Mackinac Conference should address race in Detroit in Detroit

Aaron Foley is freelance writer living in Detroit. His work has appeared in Jalopnik, Bridge, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the Detroit Free Press, Reuters, Ebony and other publications. Aaron Foley is freelance writer living in Detroit. His work has appeared in Jalopnik, Bridge, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the Detroit Free Press, Reuters, Ebony and other publications.



Organizers of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, which takes place this week on Mackinac Island, recently announced that race and inclusion, particularly as they relate to recovering Detroit, would be on the table this year.

I’ve been to a Mackinac Policy Conference once, but it’s once enough to know that issues of race have generally been an afterthought. Even if you were to count the number of attendees of color – I went while Dave Bing was mayor of Detroit, and nearly every black Detroit city councilor or state representative attended – you’d still end up with an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly wealthy populace.

“We think this is a national discussion,” conference chairman Mark Davidoff told Crain’s Detroit Business of the decision to put race on the agenda. “If we don’t talk about it, it might get ahead of us, and we can’t afford that.”

Sometime between 1967 and now would’ve been a good time to address race. But other than this discussion being too little, too late, it, there is the problem that it will reflect the makeup of conference attendees: Mostly white, and mostly male. Not long after conference organizers announced the topic, Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley wrote that he and WDIV anchor Devin Scillian would be hosting a discussion on racial inclusion in Detroit.

There’s no knock on Finley and Scillian, who are fine journalists. But why name two middle-aged white men, both residents of suburbs, neither with school-aged children in the city to talk about how residents of color are faring in Detroit? Was there not a single person of color available to host this discussion? And is the Grand Hotel the best setting for the conference’s attendees to be holding forth on the unrest, frustration and despair that pervade too many American cities?

In truth, of course, healing racial divisions takes more than talk. What the policymakers and political leaders who attend the Mackinac Conference need is less talk, and more exposure and immersion. They need to get off the island – or at least realize that the people who would benefit most from the hopeful change that would come from these conversations likely can’t afford to make their way to the island in the first place. Those people need to be in the conversation in their own environment. Make the leaders and powerbrokers who are helping to shape the city’s future feel uncomfortable, so they can really see how people deal with the realities of living in cities like Detroit or Baltimore.

Should the conference go forward with these discussions, attendees need to get real about issues in Detroit beyond inclusion. We’ve established that gentrification is a real possibility in recovering areas, we know this already. We know that minority-owned businesses are ignored in favor of young, white restaurateurs that just got here a minute ago. We know that there aren’t enough craft-cocktail bars and microbreweries opening outside the trendy neighborhoods.

Let’s talk about police brutality in Detroit. Over the last few days, organizers outside Detroit have been using the social media hashtag #AiyanasDreams to call attention to law-enforcement violence on black women. It is named for Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the 7-year-old killed during a botched police raid on Detroit’s east side. Her killing still haunts the city, and is a constant reminder of what happens when police tactics get out of control.

Let’s talk about immigrant inclusion in Detroit. We should be talking more about the dozens of Chaldean refugees arriving in metro Detroit by the month, making sure they have the same potential for economic stability as Brooklyn transplants should they decide to make a home here. We should be conscious of other new arrivals – Jamaicans on the west side of Detroit, Central Americans and Arabs in Southwest, Bangladeshis on the east side – and embrace their cultural diversity. We’ve spent so much marketing and incentives to woo young white Americans. They already know Detroit is here.

Let’s talk about schools and children. We’ve seen the recent Census figures showing that black families continue to leave Detroit en masse, and more people are leaving than coming. They’re not leaving Michigan, though – they’re just headed to better school districts in more stable suburbs. Having a zoo in Royal Oak and a science center in Midtown is not enough. There are just not enough incentives for families to live in Detroit, and once all those trendy young people from the suburbs have kids, they’ll be back in their hometowns just as fast.

Let’s talk about all of it here in Detroit. It can’t be said enough that trying to discuss complex issues of race and equity must be done at home, instead of somewhere disconnected from it all. You can’t talk about things like the need for public transit on an island that doesn’t allow motorized vehicles. And you can’t be too comfortable when having these conversations. It’s too late to move the discussion back to Detroit, but the Detroit Regional Chamber should, in the future, remember the name of its organization.

