By Chastity Pratt Dawsey | Bridge Magazine
It’s not easy to talk about race in America. Even in this post-Obama election era, or perhaps in reaction to it, candid conversation about racial attitudes can be like dancing across a minefield. Chastity Pratt Dawsey of Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative asked Detroit metro-area elected officials and activists to discuss race in their region. Some graciously declined. But others, including activists who deal with race in their work, as well as a mayor who has seen the complexion of his community change, agreed to address racial attitudes, including their own.
Some questions are similar to those posed in a poll ofmetro Detroit residents the DJC is releasing this week and to a Pew national survey on race relations released in June.
Matthew Jaber Stiffler
Matthew Jaber Stiffler, 37, is research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. His father is white. His mother was born in America and is of Lebanese descent. Stiffler said he was raised as, and thought of himself as, a white child. Other than noting that he was once followed around a mall for wearing a high school letterman’s jacket that signaled that he lived in a working-class white neighborhood, not a rich one, Stiffler said he has never been the target of discrimination. That is, he said, until he reveals his heritage, where he works, or shows support for Arab causes.
In order to improve race relations, is it more important to focus on what different racial and ethnic groups have in common, or what is unique about each?
Stiffler: Tough one. I think trying to build common ground sometimes is easier for the majority population because they feel better when they’re told how everybody is like them. But it actually can do more harm to minority populations who are made to feel that they are only valuable in that they reflect the majority population. So I would say a starting point is rather to be more educated about the differences and where they come from and what they are.
Does the country need to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites and, if so, are you skeptical that such changes will ever occur?
Stiffler: Not skeptical they will occur, but skeptical about the timeline. We’ll probably get to black-white equality at the expense of other minorities, increased xenophobia against immigrants especially from Muslim countries, I think. Whenever you have an enemy or a perceived enemy in a majority population … it’s a shame there always has to be some sort of scapegoat.
Are race relations better now than in 1967?
Stiffler: No, they’re not. I’m a historian. I deal in narratives. I’m not from (Michigan) but I’ve been here for the last 12, 13 years. I hear people talk about what Detroit used to be like mostly from a white perspective. “Oh, we used to go to Detroit on Saturdays and go shopping and eat at these restaurants and then all of sudden we couldn’t go anymore.” They mourn that as a loss. Unfortunately, they mourn it as a loss because they think it was taken away from them by black people and black people’s inability to manage the city or, you know, play nice. We applaud revitalization of Detroit, the idea that progress is through new freeways, progress is through new investments in certain industries that only reach a small section of the people, not thinking broadly about the region. I see a really bad trend where we’re at now in the so-called revitalization of Detroit that allows people to capture this nostalgia for what Detroit was in the pre-1967 — or what they think it was pre-1967 — and they think the movements we have now happening in the city will somehow get us back there.
What will get us back there, to a more vibrant and prosperous Detroit?
Stiffler: There’s a palpable racism that operates now that assumes the population living in Detroit right now could not possibly fix it on their own. The story should be we need to give the residents that are there, the residents that have stuck it out, give them the tools and the abilities to prosper instead of letting them die out so that land speculators can come in and buy up entire neighborhoods for future potential use.
So racial attitudes haven’t changed?
Stiffler: No, I think people are still in this idea that it’s black people’s fault that Detroit is the way it is and only through reinvesting in certain industries that are run by a small cadre of people is how we’re going to get to the Detroit they think they remember from pre-’67.
Where do we go from here? How do we get honest dialog? Are we even having dialogue?
Stiffler: I think honest dialogue is happening with what people call the movable middle. The portion of the people that either haven’t formed an opinion yet or have formed an opinion, but with accurate information are willing to alter that opinion. You’re never going to reach the hard liners through dialogue. You might not ever reach them in any capacity.
How do people achieve progress in such a stratified community?
