Editor’s note: Attorney Tina M. Patterson, the President and Director of Research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s national independent anti-poverty think tank, delivered a keynote address on the “State of Black Inequality in Michigan,” on September 15, 2022 during the inaugural National Conference on the Economy, Equity and Energy organized by the Institute. Below is the full text of her speech at the conference, which also featured other keynote speakers such as Jerry Norcia, the Chairman, President and CEO of DTE Energy, Jim Vincent, President of the Providence Branch of the NAACP in Rhode Island among others.
Thank you Bankole, for that introduction, and Good Morning everyone.
In order to tackle the issue of Black inequality in Michigan, one need look no further than our current location, right here in Detroit, the Motor City, where the North American International Auto Show just kicked off last night with a visit from none other than the President of the United States, Joe Biden.
On his election night in 2020, President Biden specifically credited the African American community nationwide for his victory, and promised he would not let us down because we did not let him down. Uncoincidentally, Detroit, the largest Black city in the nation, was a key stronghold of votes spotlighted in the 2020 election, with its majority Black population helping to elevate Biden into office over then incumbent Donald Trump.
Now, two years later, in the midst of a midterm election, Biden and many elected officials like him have left much to be desired when it comes to improving the quality of life for African Americans and enacting effective, transformative measures to close the racial inequality gap.
Detroit, despite being the largest city in Michigan and the economic engine of the state, is still a city beleaguered by a high poverty rate. Contrary to the media glitz of events like the Auto Show or the latest new restaurant opening or development project in the city’s thriving commercial epicenter downtown, the rest of the city is still struggling under the weight of inequality.
And while many corporate heavyweights call the city of Detroit home, a large majority of their staff, particularly in the C-Suite, does not reflect the diversity of the city in which they headquarter their economic fortune, a city which is supermajority 75% African American.
The unequal socioeconomic conditions of Detroit are not limited to the city alone, but instead are mirrored in other Michigan cities with high concentrations of African American populations. In particular, we can look to Flint, Michigan, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, which have both faced a clean water crisis, depriving residents of the use and enjoyment of the most vital source of life.
Most recently, Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city with a stable and sizable African American population, was rocked by the police killing of an unarmed Black man, Patrick Lyola, earlier this year.
All of these events, lack of clean water, unarmed police killings, high concentration of poverty, are man-made tragedies, with African Americans suffering the most. And because it is not limited to Michigan, if we look to the clean water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, and the nationwide police killings, with global outrage sparked by the killing of George Floyd, we must question why such inhumane conditions are allowed to continue. Not only to continue, but to flourish.
Because all of these events are man-made, all of these events are solvable. Very much so, I believe. We must acknowledge that the root of the conditions that contribute to Black inequality in this country stem directly from the subhuman treatment of African Americans and the exploitation of their labor for profit. As we heard earlier from one of our keynote speakers, Jim Vincent, President of the Providence, Rhode Island Branch of the NAACP.
Our unwillingness as a nation to deal with the realities of this history, and how the residue manifests itself in the current inequalities of today, have greatly reduced the progress we could have achieved by this point. Because no matter the latest technological advances across industry, no matter the amount of tax dollars that flow through multimillion dollar investments, the questions surrounding race and equality still remain. Why? Because Black people, including right here in Detroit where we occupy the majority, are largely left out of the ability to reap economic benefits.
And the numbers don’t lie. Many of the most high paying industries are predominantly white. In my field of law, an abysmal 5% maximum of lawyers are Black. In the tech industry, less than 10% of the workforce is Black. In the STEM industry, less than 10% of the workforce is Black. Blacks are also underrepresented in the Energy industry, accounting for less than 10% in segments of that industry. In contrast, nearly 40% of the federal US prison population is Black, despite Blacks being only 13% of the overall population, and in 12 states, including Michigan, more than half of the prison population is Black.
Despite these grim statistics, hope springs eternal. Why? Because again, this is a problem with many solutions, the first of which is to acknowledge the truth about why conditions are the way they are. It is not due to racial inferiority or genetic displacement of some sort. We have already established the root cause as the historic subhuman treatment of African Americans and the exploitation of their labor for profit.
Now that we have identified the problem, which is not an unknown topic, but rather taboo, we can begin to solve it with intention. Specifically, I highlight three ways: ending political disinvestment, corporate partnerships, and empowering community.
When we examine the state of Black inequality in Michigan, we cannot avoid the political reluctance to invest in the Black community, nor can we ignore the historic legacy of disinvestment from it.
Right here in Detroit, we have openly seen politicians supporting major multi-million dollar tax breaks, public money, to fund private development projects, but have not seen such vigorous advocacy to convert those dollars into legitimate economic opportunities for residents of the city. And not mere crumbs passed off as community benefits, but serious training programs to equip residents with skills to utilize in the marketplace now and in the future.
