Detroit News Story Fails to Give True Picture of Racial Tension in City
Journalists trolling for stories tend to employ a handy rule of thumb for determining when an idea ripened enough for development: If there are at least three instances of an incident occurring, then somewhere a newsworthy trend must be unfolding.
Clearly, this was the thinking at the Detroit News when it decided to drop a story that purports to show how race relations at city liquor stores and gas stations have been worsened as a result of "a recent string of high-profile crimes."
The idea is to sell us on the idea that the deaths of store owner Fred Dally and customer Michael Haynes in separate incidents, along with the carjacking of Detroit minister Marvin Winans, have blended together to fuel a potentially explosive atmosphere of race hatred—that is to say, black customers loathing the mostly Arab business owners and workers—at street corner retail outlets throughout the city.
Without even bothering to make sure the parts actually fit, the News concatenates three incidents and moves full speed ahead with its conclusion.
Racial resentment is the other specter visiting these small businesses.
Many gas stations in Detroit are owned by Lebanese-Americans. Many food and liquor stores are owned by Chaldeans, who are Catholics from Iraq, said a trade group. Virtually all the customers are black.
Relations have been strained by a recent string of high-profile crimes at the Detroit businesses.
Since March 9, the longtime owner of a liquor store was killed, a customer trashing a gas station was fatally shot by a clerk, and a nationally famous gospel singer was carjacked at a CITGO station.
After the singer, the Rev. Marvin Winans, charged that gas stations were part of the problem, a trade group challenged him to spend a day at a station.
If he did, he would learn the businesses are struggling with crime as much as residents, said Auday Arabo, president of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers of Farmington Hills.
"Businesses are victimized every day," he said.
Winans didn't take Arabo up on his offer but The Detroit News did. Arabo introduced a reporter to Dabaja, who allowed him to hang out at his gas station during the day and graveyard shift on a Friday night.
And after a day of hanging at the gas station, what's the evidence that the News offers to show that the two deaths and the carjacking of a black preacher by black criminals have "strained" race relations inside local businesses? Some teenager apparently mocked a clerk's looks while onlookers "smirked."
That's it. The rest of the story goes out of its way to sensationalize humdrum, late-night 'hood bullshit. Some dude trying to sell Cialis to the clerk. Some loudmouthed girl talking about fighting a romantic rival. Some kids throwing a rock at an unknown car. Some weed heads unhappy because the gas station runs out of their favorite brand of rolling papers.
There's nothing to see here, certainly nothing that suggests a rise in race tensions. This is any party store or gas station in any part of the city at any time of the night. This is just a piece that tries—and fails—to make the mundane menacing while hoping to cobble together a trend narrative from a handful of disparate local negatives.
That's not to say that race tension isn't real in the city. I'd argue that the Haynes shooting most certainly angered many blacks, especially many of those aware of the long history of violent run-ins between store owners and their African-American patrons. And the horrific killing of Dally — which was loudly decried by Arab-Americans and blacks alike — put a few more merchants on edge.
But where race is concerned, the feelings these incidents stirred weren't new and aren't on the rise. They've always simmered here. And they run both ways, despite the News story's focus on the storeowners' troubles at the expense of the customers' perspectives.
Black Detroiters do often feel disrespected by many area merchants, sometimes with good reason. I've heard elderly grandmothers with impeccable character complain about being followed around stores like common shoplifters. I've seen parents moan about how some stores place barely concealed pornography near packs of candy, putting both in the reach of children. I've watched people get into arguments over something as simple as the clerk disrespectfully refusing to bag just-purchased items.
And then yes, there are folks like Haynes, beaten and shot to death in confrontations that, had they occurred in at gas stations or party stores in Birmingham or Farmington Hill or Grosse Pointe, would most certainly not have ended with a young white man dead on the floor.
But aside from the obligatory resident pointing out how nicely he's treated by the gas station owner—and yes, that's very much a reality, too—the story doesn't even try to do justice to the notion that black customers may have a POV (point of view) of their own. And although the piece calls out Winans for not taking up merchants' invitation to stake out their businesses, it doesn't address the issues that many concerned citizens spotlighted after his carjacking, when they called on more of the store owners to provide better lighting, security and working surveillance cameras.
Instead, we're told only how hard these liquor stores and gas stations have it dealing with their unruly, racist, possibly criminal clientele and rtsurly street scammers who only grow scarier as day turns to night.
Hell, we're led to believe, these poor businessmen don't even make any money, seeing as how, as the piece notes, that there are seven gas stations within a mile of the place that's profiled. (Of course, the piece doesn't bother to explain how so many gas stations bunched so closely can even stay afloat if there's no real market for them.)
The truth is, the merchants in Detroit work these crowded, competitive thoroughfares precisely because there is a market there. The words "beer," "wine" and "lotto" aren't omnipresent on storefront buildings for nothing. And there's a reason that the sight of three gas stations at a four-corner intersection is normal in Detroit.
No, it's certainly not easy doing business in some quarters of the city, and, in some instances, it can be downright dangerous. And Arab-American merchants who do profit make gains precisely because they hang tough despite the problems. But let's not forget that residents face the same dangers, and they don't get the option of pulling down steel shutters and driving somewhere else to lay their heads at night.
Crime, poverty, violence, ethic differences — these do create very real tensions in Detroit. But understanding them takes a whole lot more than standing around a gas station for a night desperately trying to fabricate fake trends.