Stiffler: You have to be intentional about it. That’s the problem with our school districts, our school districts are based upon tax revenue so the nicer the area, which tends to be the whiter the area, the better the schools and those people don’t interact with other ethnicities. You see that in Dearborn. Fordson High School is like 98% Arab American; those kids don’t hang out with African Americans and Latinos who live just across the street in some cases. As a society you have to be very intentional about fighting through the structural racism boundaries and barriers that are enacted. I don’t think it’s racist to want to hang out with people that have the same experiences as you. The racism comes in when you think that everyone else is inferior.
Jim Fouts, 73, who is white, is mayor of Warren, in Macomb County just north of Detroit. In 1967, many residents in Warren feared violent disturbances in Detroit would come to their neighborhoods if African Americans moved there, he said. African-American Detroiters in recent years have moved to Warren by the thousands, but they didn’t bring riots with them. The formerly white city now also is home to at least four mosques, said Fouts, a former high school teacher. He talks about what it was like growing up in Warren in the 1960s, and taking office after controversial Mayor Mark Steenbergh, who was charged in 1996 with racial intimidation and assault for allegedly choking an African-American teen and calling him the N-word. He was later acquitted.
What kind of changes do we need here to make sure everyone is on the same, even playing field?
Fouts: There has to be a focus and an infusion of public funds and private funds to rebuild the neighborhoods in Detroit and then have more police presence so that people feel safe and they want to stay in the city. Now, if the city builds up, it becomes a model. Then that eliminates some of the stereotypes that exist today amongst whites about the city of Detroit.
A few weeks back, I went to see a concert at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to salute (composer and conductor) John Williams. And on the way back, I took I-75 home. There was construction. I got off on McNichols, which people call Six Mile. I took McNichols east. I was shocked about how bad it was. I didn’t’ see one police car on McNichols.
I saw a lot of abandoned homes and I saw some unsavory characters. I even saw one (white) woman who obviously was a crackhead walking. It was pretty dismal. I then took Ryan Road to Eight Mile Road. Same thing. Now if you want people to achieve equality, then you need to take care of your neighborhoods and you need to give some hope. And hope in the neighborhoods come in two things: blight and crime. If you will not clean up the neighborhoods, there will not be pride … that affects the people in the neighborhoods and that affects the perception of the city of Detroit.
The last several (Detroit) mayors, in my opinion, have been mayor of downtown Detroit. They have not been mayor of the city of Detroit. By the way, I have a radio program that I do on WADL and I get listeners who are mostly African American and say to me, “Mr. Mayor, what you said about your trip, the other mayors should’ve said. They don’t care.”
Warren is far more diverse now than in 1967 – up from nearly 200 African American residents to 15-to-20 percent African American. However, the high schools on the southern part of town are mostly black. Why?
Fouts: I would say all the schools in Warren are integrated. You’re right, the two south (Warren) high schools are heavily African American, but that is because of the population change. A lot of Detroiters have become refugees. I know the mayor of Detroit probably wouldn’t like me saying that. I asked them, “Why did you move to Warren from Detroit?” Schools, blight and crime. They need to clean up the neighborhoods in Detroit. The state and the federal government need to have some sort of Marshall Plan.
It appears that when the black students moved into Warren from Detroit, white students used (the state’s) school choice (law) to move to other schools.
Fouts: Don’t confuse all black schools with necessarily the absence of white neighborhoods. The schools are hard up financially so they’re taking kids from Detroit and Hazel Park and wherever.
Does that make the white Warren residents say, “We don’t know them, they’re from Detroit, let’s not go to school with them; let’s go to school a little further north?”
Fouts: That I don’t know. I can’t hypothesize on that. What I can do is answer this way: Southeast Warren tends to be older people. And they no longer have children and those schools had to advertize and open up to Detroiters because the schools were becoming depleted. You have a lot of students who are from Detroit. Not all, but a significant number. So I cannot say that that’s racism.
Are race relations generally good, or generally bad?
Fouts: Today, I can say that I do not know someone who would openly say a racially disparaging word. I can say that among young people there is an acceptance. If you compare today with even 20 years ago I think there’s been great progress. If anything inflamed racial attitudes it was the (1967 Detroit) riots. As time has evolved, things have changed. Racial disparity is just not acceptable. Now what’s in the heart and mind of every person, I can’t say.
