What If Detroit Were 85 Percent White?
In a column last week, my colleague, Darrell Dawsey, asked a provocative question.
It was especially provocative if you are white.
If synthetic marijuana affected only poor black kids in Detroit, Dawsey wondered, would the issue of spice command the same level of attention from the establishment as it has the past few weeks? Would the entire political, media, medical and law enforcement apparatus in southeast Michigan and Lansing, a.k.a. whites, have come together like it has?
Spice, or K2, has been a problem for a long time. It burst into public consciousness this spring, at least partly because the drug became connected to a couple of tragedies in the suburbs. It is almost a law of nature that when well-off white people start killing each other, attention will be paid, especially if it involves an exotic drug sold at gas stations.
Let’s go beyond spice and tweak Darrell's concept a bit. Let's take an issue in overwhelmingly black Detroit and ask how that issue would have been handled if Detroit were overwhelmingly white.
How about the issue of abandoned buildings?
I say if Detroit had been 70 percent to 85 percent white for the past 30 years, the larger society beyond Detroit would have found a way to help the city deal with abandoned buildings.
Empty homes, businesses and factories have plagued Detroit for decades. They exist for several reasons, virtually all of them economic in nature. Historically, one of the principal reasons for empty houses in Detroit was because southeast Michigan built more homes than its slow-growing population could fill, and many of the oldest and least desirable homes were in Detroit. Yes, there also was mismanagement of the problem in Detroit. There is always mismanagement.
When white people mobilize it can be an awesome thing, but the white establishment outside Detroit never has seen fit to take on abandoned buildings.
The cash-strapped city never had the money to demolish the structures in a timely manner. The vacant buildings are cancers, and neighbors, who do not cause the problem, are powerless to do anything about it. The empty structures eat away at the rest of the neighborhood, lower property values and offer a refuge or target for dopers, rapists, scrappers, arsonists and other criminals.
It's not an overstatement to call abandoned buildings a significant public health problem. But white metro Detroiters and the mainly white state legislature and federal government never have treated them as a threat to public health. For the most part, white people do not have to live around lots of abandoned buildings. Coincidence?
Imagine if a tornado, or some man-made catastrophe, created a large number of abandoned homes in Birmingham, Grosse Pointe or Traverse City. It is inconceivable that white decision-makers would allow such abandonment to metastasize for years.
Abandoned buildings are not complicated. You tear them down. Taking care of abandoned buildings is not like solving complex problems like poverty or youth violence.
If whites lived next to abandoned buildings, maybe politicians would implement a new housing policy. Perhaps the governor would find demolition funds. Congress might call hearings. The legislature might even pass a tax to deal with the problem, even if it is a hotel tax on visitors, because anti-tax politicians didn't mind establishing such a tax to build a ball park in Detroit. There is no doubt that somehow, some way, the problem would be addressed.
Abandoned buildings are both a result and a cause of Detroit’s deep-rooted difficulties. City officials over the years have strategized endlessly – and fruitlessly -- to get ahead of the problem. Today, empty homes, stores, factories, churches, schools, police stations, fire houses, rec centers and one big ugly train station have reached critical mass and become the city’s public face. The abandonment contributes to more people moving out, which in turn creates more abandonment and accelerates the city's overall downward spiral.
Race relations have improved greatly even in deeply segregated southeast Michigan. But someday, our descendants will look back on this era and ask themselves how the majority population could have generally remained unmoved by the plight of the black community.
Whites have ignored a lot of the problems in black Detroit for a long time. Partly that is due to the dog-eat-dog competition between cities, but ignored problems fester, and now Detroit has collapsed to the point where it might affect people beyond the city limits.