John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is former president of the Michigan State Board of Education.
Earlier this month, we as a nation bore witness to one of the most intense displays of racially motivated terror most of us can recall. We watched as white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Va., spouting hateful rhetoric, clashing with counter-protesters and killing a young woman. These events, along with renewed debates over removal of Confederate statues tend to concentrate the nation’s racial divides and discussion on the South. But this is a mistake.
The alleged Charlottesville killer traveled from Maumee, Ohio. Michiganders from a group calling itself the “Detroit Right Wings” were visible at the rally, parading an altered logo of the Detroit Red Wings, leading the hockey team to disavow them.
The reality is that the sharpest black-white racial divides and most intense segregation in the country are in the older industrial-city regions of Michigan and the upper Midwest. And the most intense reaction of fear to today’s immigrants of color has come from our own communities, fears Donald Trump preyed on as our states helped elect him president.
Four of the 25 most segregated metropolitan areas in the country are in Michigan, and 15 of those are in Rust Belt states.
Incredibly, we are only now beginning to fully acknowledge and understand why this is so. New books like Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” detail the truth that has always been there to see: Federal home loan and GI Bill policies built and enforced segregated neighborhoods in and around the northern cities. School construction and attendance rules followed and enforced strict segregation. Urban renewal and highway building destroyed black communities and aided white flight.
The 50-year anniversary of the Detroit riots also helped many more to see the event as those in the black community lived it – as a rebellion, a scream for an end to racial injustice and discrimination. And while Detroit erupted in flames, Flint and Saginaw, Benton Harbor and Muskegon all followed the same arc of development, without the gunfire: White professionals and factory worker families fled the cities for suburban enclaves, small towns and rural hinterlands.
And now playing into Michigan’s racially charged landscape is the role of the immigrant. As factories closed in our once-thriving Michigan manufacturing towns, and our children left for greener pastures, the new people coming to Michigan and Midwest communities have been immigrants, Immigrants that today are largely people of color. More likely to hail from India, Mexico, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan than Poland, Ireland, Italy, Germany or the Netherlands.
Michigan desperately needs these immigrants. Fact: Michigan was the only state to lose population from 2000-2010, and would still be losing population today if not for a 25 percent increase in legal immigrants. Fact: All the growth in Macomb County’s population has come from people of color, led by a 34 percent increase in African-Americans, a 27 percent increase in Asians, a 14 percent increase in Latino populations, and a 12 percent increase in non-native citizens. And even though Michigan’s immigrants are twice as likely to be highly educated, and much more likely to start a business that employs other Michiganders than folks born here, demagogues like President Trump call them murderers, rapists and job-killers, purposefully fanning fears of “the other.”
Our fears of our fellow man are revealed in the stark patterns of racial and ethnic residency patterns in Metro Detroit. The city of Detroit’s population is over 80 percent African American, while its surrounding suburbs are, in the main, mostly white. Maps of Flint, Saginaw, and other communities reveal similarly stark racial borders.
Our racial divides color everything we do or try to do in Michigan. We see a boiling resentment in communities where control of schools and government are taken by Lansing from people of color. We don’t take a burgeoning water crisis in Flint seriously until it’s too late, because leaders don’t or won’t hear its people. We can’t pass a desperately needed Detroit regional transit system in part because leaders don’t or won’t help constituents overcome fears of “outsiders” overrunning their communities.
We must acknowledge that our strict racial divides did not arise organically. Intentional actions brought us here, and only intentional and purposeful actions can get us to a different and better place. There are embers of hope and action that must be fanned to flames. Some, like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, are willing to candidly name the problem – as he did when explicating Detroit’s racial history at the Mackinac Island Policy Conference. Gov. Rick Snyder remains a strong holdout among anti-immigrant Republican leaders. Dearborn officials may take down a statue of that city’s notoriously racist former Mayor Orville Hubbard – that gazes over a now 50 percent Arab-American community. Fifteen Michigan mayors, city councils and county commissions, and a dozen Michigan regional chambers of commerce have taken formal actions to welcome immigrants.
Other communities have taken creative and purposeful actions to blur lines of race and ethnicity, and reverse trends of segregation and segmentation.
In Michigan we must do more than lament what happened in Charlottesville. If we are to overcome our legacy as one state that gave the world President Trump, and change the biases that compelled many people to vote for him, we must come together as human beings across divides of race and class. It starts by looking inward. Racism isn’t someone else’s problem. It’s on us.