Downtown crowds rinsed of all color? That’s not Pure Michigan

Let’s make a simple resolution for 2015. Let’s not whitewash Detroit’s media coverage, imagery and other presentations more than it already has been.

It’s an issue that, sadly, we still need to talk about. Of course no one wants to talk about racism. It’s not like you wake up in the morning and say, “hmm, which oppressed minority group will I have a conversation about before lunch?” But maybe if people weren’t so clueless or obtuse about race, then we’d have no need for these conversations.

The year is still young, and twice already we have examples of Detroit, an 83 percent black city, shown as a place where that 83 percent is nonexistent. It’s not the first time it has happened. As Detroit continues to climb out of its hole, several in the media have turned its eye to its revivalists, solely focusing on young, white (and far too often male) ones and leaving out anyone over 30, and anyone not white.

Vulture, an online arm of New York magazine, recently published a piece about artists who chose to move to Detroit and why they live here as opposed to, well, New York. Of the nine artists profiled, all are white, again reinforcing a false narrative that only white people are capable of saving Detroit.

The author of the piece later apologized. But there’s no reason a New York media outlet should have pulled this crap; after the New York Times acknowledged problems with an all-white depiction of Corktown last summer, there’s no way anyone could have missed it.

You’d think the media are the only ones capable of making these mistakes, especially from outside the state. But from a second example, a hometown favorite can be just as short-sighted, and it’s disappointing, considering the source.

By all accounts, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Pure Michigan campaign, with 10 years in the game, is a success. That unmistakable tinkling piano at the beginning of each ad does hit a soft spot for me, and I’m happy Tim Allen’s calming voice has drawn many to our Great Lakes.

But a recent ad that debuted just before the New Year, ironically titled “Soul,” had me asking the same question Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley has been asking lately: Where are the black people? In fact, where are any people of color?

In it, we see shots of downtown Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids, and – maybe if you squint hard enough in one or two shots, I could be wrong – all white people frequenting establishments in those cities.

The ad encourages people to visit Michigan’s bigger-city downtowns, but I can’t help but wonder if the ad was really saying “see, it’s safe enough for white people!” Because even with shots of Campus Martius, Punch Bowl Social and Michigan Central Depot, Pure Michigan somehow managed to wipe Detroit clean of all its color.

(Grand Rapids and Lansing should be just as offended as well. Granted, the demographics are flipped compared to Detroit, but it’s not as if racial ethnic minorities are nonexistent.)

Again I ask, how are we making these mistakes over and over? For years now? We know things like these, be it an article or a video, are seen by multiple sets of eyes before going public. How is it that people are still not saying, “Hey, wait a minute?” Is it that people are trying so hard to be race-blind that they’ve become ignorant? Is it laziness? Or is it just plain stupidity?

To be clear, I’m not on the bandwagon that there is a big machine at work to make people of color here in Detroit and elsewhere invisible. I’m not big on conspiracy theories, never have been. But I’m leaning toward thinking that people are just really, really stupid. And I’m learning – gradually – to not compromise my visibility or worth because of someone else’s stupidity.

