Mayor’s account of Detroit’s racist past holds promise for city’s future

detroit fist

Mike Duggan gave the region’s mostly white business establishment a historical tour of government housing practices that left blacks behind. Will it translate into a city revival that lifts all Detroiters?   

Nicole de Beaufort

Nicole de Beaufort is a Detroit-based strategist, social entrepreneur and communications expert. She is the founder and president of EarlyWorks LLC, and lives in the city.  

It’s rare that I want to sit down and write about a mayoral speech. But when Detroit public radio station WDET posted a transcript of Mayor Mike Duggan’s recent remarks at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, I was able to reflect on the mayor’s use of historical facts to invoke messages of fairness and opportunity. This is the speech that launched a thousand tweets and more than a few “I never thought in my lifetime I’d hear that” comments.

Duggan’s speech tackled development. He offered a vision for how Detroit might move forward as a growing city without repeating its mistakes of the past. In large part, he pinned the blame on the federal government.

His remarks, though delivered in a room full of business and policy folks, also seemed aimed at Detroit residents, many of whom don’t have the transportation option of traveling 300 miles to an island to hear him talk. This, in the context of a re-election campaign, makes sense. Show Detroiters that he understands the history and has a solution for how to move forward to create a different outcome, and bring along the largely white audience of business and policy leaders whose support is critical in accomplishing his goals for the city.

Here’s what worked about his speech:

He brought us along with him ‒ Duggan started with the notion of having a vision, but described the arc of history that brings us here today. He didn’t just state how the city was doing, he explained why. This allowed him to talk about subjects that many hadn’t heard a white leader, let alone mayor, touch regarding racist policies of the past.

He opened with:

“We are evolving as an administration from the first few years — which was get the street lights on, get the grass cut in the parks, get the police to show up, get the buses to run —  to now, what kind of a city do we want to be? And is there a vision?”

Duggan then addressed the tough truths:

“The way Detroit looks today is directly rooted in planning decisions that the leaders of this community made in the 1940s and the 1950s. That was the last period of growth in Detroit.”

“But first we have to go back in time because urban redevelopment in America has historically across the country been about removing the poor. It was conceived as slum clearance.”

He then went into a detailed explanation about federal policies from as far back as the 1920s and into post-WWII, including government mortgage lending policies that spurred the creation of “blue, green and red zones.” It’s where the term “redlining” comes from and it was a deliberate policy to segregate and exclude home ownership opportunity for specific, minority populations while incentivizing it for white people.

He didn’t blame the audience ‒ He blamed the U.S. government. Whether his locus of responsibility is entirely right or not, it worked. The audience, arguably, has benefited from the inequitable policies Duggan detailed. It could have gotten uncomfortable. But, it didn’t.  The audience didn’t get defensive, it got contemplative. It allowed the facts of the past to sink in and for opportunities in the future to make more sense.

“And so you say, ‘Well how did that happen? What’s the problem?’ And this is the thing that makes you so angry. Much of the problem we had was the direct result of the federal government.”     

And, as he pointed to a slide showing the streets of 8 Mile and Birwood:

“They built this wall with the black families lived here, built the new subdivision there. You can see the children in the old neighborhood up against the wall. This is what our federal government did.”

He framed policy options in terms of “fairness” and “opportunity” ‒ Detroit got where it is today because of unfair policies and structures that advantaged white people and suburban expansion. Detroit will go places in the future if it focuses on opportunity for all, or, “One City. For all of us.”

“How did all those homes in Detroit deteriorate over the years? There was a conscious federal policy that discarded what was left behind and subsidized the move to the suburbs.”

Another cue to the idea of unfairness:

“And so Lafayette Park [constructed after the clearance of an African-American neighborhood] got rebuilt. And the former residents couldn’t afford to be there. This is our history.”

Duggan then built the case for future opportunities through eight principles:

“So we said, ‘Here’s our new thing: What if Detroit had pulled together and said then, One Detroit for all of us? We’re going to create space for everybody. How different would Detroit’s history be?’ That’s the question we’re asking.”

He presented solutions in the form of principles ‒ Duggan essentially signaled that from this point forward residents can hold him accountable for meeting these eight principles for future development in Detroit:

  • Everyone is welcome in our city.
  • Detroit won’t support development if it displaces current Detroit residents.
  • The city will fight economic segregation by pushing jobs into all neighborhoods.
  • Blight removal is critical.
  • Detroit will create walkable neighborhoods.
  • Those who stayed will have a voice.
  • Jobs and opportunities are available first to Detroiters.
  • The riverfront is for everyone.

My favorite line:

“The fact is the people who drive your buses, the people who answer your phones... (these) people who are working in your businesses should be able to live in the same neighborhood as the hockey players and the executives and the like.

“We all work together. We should all live together.”

