Dawsey: Detroit's Color Problem is Lack of Green, Not Lack of Whites

Attorney and firebrand Geoffrey Fieger waded full bore into the issues of race this week, raising eyebrows with both an ad that was part commercial/part racism PSA and with comments to radio talk-show host Charlie Langton that Detroit "really has to attract young white people…It can't be a black city."

Fieger also, yet again, dangled the possibility of a mayoral run and slammed purported mayoral candidate Mike Duggan as a "closet Republican" who's probably not the right white person to try and run for the top job in a predominantly black city.

While I can appreciate Fieger's willingness to speak more frankly about race than Duggan—a Livonia transplant who essentially tried to pretend that he didn't even know he was white last time the topic came up—I'm nonetheless curious about this notion that one of Detroit's top priorities should be to get white people to move back and to figure out a way to install a white man in the Manoogian.

Of course white people should feel welcome in the city, as should Middle Easterners and Latinos and Asian Americans. Like any city that aspires to greatness, Detroit most certainly needs plurality, needs to figure better ways to leverage the potential of a diverse region. But the city of Detroit's most pressing color problem is its lack of green. And if the argument is that government and business would only step up investment in the city if there were more white people living inside its borders, then Fieger's racial analysis, frank though it may be, is clearly missing a much larger point.

When Fieger says Detroit can't be a "black" city, he conflates black with "poor" and "ignorant." And while Detroit does indeed have its share of poor and ignorant black people, it has also been home to a thriving black middle class, one that buoyed the city for decades and struggled mightily to offset the losses incurred from white flight. It's been the steady departure of these black professionals and working-class families—as well as the losses of Arab-American families and Latinos in other quarters of town—that has also accelerated the city's spiral toward ruin.

Detroit can't be a broke city that doesn't collect its taxes. Detroit can't be a city with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. Detroit can't be a city with an abundance of shitty schools and too few good ones. Detroit can't be a city with a sclerotic downtown and retail sectors. Detroit can't be a city that treats its bondholders as sacrosanct and its teachers and firefighters as if they are visigoths plundering the public till.

Detroit didn't get this way because black people moved in. Detroit became what it is because retailers fled, factories closed down, property taxes declined and money dried up. Driven by the insanity of Reaganomics, the federal government divested in the 1980s. And local government didn't plan thoroughly and didn't act swiftly enough to counter the city's mounting losses.

Black doesn't mean poor. Poor means poor. Like Atlanta or greater Washington, DC, Detroit can be as black or brown as it wants to be—but it cannot be without that green.

Fieger's PSA, which seems to be as much about drumming up business as criticizing American racism, says it "really bothers" some of his "white brethren" that Barack Obama is President of the United States. And he's dead right about that. But it also really bothered many of his white brethren that Coleman Young came to power in 1973. And it really bothers many of them that, since Young, four other African-American men have run the city.

Question is, how much does that anger directly or indirectly drive the ongoing talk about a "white mayor" these days, talk that Fieger's clearly seizing on? It's not as if white folks haven't been given a chance. Detroit has seen 74 mayors. Sixty-nine of them have been white. White people haven't exactly been politically disenfranchised around here. Yet somehow (even among some blacks, mind you) there's this notion that "it's time" again for a white man to run the city, that Detroit would automatically be better off if a white man were in charge. Now along comes Geoffrey Fieger to further fuel the conversation.

This doesn't mean that Fieger couldn't be a better mayor than, say, Dave Bing. In truth, I think he likely would be (although I also don't think he's ever serious about running). Fieger's floated some progressive ideas, including the need to aim dwindling law-enforcement resources at real crimes rather than petty vices like prostitution and marijuana. He's respected and liked among a wide spectrum of Detroiters. And he seems to possess the leadership skills, fortitude and vision that Bing sorely lacks.

For all his bombast and apparent unseriousness about politics, Fieger—like the young professionals he rightly says Detroit should court—certainly does have admirable virtues. Merely being white, however, isn't one of them.

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