Likewise, during the water crisis facing Benton Harbor, few public officials went on record to offer serious solutions, and instead, only showed up when the cameras had already descended to highlight the problem. The same happened in Detroit, which faced high water prices for a city mired in poverty, causing water shutoffs for those who could not afford it. Despite being petitioned to declare a water emergency, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer did not enact emergencies until the week of primary elections in March 2020, which coincided with the onset of covid.
While many see changes in the political system as an insurmountable task, it is only so if we allow it to be. Inside the halls of the Michigan Supreme Court reads the timeless maxim “All Political Power Is Inherent in the People.” Civic responsibility does not start and end at the ballot box. Consistent political pressure must be applied to bring about the changes we seek from those tasked with governing. Our society would do well to remember this, and exercise that awesome power accordingly, not just on election day, but 365 days a year, plus one during leap years.
Next, serious corporate partnerships must be formed and sustained to bring lucrative opportunities directly to residents in marginalized cities like Detroit. I’m not talking about a pool of money allocated to one particular neighborhood that reports no results either. In Philadelphia, during the depths of the Civil Rights Movement, the late Reverend Leon Sullivan, pastor of the largest Black church in Philadelphia at the time, successfully brokered deals with some of the largest corporations in America to hire residents out of his organization’s training program, thus providing a direct pipeline to economic opportunity. The residents benefited through direct economic and financial stability, and the corporations gained a steady workforce along with respect and a loyal customer base.
Reverend Sullivan then went on to become the first Black person to join the Board of Directors of General Motors, which of course is headquartered right here in Detroit. The late Earl Graves, founder of Black Enterprise magazine, initiated a similar model, successfully brokering corporate deals among Black contractors. Black politicians have likewise served as middlemen in the corporate job pipeline, such as late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Detroit’s own late Congressman John Conyers. Without these efforts, many of the Blacks who have been able to cut through the corporate walls of exclusivity would not have been able to amass private fortunes, proving that this model is successful. Now, we must repeat it and scale it to the masses.
Finally, we must empower our communities to assure them that the realities of today are not the realities of eternity. If we do nothing, nothing will happen. If we do something, something can happen. I mentioned the late Reverend Leon Sullivan and the late Earl Graves. Both of these gentlemen wrote books on their successes for us to pick up in our generation and follow, one of which is seen directly behind me, Build Brother Build by Rev. Sullivan.
I am particularly keen on empowering community because so much of the messages that have been fed to us throughout the centuries have been negative, soul-destroying, and disempowering. And our mainstream media has no intention to reverse this message because doing so does not serve its interest or that of the status quo that has thrived on enforcing purposeful ignorance. We see right here in Detroit, how the mainstream media hops in to cover the latest crime or latest business deal, but provides no context as to why crime is on the rise or whether that latest deal will be beneficial to the city.
This lack of critical analysis is dangerous and intentional. Fortunately, at The PuLSE Institute, we have the most authentic and critical Black voice in the media in Bankole Thompson. It is said biblically that a prophet is without honor save for in his own land. Bankole’s voice represents what is missing in media outlets nationwide, and we are grateful to work with him in his unique and vital mission. Because the narratives, the messages, the stories put out there are tailored and crafted not to ask the tough questions or to provide useful solutions. Therefore, we must provide this missing ingredient in order to restore the knowledge reservoir missing in the Black community specifically, to begin to heal the old wounds of false inferiority and forceful ignorance and build a stronger foundation for progress and improvement. Honestly, my entire message would be empty without pointing to this crucial and eternal solution.
Now, as I conclude, many may ask, and sometimes I even ask myself, how can I genuinely be so optimistic that in spite of the woes of our current realities we can change for the better? And the answer is quite simple. Because it’s been done before. We’ve been through worse as a people, and as a nation, and as the late great Maya Angelou said, And Still I Rise. History is indeed the greatest teacher we can learn from, but only if we take action. In doing so, we can make the history future generations look to for guidance when the tide turns. I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his remarkable book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, when within the first 50 pages, he reminds us that:
“In any social revolution there are times when the tail winds of triumph and fulfillment favor us, and other times when strong head winds of disappointment and setbacks beat against us relentlessly. We must not permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life’s mighty Atlantic; we must be sustained by our engines of courage in spite of the winds. This refusal to be stopped, this ‘courage to be,’ this determination to go on ‘in spite of’ is the hallmark of any great movement.” – P.48
In resounding relevance, his eloquent words still ring true today.
Lastly, as late author and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon eloquently stated, each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it. Our mission is clear. It is now up to us to fulfill it, so that we don’t betray it.