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Tue, 05/26/2015 - 7:21am
The irony of white people talking about the subject of racial inequality in a place like Grand Hotel would be hilarious if it was not so pathetic.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:37am
Anyone who brings up Aiyana Stanley-Jones and police brutality in the same sentence obviously isn't capable to discuss such matters. Reviewing this case would do no good. Also, why would "white people" risk their live in a "no snitch" environment? It's pure lawlessness when nobody hears/sees anything. Quit nagging at "white people" to fix your destiny - fix it yourselves. White people don't owe you a thing. And quit shooting our Federal judges!!!
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 9:47am
Attended a conference once at the Grand Hotel and will never go back. Too much like a plantation.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 12:27pm
So the Grand Hotel reminds you of a plantation house. Are the fields among the blocks and blocks of Detroit which have no houses?
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:43am
Dear Bridge, please have someone count the number of time someone says "those people" or its functional equivalent at this event. I expect it would be enlightening.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:50am
We’ve seen the most recent Census figures showing that black families continue to leave Detroit en masse, and more people are leaving than coming. They’re not leaving Michigan, though – they’re just headed to better school districts in more stable suburbs. Having a zoo in Royal Oak and a science center in Midtown is not enough." Let's talk about the Great Art Heist where billions of dollars of art was taken from Detroit for pennies on the dollar. These funds should have been used to fix schools, improve mass transit, remove blight, reduce crime etc. ...
Wed, 05/27/2015 - 3:35pm
Reread the Article - the art is in a trust - it is here in Detroit - IT WAS NOT SOLD.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:53am
Thanks for mentioning gentrification. It gets so little press and is such an important topic. When discussions about new sports venues and hotels and restaurants take place they rarely involve any mention of how these developments often drive residents even further from the shiny new areas in cities.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 11:02am
I have been informed by a very trusted and reliable source that the Mackinac Conference is actually an arm of ALEC, which is a coalition of wealthy and influential persons who wish to influence the way policies are set in our state and national legislatures. They are extremely conservative and also lean toward evangelical Christianity. If this is correct, then having them discuss the topic of racial inclusion in any large city is totally ridiculous.
Thomas Morgan
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 12:08pm
You're thinking of the Mackinac Center, which is a different thing.
Cary Junior
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 12:43pm
Thanks Mr Foley for identifying the elephant in the room. Unfortunately those who see it and can't afford to disregard it do so anyway. Its been a never ending story in Metro Detroit.
Also born in Detroit
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 1:16pm
When I read your comment my first thought was to ignore it as the grumbling of white trash, I thought about it and decided to address the continued ignorance of people of your ilk, Those of us of African descent do not want white people to fix our destiny, solve our problems, give us freebies, handouts, or anything else. What we do want is the right to freedom, decision making, equality, and general humane treatment that whites take for granted. However, whites want to control our destiny and keep us under their control, therefore they have taken it upon themselves to "be in charge" of change. Being in control means you have to take responsibility. Control also means that whites determine how little equality the hated race will have. Relinquishing control means that they can no longer keep us "in our place." Think about it.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 1:24pm
An open and honest discussion on race would be welcome. Here are just two (2) excellent topics worthy of a deep and thorough analysis and conversation: * the Absence of Fathers in the Black Family: 80% of black children are born and raised by single black women, the highest statistic of its kind across all races. Why? How does this affect the child's sense of values about work, education and sense of identity? * Crime: Blacks are involved in crimes and violent behaviors at a significantly higher rate than other races. Why? Does family upbringing and lack of active fathers often lead to criminal behaviors?
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 5:44pm
What about the lack of recreational and employment options, regardless of family status? "Idle mind is the devil's workshop", it's been said.;;;;
Dr. Zeile
Sun, 05/31/2015 - 6:41pm
High minimum wage policies eliminate opportunities for young people to find work in Detroit, cutting them off from both potential income and from learning job skills. The unintended results of well-intended policies have to be faced in Detroit and throughout the state.
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 1:43pm
I would like to hear what African Americans or the Black community has to offer for their solution to Detroit's racial inequalities issues.
Wed, 05/27/2015 - 6:47am
Blacks need to talk to Blacks. Stop the generation after generation of Detroit babies born out-of-wedlock in poverty. Poverty breeds Poverty. ~75% of Black babies are born in that environment and it unsustainable. Talk about Black crime, Talk about importance of education and not being "Black enough." Talk about obeying police and not resisting or running away. Take care of these things and you will see there is much less race issues than Blacks are saying there is in our communities.
Wed, 05/27/2015 - 10:47am
Don't forget that there also needs to be a discussion regarding the discrimination that is allowed to exist in the auto insurance industry against the residents of Detroit. It doesn't matter if you have a spotless driving record, all residents are grouped into a group of "those people", AKA Detroit residents! Trying to confirm and purchasing auto insurance is getting to be progressively worse!
Wed, 05/27/2015 - 3:28pm
I agree that the discussion should begin, and largely remain, in Detroit. Up at the Grand Hotel, the reality of poverty among persons of color is all too easy to overlook. In Detroit, where even well-intentioned attempts to help are insufficient to the need (i.e., the DWSD payment plan - great on its face, but the reality is that the people who owe large balances flat don't have the resources to pay those balances down) it is impossible to miss. And why would the conference ADD a conversation rather than base the meeting on that conversation. We are talking about a significant city in America that is trying to rise like the phoenix; a city whose success would add luster to the state, and which is being held back by the rates of poverty and the inequity/inequality that exists.
Eric Brown
Fri, 05/29/2015 - 12:47pm
This article lost all relevancy for me the second that Aiyana's name was interjected into the discussion. Tell the story of what was the reason for the cops being at the location where Aiyana met her unfortunate demise. Though I sympathize the loss of that VERY innocent child; her death had ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with police brutality. In fact, had it not been for the ignorant actions of her dad and his boy, Aiyana would still be amongst us. The adult thugs in her life are responsible for her demise due to lack of respect for another human being's life. Those fools snuffed out the life of an innocent teen; and for what? So tell the right story before trying to sensationalizing your piece for the sake of playing the blame/victimization game.
Human Being
Sun, 05/31/2015 - 11:16am
i agree, adults placed Aiyanna Stanley Jones in a dangerous situation. However, the value of life of the preservation of life should be the rule. Obviously, the officer did not intend to shoot her. Question: was the action he took necessary? At that moment was he endanger? Can you justify taking her life under these circumstances justified. She was a human being. Have mercy on her soul. I am sure the officer as a human being is atoning for his action. Peace