I go back to Warren. I appointed the first African-American fire commissioner. Right now, four out of nine members of the planning commission are African American. This city is changing. If a Warren mayor 30 or 40 years ago had appointed an African American it would’ve been an uproar. Today, I did it and that was it. Now, my predecessor Steenbergh said some pretty harsh statements. He said that he wanted to build a fortress to keep people of Detroit out of Warren. He also wanted to prevent Arabs (actually, Iraqi refugees) from moving into Warren.
You have a radio show on WADL which bills itself in Detroit as the largest voice for African Americans, so you have consistent interaction with African Americans from Detroit. Growing up, how were you taught about race relations and how has that evolved over the years?
Fouts: Let me start with some criticism about my upbringing and some positive things. Number one, in education we didn’t learn a lot about African Americans and that was the fault of the education system. I heard about (George) Washington Carver and people like that, but for the most part African Americans were missing from the history books. That was wrong.
Watching television, not a lot of African Americans. The positive thing is my mother was a saleswoman at Sears in Highland Park. I never heard my mother say anything disparaging about African Americans and I really didn’t hear my dad, although I think my dad was conservative.
We didn’t grow up with the N-word or anything like that, but I don’t think my dad would’ve openly welcomed African Americans. I don’t think if they moved in the neighborhood he would’ve been the first to greet them and tell them, “Welcome to the city.” In general, there was an absence of African Americans in my life except my mother had friends who worked with her at Sears. I went away to college and had friends who were African Americans. At that time there was civil rights (protests) and Vietnam. I think my sister and I grew up with an absence of intolerance. I think college and mixing with other students and growing up in a turbulent time period affected my thinking.
What situation or current events crystallize the truth about race relations today?
Fouts: Integration is best when it’s an evolving and comfortable thing. I have African Americans in my neighborhood. I have some Muslims. The whole secret to people getting along is getting to know each other. My mother way back in the ‘50s got to know black people she worked with. She became good friends with a black woman. It wasn’t my mother’s idea, but she worked with her and became good friends. That’s what does it, not government mandates.
So in Warren, the fear of the unknown, of other races, is being eroded by familiarity due to proximity?
Fouts: Familiarity breeds understanding and open-mindedness. The biggest problem for people is the fear of the unknown. When you know your neighbor and your neighbor is Arab American, Muslim, Chaldean, African American, Asian American, it’s hard to dislike someone you know. It’s easy to dislike a group. It’s not easy to dislike an individual. Individuals make a difference in changing group attitudes. America is becoming multicultural, multiracial. It’s evolving and I would say, maybe not in my lifetime, but that’s going to happen.
Kenneth Reed, 48, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, is African American and a resident of Detroit. This interview took place in the midst of the recent spate of police-involved killings nationwide — after police killed an African-American man in Baton Rouge and another in Minnesota and after a shooter in Dallas killed five police officers; but before another shooter, in Baton Rouge, killed three police.
Are race relations generally good or generally bad now?
Reed: Generally, bad, at this point. Whenever our (African American) children come down into the downtown area — be it (the Detroit) RiverWalk or inside downtown or in other places, Cass Corridor — which I call Cass Corridor, I’ll never call it Midtown — they’re made to feel uncomfortable in their own city and that is a problem.
Who makes them feel uncomfortable?
Reed: Well, I think some of it is the merchants, some of the residents and policy in terms of law enforcement.
Do you think race relations is a major concern just among black people or or is it equally as important to white people?
Reed: With black people it is a very big concern, particularly in the city. When they go to venture into the inner-ring suburbs, more often than not they’re profiled by law enforcement agencies. As far as with whites, I think it may be a concern. I think their concern is more out of fear of the unknown. If you get to know someone you’re not comfortable being around every day then I think some of those fears would be alleviated.
Do you think white people’s attitudes toward black people have become more negative or more positive?
Reed: I think particularly in the last 18 months it’s become more negative because of mainstream media. I think a lot of rhetoric that has been espoused by the candidates, particularly by the Republican Party and (Donald) Trump in particular has made it popular to espouse feelings that may have otherwise been kept to themselves. He seems to have made it cool to say what we really feel. What we really feel.
