Investment for Detroit misses Black business
“The city’s true heroes, its real saviors were the African Americans who had a choice to leave Detroit, who had the means, yet stayed. In spite of the public debacles, the racial insensitivities, the public transportation that goes nowhere, the taxes up the wazoo, the unfair auto-insurance costs, they still committed to making Detroit home.” — Heaster Wheeler; New York Times, “The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit” (July 11, 2014)
“I think, for the most part, Black-owned businesses are not getting a piece of the pie… What about people who have been doing the hard work of living and working and having business in Detroit for the last 20 years?” — Janet Jones, Source Booksellers; Huffington Post “Black-Owned Businesses Are Quietly Powering Detroit’s Resurgence, But No One’s Talking About It” (July 17, 2014)
Low barriers to entry including inexpensive real estate, major-league infrastructure, national attention, respect and investment along with the potential for an urban lifestyle that anyone under the age of 35 seems to value — Detroit is poised for a rebirth. Chase bank is investing $100 million in Detroit. The foundation community with its New Economy Initiative, after investing $100 million, is entering a second phase of investment where another $100 million will go to boost entrepreneurial and other innovation efforts. Startup competitions, grant money, down payment assistance among other programs will pump the city with residents and resources. Yet, it doesn’t appear to be unreasonable to say a negligible portion of this money is going to African Americans. The new Detroit for the majority of resident appears to be mass water shutoffs and poor public services — but that is for another editorial.
The city is 83 percent Black and the majority of these funds don’t appear to getting to this segment of Detroit. The New York Times was criticized earlier this year when it did a travel story on the Corktown neighborhood, and none of the business profiled or people in the pictures were Black. You have to work hard to get so few Black faces in Detroit.
It’s like nothing cool or going on in Detroit is Black if you look at who and what is getting funded. It’s almost like Malcolm Gladwell’s description of a neighborhood’s racial tipping point, where white people’s preferences for living next to other white people have created segregation and essentially consolidated value in white areas. Black neighborhoods mostly have lower real estate value — the market penalizes integration. The fact is that a sustainable Detroit cannot be built without equity and full participation.
There isn’t a lot of love or respect for the people and businesses who have held down this city for more than 40 years. No respect for the businesses that — before all this start-up help — funded ideas with their own cash. Now that investment dollars are flowing, too few Black businesses are benefitting in the resurgence of Detroit. To insist on diversity and inclusion is real work.
When Steve Case visited Detroit in June to announce a $100,000 grant he would bestow on a city startup, he said he would like to see more diversity in the startup community. One tech entrepreneur even responded by saying the Internet is a space where gender and race don’t exist. If this cluelessness offers any insight it is that the region isn’t ready to even acknowledge people of color and women are mostly not being funded in Detroit.
True diversity is having someone on Dan Gilbert’s team who would have stopped him from writing that letter to Lebron James that became the one major hurdle for the basketball star to overcome before agreeing to return to Cleveland. It means actively working to develop a diverse set of entrepreneurs who will benefit from the city’s revival. Diversity and equity is the only way race will not be the indicator for poverty in Detroit.
True diversity doesn’t always agree with you and will tell you things you don’t want to hear, but it is where true value lies. When someone else looks at a problem from an entirely new perspective and offers a fresh solution, that is the Detroit we should all strive for. We need that kind of talent to ensure Detroit is the city we all hope it can be.