It’s 2015. There are no excuses anymore. Please do better.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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John Q.
Fri, 01/09/2015 - 2:48pm
Gotta say that watching that video, you see a lot of white people in a city and region that's much more diverse than that.
Pamela Setla
Mon, 01/12/2015 - 1:42pm
Aaron, you are totally right. Even though I'm white, I've attended a Black Catholic church near Belle Isle for 20 years. I grew up with Black friends so it is weird and uncomfortable to me when I'm in a crowd with no diversity. Not when I'm the only white person in a group but when there are no people of color. Recently, our church has had an influx of white folks who are now parishioners and the neighborhood is attracting young whites who are buying the homes. I don't know where all these white folks are coming from but I for one don't want to lose our African-centric nature at church. It is too rich and vibrant - much different from the suburbs. Keep up the good writing. This is a topic my friends and I talk about.
Sat, 01/10/2015 - 7:55am
The brouhaha about “free speech” and “censorship” (it wasn’t true censorship in Charlie’s case because the government did not intrude) in Paris should make us reflect on suppression of expression in America. In the USA, there is true censorship taking place in public schools, FCC sponsored television, and in governmentally sponsored universities. I refer of course, to political correctness that has become a joke among high school students (at least to our kids.) There is also a gathering of laws and suppression of “hate speech” the kind of free give and take that allowed buddies to jostle. A 7 year old who bites his cookie into the shape of a pistol is expelled. Hatred of white males is the party line at our state universities. Capitalism is the only bad guy in the curriculum. Several weeks ago I referred to the Islamization of Europe in a blog to the Economist; it was pulled. Our government has done a survey of rape on US campuses and the rate is virtually zero yet I’m listening to an account on NPR about how rape allegations are being unfairly lampooned. Foley justifiably criticizes Pure Michigan for editing out African Americans in Detroit, but unaccountably ignores the ocean of topics that are available for serious criticism.
Mon, 01/19/2015 - 1:49pm
there's always one....why can't Foley write about what HE wants? He's focusing on "a" topic HE wants! That in no way means he's "ignoring" others. This is so tiresome.... It would take one of you to come here and troll for some nonsense....HE.....WE can focus on whatever topic we CHOOSE without speaking of othesr at that time....if we CHOOSE! get over it!
Sat, 01/10/2015 - 2:27pm
The promo was shot mostly in Grand Rapids. Editorial choices gleaned out offending people of color. Voiceover points out the cities are more than brick, glass & steel. People may even have had something to do with this! W0W!!!
Kevin Wilson
Sat, 01/10/2015 - 3:45pm
Is it me, or is it weird that the title above the video says "Soul | Pure Michigan | Radio Spot"? Yeah, that's a little off-topic, but no one every complained about the visuals in a radio commercial. What I see is a night crowd shot where most everyone is purple, and then some unfortunately white-biased close-up selections of people walking on a street and sitting in a restaurant.
John Q. Public
Sat, 01/10/2015 - 4:36pm
'..I can’t help but wonder if the ad was really saying “see, it’s safe enough for white people!” ' Well, sure it is. It's an ad. The purpose of ads is to get your money. White people have almost all the money, and they, for the most part, think Detroit is unsafe. So, if you want their money--the purpose of ads--you have to convince them Detroit is safe or they won't come and leave their money behind. I'm not sure the ad creators are stupid. The purpose of the ads is to get people to come and leave their money. By all accounts, they have been successful. That doesn't sound stupid to me.
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 10:41am
I agree with you, and I'm a black woman (over 30 at that!). It is because society does still see white as right and safe that the commercial was made like this. But if that's what gets the masses to our city and I can come and reap the benefits, well that's what we gotta do. Hey, at least they still rep black people in the casino ads! Lol.
Sat, 01/10/2015 - 9:31pm
I agree that it is a deliberate marketing to not to include Black people. Because the desire is not to include them.
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 6:35am
Does anyone complain during the player introductions at a foot ball or a basketball game that one race is predominantly displayed? Of course not.
Plan 9 From Out...
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 7:30am
I can only imagine the creative brief for this commercial (and I know because I've written hundreds of them!): PROJECT TITLE: "Detroit As A Theme Park" DESCRIPTION: Now that Detroit's out of bankruptcy, and out-of-town rich white people are snapping up property, evicting people from their homes to make room for their gentrified rich white people amusement park in the downtown and midtown areas, it's time for some "pure" Pure Michigan! You know the rest...
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 9:10am
"gentrified rich white people amusement park" I like that line. A couple of big name people throwing money around on sports arenas and other projects that are a monument to their ego and of course the media eats up as the big turn around for the city, meanwhile most of the rest of Detroit is close to dirt poor with failing schools and little hope for the future.
Dick Hooker
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 8:43am
#1 on my bucket list: the day when race is no longer part of the conversation. Until then, I'll do what I can.
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 1:24pm
Let's not be stupid or naive about this. Anyone who creates an ad first thinks about the target of that ad. It's clear who the Pure Michigan ad is targeting - young white professionals with plenty of disposable income. It left out many other demographics, including the elderly, rural farmers, hunting enthusiasts, etc. etc. The intent is not to show the city as it is, but to show a city that would appeal to the specific target demographic. Maybe PM thinks it is redundant to try to attract more black people to the city, even those with higher incomes. However, if PM wanted to attract more black people to the city (or for that matter old people, rural farmers, hunting enthusiasts, etc.), they'd have made that commercial.
john Herold
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 8:49pm
