquently laid out in his last book written more than half a century ago and remains true to this day, dawned on me last week, when I sat on a power panel at the opulent Detroit Athletic Club to discuss the economic recovery of Detroit.

The setting at the DAC, the premier social club for the economic and political elites in southeast Michigan, was a stark contrast to life outside of the DAC for most Detroiters. Because the ongoing recovery is so grossly uneven that it has left many people behind and making Detroit one of the largest poverty centers in the nation.

But the more than 300 people of mostly white elite men who converged at the Oct. 30 Forum on the Future were interested to hear from the panel that was assembled for the two hour conversation. Dave Dubensky, chairman and CEO of Ford Land and leader of Ford’s Corktown initiative, John Mogk, a renowned urban expert and professor of law at Wayne State University, Detroit Free Press business columnist John Gallagher and myself formed the panel that examined the state of Detroit.

After introduction of the panelists,  Gallagher who was the moderator asked me to give the first opening statement on the subject for the evening. I told the audience that Detroit was at a dangerous crossroads because of the persistence of poverty that has engulfed most neighborhoods, and the concentration of wealth in downtown, Midtown and Corktown.

I warned the DAC audience that regardless of our social standing, all of us gathered there have an obligation to ensure that the much heralded recovery spreads across the entire city because there are many Detroiters who remain invisible to the skyscrapers and glitzy buildings that symbolically represent Mayor Mike Duggan’s recovery.

As the discussion continued, it became evident that generational poverty was taking a central role in the issues that were being raised by my fellow panelists. For example, Mogk, the law professor raised the issue of our current property tax as a serious impediment to an inclusive recovery and called for its abolition so poor people can stay in their homes and avoid foreclosures.

Dubensky, who was the only one representing Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company and one of Detroit’s leading corporate titans, kept an open mind throughout the conversation. He was not dismissive of the issue of inequality as a central part of the recovery. Instead, Dubensky expressed strong interest in exploring the issues that I was raising on the panel, such as water affordability in light of the fact that poor residents in the city have been facing water shutoffs. I stated that water ought to be declared in Detroit as a basic human right, and that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department should follow Chicago, which has already moved in the direction of halting water shutoffs in that city.

At one point Dubensky, conceded that an organization as large as Ford usually operates through a traditional model where they are engaging the same set of players and utilizing longstanding programs in addressing social equity. I took his comments to mean that no new game-changing ideas are brought to the table of equity, and that there is a high degree of deference given to the politics of respectability.

But given where Detroit’s level of abject poverty currently is on the national social index, the politics of respectability should not supplant the need for a radical change in the way corporate leaders have done business in the past with city leaders and other stakeholders. This is more so because the standard engagement model between the corporate community and leaders charged with driving change hasn’t actually moved the needle aggressively in confronting poverty.

That is why I raised the issue of a benchmark with Dubensky and others on the panel noting that Detroit’s inequality level will only begin to significantly decrease, if we start applying benchmarks to the kinds of corporate benevolence that grab the daily media headlines. Anything short of that would mean corporate leaders are only interested in checking the charity box and then move on without laying out metrics to determine if their financial contributions to various relief programs are evidently changing the lives of underprivileged Detroiters for the better.

I expressed my belief that there are ethical business leaders in Detroit who are seriously and sincerely committed to tackling poverty. The issue is that some of those at the negotiating table are not bringing poverty as an agenda for discussion and as a result it  is placed on the back burner.

During a question and answer session with members of the audience, several of the issues raised again pointed to the problem of persistent poverty. For example, the state of Detroit Public School Community District, which lends itself to the three evils of race, illiteracy and poverty as the biggest culprits for the compounding problems the district faces. While I expressed confidence in the impressive work of  the public schools leader Dr. Nikolai Vitti, there are still unresolved issues that he faces which would require the support of everyone who is genuinely invested in seeing that Detroit’s children receive an empowering education.

However, toward the end of the forum, one question that created a hush in the crowded room was a critique of my journalistic work as too controversial. A former top executive at Shinola stated that he’s been following my work and that I’ve been too divisive and that I should try to “bring people together.” He disagreed with my critique of Duggan’s $250 million bond for blight and misinterpreted my position as opposing blight removal. None could be further from the truth. I made it clear that I questioned the administration’s stewardship of the public good, especially given that the new request for bond money is coming at the end of a federal demolition probe.

Even though the question about my “divisive” work was unexpected, I explained to the business executive that my work is viewed differently by different people and that his view of what he deemed as “divisive,” is certainly not the case from the vantage point of others who equally follow my work. I reminded him that race and racism remain crucial to the recovery of a majority black city and that too often the two are missing even as Duggan has shown no serious leadership in navigating the difficult and troubling racial waters facing the city. I cited the Detroit Police Department’s recent racial turmoil as an example, and how Duggan repeatedly avoided making public statements on the issue. The mayor only did so after some of us publicly rebuked and called on him to wear the cloak of moral leadership.  

In my final response to the critique, I explained that my work is cut out of the literary veins of the writings of James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. All three towering black intellectuals over the century passionately argued for fairness, justice and equality so that blacks could also have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As a writer, I feel deeply obliged to continue to publicly insist that the recovery of Detroit produces equity not beggars.

Following the end of the forum, several of the attendees walked up to me to express how insightful the forum was because it offered a different and consequential view of Detroit. Others expressed varying interests in finding ways to use their resources to meet the challenges of the issues that were the focus of the conversation. One even suggested an invisible donor to help poor Detroiters who are facing water shutoffs.

When I accepted the DAC’s invitation months ago to serve on its Forum on the Future panel, I did so with the view that nothing was more important for me to discuss in a room filled with privileged and powerful white men than poverty. I knew poverty was a subject that hardly gets their collective attention in that kind of gathering.

But it also revealed that the DAC was open to a more inclusive and robust dialogue about the revitalization of the city without limitations. For that the conversation must continue until we see the numbers on the social index drop and people’s lives improve.

Bankole Thompson is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, the anti-poverty think tank of Detroit. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News. 

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