Here are some things that could have improved Duggan’s speech:

He could have gone beyond development ‒ If you read through Duggan’s speech, it’s mainly about where people live, who gets to live where, and what where you live has to offer you. But what about the wellbeing of children and families and their relationship to the city? What about clean, safe drinking water? What about safety? What about economic opportunity and social mobility?

Too many principles ‒ Eight principles are hard to remember. Why not three: first, this city is for the people and by the people. We will not exclude or disadvantage anyone based on history, race, ethnicity, creed or income. Second, we strive to create inclusive and vibrant communities throughout the city where everyone feels welcome. Third, our assets and resources ‒ those things that make Detroit special and ours ‒ belong to its residents. Okay, four. Fourth, we will continue to correct the historical structural inequality in our pursuit of a clean, safe, densely developed and thriving city.

Avoiding the mistakes of the past ‒ By shifting the original locus of blame on the federal government, he creates the possibility of abdicating his own responsibility to be a fighter for policies that work. Principles are great, but will they sway federal policies?

I was heartened by his promise to ensure and secure federally subsidized housing. The team Duggan has on redevelopment, including Maurice Cox and Arthur Jemison, is clearly working hard to protect everyday Detroiters. I wish that there was a clearer crosswalk, however, between citizen voice and its power at the polls. I wanted Detroiters in the audience to feel a chill and a desire to make sure that their votes will put people in office who also believe the redevelopment principles are critical.

Overall, I’d give his speech an A from a communication effectiveness standpoint. Solid framing strengthened by impeccable logic and detailed examples that brought the themes of fairness and opportunity to life. From this point forward, every time he speaks publicly, I’ll be holding up what he says against the principles he detailed.

As a resident of Jefferson Chalmers, a mixed income neighborhood in Detroit, I’ll be watching for his ideas in action. Some I can already validate. In the past month, a new park, Hansen Park, was re-baptized (formerly Piper Park) and given a face lift. Streets have been swept. Empty lots have been mowed. Seniors, children and adults enjoy the parks and boulevards that make Jefferson Chalmers a dedicated national treasure. The street lights are on!

I appreciate a mayor who is willing to call out truths, historical and contemporary. As we move forward as a city, I hope he gives issues like climate, water rights, safety, education and child well-being the same level of thought.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Terry Gallagher
Tue, 06/13/2017 - 4:17pm

Great story, in a lot of ways.
But if I may be just a little picky? That park between Drexel and Piper and Avondale and Averhill? That's been called Hansen for decades: I went to church and elementary school across the street and spent many hours and days there.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 06/13/2017 - 10:32pm

"City council members were not eager to discuss their hiring practices with me. I called the six council members with the most suburbanites on their payroll to schedule interviews at a time and place that would be convenient to them. None of them agreed to meet with me, even after I informed their staff members that if they would not meet with me at a time that was convenient to them, I would meet with them whenever I could find them."

So much for that bit about jobs & opportunities being made first available to Detroiters.

Obviously, Detroit City Council didn't get that memo.

If history is going to be a focal point on charting Detroit's future (no argument there), I would highly recommend that Ms. de Beaufort concentrate on other mistakes from Detroit's past that it obviously hasn't learned any lessons from whatsoever.

Here's a hint: Detroit's current situation wasn't all the federal government's fault.

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 4:02pm

Thank you Nicole for the great article. I would agree that the Federal Government isn't the only one to blame, but from my perspective Duggan is the right one to lead things forward. Giving Michiganders an understanding of the complexity of the situation is good, now let's get started with the plan, and all of us need to help. Let's all roll up our sleeves and begin or continue. Detroit is important to us as a state.

Mark Whelan
Wed, 06/14/2017 - 6:36pm

You can point fingers at city planners from the 40's and 50's all you want. Until you point fingers at the people who throw garbage on their own front lawns, streets and city parks you will solve nothing. Until you teach the children to respect police and follow the laws you will have nothing. Until you separate race from everything that has to do with Detroit you will have nothing. "Making sure 'those who stayed' have a voice." Eloquent way of phrasing "black people will always say how Detroit is run". FRom the cries of "Barney Fifes" patrolling Belle Isle and actually enforcing the law even with respect to the mayor and a city council member, to telling an organization demolishing houses at no cost to the city at $5,000 per house that they are not welcome and then spending 3 times that amount to do the same work except that work doesn't meet the standards and guidelines set in regards to quality of work. Detroiters are their own worst enemy. They want money from outside investors and businesses, but they don't want the people. If Detroit spent half the money on rebuilding the city that it spends on defending its elected officials from federal criminal investigations, Detroit would be a shining gem where people would stand in line to live. Instead it is a city that has its residents recommending laws be passed forcing people to move back to the city in an effort to keep it from withering even further.