Maybe Pure Michigan might be trying to balance out the promo's that have been coming from our major Michigan Universities. Talk about carefully selected individuals...(sort of like those who are lucky enough to stand behind the President when he comes to Michigan to speak). BAMN is complaining that the UM doesn't have 10% minority enrollment. Check out the UM TV pieces running during sporting events and you'd think that the it's white students who are in the minority.
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 10:22pm
I have to disappoint Mr. Foley, his article did not peak my interest about Detroit and how it is portrayed. His article raised a concern about the risk of being so focus on one’s purpose that it prevents consideration of other possibilities for the facts. I feel this is a risk we all face and should pause to consider if we are allowing our passion to undermine the credibility of the communication. In Mr. Foley’s article he gave the impression that all his examples failed to properly represent the profile of Detroit. I wonder when he was making his assessments if he was considering what the purpose of those communications were and whether they were about the whole of Detroit or something much narrower. Did he consider the artists article purpose was to show through the artists that Detroit as a viable place to live and work? If that were the case then I wonder why they should be expected to include information about local population or artists that are lifetime residents. If a woman artist from Brazil is willing to risk her unknown and ignore the images the media has presented of Detroit, how is that somehow biased by not including artists who have grown up in Detroit and know the subtleties of living in Detroit. I think by including these venturesome artists the message is how Detroit should be considered by non-residents with interest. That seems like a strong positive message about Detroit, and yet it seems Mr. Foley doesn't feel that, why? Mr. Foley isn’t the exception for how he works his purpose, but his may be an example of how we all communicate and how we should pause to think about our the facts and if were are presenting them accurately. Was the presentation of the bicyclists’ event to be a profile of Detroit or was it to show how biking enthusiast coming together in Detroit, or was it a means to show how non-residence are seeing Detroit as a viable place to be active? I can understand how one feels when what they are concerned with, what they are part of, is not being represented as they want (I think we have all had such feelings), but I encourage all of us to fully considered how we present our view as it can weigh heavily on the credibility of the communications, it can even begin to build a less then thoughtful perception of the communicator.
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 10:26pm
"And I’m learning – gradually – to not compromise my visibility or worth because of someone else’s stupidity." I have learned that not everyone who sees and does things differently than I would is 'stupid.' I have found that different perspectives can influence how one acts and thinks, and that I can learn and benefit from other perceptions, but I have to be willing to listen.
Mon, 01/12/2015 - 10:45am
“See, it’s safe enough for white people!” Spot on. My 2015 challenge to my white brothers (and sisters): Consider the inherent dismissiveness when you use words like "political correctness." Also consider getting in touch with how your co-workers and customers of color actually feel. Consider joining--as opposed to avoiding--conversations about race this year. Ferguson and Staten Island (and Phoenix and Cleveland and…) are real. White folks can't keep their heads in the sand; denial and deflection are not winning strategies.
Jayne Marie
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 3:00pm
Honestly, this is right up there with people calling Detroit a "blank canvas," essentially ignoring the 3/4 Million people, mainly people of color, who live here, have lived here, and have history and a culture here. I'm okay with people seeing room for themselves. I'm not okay with people not seeing the people or the culture that already exist here. As I've expressed before, it feels very much like being a Native American in 1492, and having someone discover and claim your land in the name of someone else who's somewhere else. I guess that's the pioneer spirit. Point is, the culture of the "minority" (non-white) has only or mainly been appreciated as a novelty (harken back if you will to Whites visiting the Cotton Club in Harlem during the segregated 1920's). "Cultured" has meant art museums and opera houses (both of which I, a woman of color, love and appreciate), however it has never been used to mean being cultured in the ways of Hip-hop, Gospel, Jazz, Black comedy, Greek bakeries, Hispanic restaurants, Latin murals, Middle Eastern influenced architecture and design, or the 24 hour greasy spoon Coney Islands catering to Detroit's Blue Collar culture. (Not surprising when you think of how the Pensioners had to be lumped in with the Art Collection, and give up big portions of their paychecks in order to be worthy of being "saved.") Detroit has plenty of culture that permeates the mindsets and shapes the attitudes of the residents it reflect - and I'm not referring to the blight and hopelessness that can be depressing. Side Note: Detroiters who live in long established communities - whether thriving or blighted - don't post pictures of ruin porn. It's not a novelty or a point of pride. (Pictures of graffiti art/ murals are different.) To the author's point, yes, clearly this video was made to make White suburban people think the big cities have been cleaned up (of the scary Black people problem) and are now safe enough to visit. It's a way of "reclaiming" Detroit and divorcing "the Black city" reputation from Michigan's wholesome, Mid-western reputation. Funny thing is, Blacks in Detroit are just as Midwestern as Whites in Kalamazoo when you look at family values and priorities, even if our cultural expressions are different. It's such a shame though because most people actually like to see diversity in cities. That's where a city's personality comes from! Could you imagine no China town in LA or SF or no Italian or Puerto Rican neighborhoods in NYC? I wonder if somewhere, someone's desire isn't in fact to turn MI into this happy, apple-picking, predominately White state that tolerates minorities that are willing to conform to their idea of White, Middle American culture and have only a minor cultural impact. I don't think the agency was thinking that, however, I'm certain they were to some degree conscious of what they were doing, as there is always a profile of the target audience and I'm certain that people who look and live like me are not it, even though I am a part of Detroit's heartbeat and they are asking people to visit my city. Funny that Chrysler has no problems showing Black people on the streets of Detroit in their commercials.
Rick Haglund
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 12:57pm
It looks like the "Soul" ad has been pulled.