Do you think black people’s attitudes toward white people have become more positive or more negative?
Reed: I would say black people are a very forgiving race, not that we always go seeking friendship or what have you. We tend to be more open minded in terms of wanting to have good race relations overall. That’s not always the case on the other side. I think it’s a thing where blacks would not be opposed overall to having good race relations but it comes to a trust factor. There’s a lack of trust in terms of blacks being able to trust whites, because history depicts (justification for mistrust).
So you think the rift between whites and blacks is that whites fear blacks and blacks don’t trust whites?
Reed: It’s a trust factor. A lot of it stems from law enforcement and the inner-ring suburban enclaves. And when you feel left out in your own city, you feel as if you’ve been colonized all over again.
How has the relationship between Detroiters and police changed since 1967?
Reed: Only through our work where we got federal intervention through the (U.S. Justice Department obtaining a) consent agreement (to monitor and curb police abuses), the way the Detroit Police Department works has shifted. It has changed to the extent where we’re not being clubbed upside the head. A deaf man is not being killed because he’s holding a rake in his hand. That portion has stopped. (I’m) cautiously optimistic in terms of moving forward. There’s more of an open dialogue, but I think it’s only because there was federal intervention.
You say the federal intervention changed the way the Detroit Police Department works. How? What specifically has helped make each side more trusting?
Reed: It’s an uneasy trust. I believe what has happened is with the federal oversight some of the policies have changed. You’re not housing people who are witnesses to a crime against their will at the lock up; things mandated through the consent agreement are being carried out by the department. That has brought about a certain degree of trust between the citizenry and the department. I think also when the Detroit Police Commission got their full powers back, we got police commissioners now who are out in the community more. That has helped as well. The commission is mostly black.
What about the advent of community policing?
Reed: We had officers assigned to community policing. They would get to know the residents, the children, the block club presidents, your community organization presidents. They would be known in the community. And bear in mind when it was really going well that’s when we had the residency requirement (where city employees had to live in the city). When I was growing up, I had a police officer live next door to me. We had police officers living in the community.
So they were not unfamiliar with the community?
Reed: Now with residency (requirement) gone in the year 2000, you got police officers who may not look like me or you. They don’t understand the culture, they don’t understand the youth as well as they should and that is what led to the problem.
You’ve said in the past that some officers today have replaced “protect and serve” with “command and control.” What are the leading causes of police brutality?
Reed: Now you have command and control. It used to be when officers come on shift they may be 50-150 calls in the hole from the previous shift. If you go from scene to scene you don’t have time to decompress, everybody reaches a breaking point. And if you already have a predisposed bias in terms of the people in the city you’re supposed to serve and protect, if you already have preconceived biases and you’re not really accustomed to being around black people you might believe the stereotypes that they’re poorly educated, they already don’t like cops, that these people, they’re animals more or less. They may not even view us as human. And they bring that on the job. That’s a recipe for for disaster.
Could what happened in Dallas – police being targeted and killed – happen here?
Reed: Absolutely. Come around my house on New Year’s Eve and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So there’s a lot of ammunition and guns in the neighborhoods, but is there an attitude that if there’s one more incident with the police someone is going to snap and go after police here?
Reed: Unfortunately you have young people who may not necessarily have the economic opportunities, they might not have the educational opportunities. They may have already been exposed to the criminal justice system.
People who don’t have opportunities don’t have anything to lose and could choose to take drastic actions against police to make a point?
Reed: Once you get that felony on you, your employment opportunities generally just dry up. Who’s to say? A crew out here might just decide, “Let’s take it to them (police).” Bear in mind in 1967 you had lack of economic opportunity. Housing was a problem. Police brutality, harassment was a problem.
The Kerner Commission (A presidential commission appointed to find the root causes of disturbances and riots across dozens of American cities in 1967) said that we were moving towards two nations: one white, one black separate and unequal
Reed: We’re looking at this again today. What’s changed?
You tell me.
Reed: We’re going right back into that.
