John E. Mogk is professor of law at Wayne State University. He is a scholar of urban issues and has advised the state, Wayne County and City of Detroit on numerous urban development initiatives.
The nonprofit New Detroit has declared war on structural racism. It will need help. In 1967, structural racism triggered a civil explosion, the Detroit riot, resulting in the death of 43 people and hundreds of millions in property damages. Rather than taking personal charge of addressing the issue then-Gov. George Romney and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh turned the responsibility over to newly formed New Detroit, the nation's first urban coalition, to identify what went wrong, what needed to change and how to make that change happen.
A half-century later, structural racism is alive and well in Michigan. For any progress to be made, Michigan's elected leadership must be directly involved.
Structural racism is entrenched in our society. It fosters public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations that work to reinforce racial inequality in all aspects of African-American life. After Detroit's disturbance, political leaders provided support to New Detroit, but they kept their distance and Detroit's white neighborhoods and suburbs were largely uninvolved. These factors contributed significantly to little progress being made in combating structural racism in the decades since then.
The Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the Detroit disturbance and others occurring at the time found that African Americans faced police abuse, unemployment, poor schools, substandard housing and discrimination in virtually every other aspect of life.
These findings led to the conclusion that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white — separate and unequal.... What white Americans have never fully understood‚— but what African Americans can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it".
White police attitudes, such as those contributing to the death of George Floyd and others, do not persist on their own. They are influenced and supported by the communities in which officers live and with which they associate. Continuing discrimination or indifference in many white communities has resulted in too little progress being made in combating structural racism since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
At the same time, political leadership has been lacking. Virtually nothing has been said about structural racism in the election cycles over the past several decades. Most white public officials have been unwilling to tackle the issue and speak truth to the political power of white voters. Meanwhile, the gap in racial understanding and trust is so wide in America today that African-American leaders alone have faced strong headwinds in changing white attitudes.
It is unlikely that progress will be made in Michigan in combating structural racism unless Governor Whitmer takes the lead in a sustained effort, along with other elected officials.
The state's Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities she established in early April to address health issues should be reconstituted as the state's Task Force on Racial Justice with a mandate to prepare specific actions to be taken by the state and recommendations for Michigan's other sectors and citizens in addressing all aspects of structural racism..
Slavery is the origin of structural racism in America today. Forgotten Michigan U.S. Sen. Jacob Howard, a founder of the Republican Party in Jackson, Michigan, wrote the words of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Michigan now has the opportunity of leading the nation in abolishing its vestige.