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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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