How is that true when we have places such as Warren which had 182 blacks in 1967 and now it’s 15 or 20 percent black? There’s so much integration, at least in the inner ring suburbs. How are we still moving toward a nation divided, separate and unequal?
Reed: Look who’s left behind when the middle class left the cities. Those who can’t get out. The poor who can’t get out. Then there’s those of us who have an undying love for Detroit. We’re going to be here regardless. We stayed and prayed. Now with the new Detroit, a lot of (African-American) people are made to feel they’re not even welcome in their own city. Those attitudes from the parents sometimes they permeate right down to the children and young adults.
You said you weren’t surprised by what you saw in Dallas – is that because violence begets violence?
Reed: You have some young people who have the mindset that, “I’m not going to sit there and let you put a billy club upside my head. You’re not going to sit up here and just tase me for no apparent reason and you’re not going to just sit up here and continuously shoot us without some type of repercussion.” So everything reaches a boiling point and it’s starting to boil over. As they say, pressure busts the pipe every time.
Do you think what has happened with the police involved shootings (of black civilians) will make people confront their own biases or make them more biased?
Reed: I think it will make people more biased. The outright racist-type attitude towards black people is going to escalate. I strongly feel that. So we could be in for a long, hot summer. There’s going to be some hardened attitudes behind this.
Five years from now, when there are even more whites living in the city, after you see more people from Detroit who are black moving out putting people in closer proximity to each other, will that help race relations?
Reed: Leadership has to make the commitment that people get to know about each other. The fear of the unknown — that’s where we’re at. We’re so fearful. I think some of it comes from the past in terms of what we learn from our forefathers and a race of people who have been oppressed as long as black peoplje have since they came to the shores of America continue to be singled out.
You have a (state) legislature that comes with policies centered on the city of Detroit. A legislature that would split up a school district, withhold money; a legislature that will go out if its way to take away opportunity for children to have quality education all under the guise of reform. Reform what? I think people have a right to live out what their destiny is. They have a right to elect those who they want to govern them. Revolution is the hope of the hopeless. The times, things are not looking good right now. It’s not a whole lot different (from ’67). My uncle is 95 years old. He was working at Mack stamping in the middle of the rebellion (in 1967). He had to show his work ID to be able to move through the streets and not get shot. It could very well come back to that.
Adonis Flores, 28, is an immigrants rights organizer with Michigan United and a resident of Detroit. He said generations of his relatives found work in America under the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican workers to come to America to help alleviate the labor shortage that occurred during World War II. Flores was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and was brought illegally to Detroit when he was nine. He supported the Dream Act, a bill that failed in the Senate in 2010. It would have granted undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children the chance to become citizens if they attended college or joined the military. After the bill failed, President Obama signed an executive order that gave people like Flores a temporary work permit that allows them to remain in the U.S., though a recent Supreme Court stalemate may put that status in question.
Are race relations generally good or generally bad?
Flores: Generally bad. I come from a very organizer-oriented definition of racism. I believe that there’s structural racism and it is composed of three types of racism: personal racism, institutional and cultural racism. Overall, institutional racism and cultural racism are very prevalent. People let personal prejudices take over when making day-to-day decisions. We all do it. People do it unconsciously.
Flores: The school to prison pipeline. It’s very, very obvious in schools where there are people of color whether Latinos or African Americans.
And in the immigration system, immigrants from countries that are usually populated by people of color tend to have a very difficult process to immigrate legally to the U.S. In Mexico, it takes 20 years. In countries in Europe people can get a visa to come to the U.S. in weeks or months or sometimes they don’t need even need a visa they can come on a European passport. That’s institutional racism. The Immigration and Naturalization Act put a limit on the numbers of persons admitted from each country. European countries had high limits, Latin American and African countries had very low limits.
Give me an example of cultural racism.
Flores: When people have prejudices against an entire culture. For example, I was knocking doors when I first started working with Michigan United. I came across an undocumented immigrant who was really upset about Immigration and targeting the Latino community for deportations. One of the comments he said was, “I don’t know why they are coming after us. We are just here working hard. They should go after the Arabs because they are the real terrorists.” I don’t think the person disliked all Muslims, but I think (American) culture overall is creating this picture, this message that Muslim Americans are terrorists.
In order to improve race relations, is it more important to focus on what different racial and ethnic groups have in common or what is unique about each?
Flores: I think it’s more important to focus on what we have in common. Low-income white Americans and low-income African Americans and low-income Latinos, most of the populations in these groups are blue-collar workers who are being exploited by multinational corporations. And instead of uniting our efforts for better working conditions, better wages, we’re falling into the politics where we focus on our differences. That tends to create a fear between us and fear of each other. Divide and conquer.
Have you experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of your race or ethnicity?
Flores: Yes, definitely. The most obvious was when I was applying to college back in 2006. I was a 4.0 GPA student, honor roll, lots of community service, dual enrollment at Wayne County Community College and a really good resume. I was accepted to all the universities I applied to, U of M in Ann Arbor, Michigan State, Wayne State. However, when it came to the interview with the admissions counselors, I didn’t have a social security number and my application didn’t have one (because he had entered the U.S. illegally). I was honest, I told them, “I am an undocumented immigrant. Can I still attend your institution?”
What was the response?
Flores: Their answer was, “You have to be admitted as an international student and pay three times a much.” That was pretty much a nice way of saying, “No.” It was institutional racism. If you are not a white American it is more difficult to get accepted.
In this instance, the excuse was my immigration status even though I’d been living here all my life, working, paying taxes and my great grandfather used to work here as a bracero (guest worker). We had a long, long heritage of living in the U.S. and working here and paying taxes in the U.S. I did not qualify. The laws make it extremely difficult for me to get documented. This was explicit, it wasn’t hidden. When I hear comments like, “We are a country of laws,” what I am hearing is a hidden message of, “A country of laws for white people that excludes people of color.”
Does the country need to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites and, if so, are you skeptical that such changes will occur?
Flores: Definitely, changes need to happen to allow people of color to actually have the same rights as whites. I don’t think these changes are going to happen soon. This is a generational commitment. Slavery was abolished in the 1860s. The Civil Rights Act was not signed until the 1960s. It’s been over 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and there’s still lots of disparities and discrimination. I’m skeptical change will happen for multiple generations.
Can what happened in Baton Rouge — police killing someone, and then a shooter killing police — happen here?
Flores: I think it can happen anywhere. There’s always going to be a loose radical. It’s completely valid to be angry about people dying. If you’re not, you’re not human. The challenge is, how you deal with that? Do you seek structural change that will prevent further people from dying?
Do you see dialogue happening that will bring about change?
Flores: I see honest dialogue coming from one side. Black Lives Matter is saying this (police killings) is a racism problem. The police say it’s a training problem or lack of education in the community problem. It’s the same with immigration. Latinos say (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) is ripping families apart. They say, “We’re a country of laws.” That’s not being honest.
Are Latinos being unfairly left out of the growing conversation about how Detroit today compares with Detroit in 1967 when the riots happened?
Flores: No, the Latino population was not nearly as large then as it is now.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, 50, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit, is African American and has lived in Detroit for the past decade. The group advocates for water rights, workers’ rights and housing rights, among other issues, and opposes the state’s controversial emergency manager law. Her family has lived in Detroit since 1952. Her uncle is Willie Horton the famed former Detroit Tigers’ star. We the People was among of 42 researchers and activist groups that collaborated on the upcoming book, “Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Communities in Detroit,” which is expected to be released Aug. 14.
Are race relations generally good or generally bad?
Lewis-Patrick: Generally bad because a majority of African-American cities in this state have been under what I consider a reptilian law called emergency management that … extracted from them not only their voting rights but their property, their pensions, control over their schools and now what we see playing out is the ability to even access clean, safe affordable water.
Compared to 10 years ago, do you think white people are getting more positive in their attitude toward black people, more negative or not really changed?
Lewis-Patrick: I have seen a combination of persons who understand their privilege in being white in America and have been willing to take that privilege and set it aside to come in as an ally and supporter of the work that’s being done at the community level. I have seen people come in — not only white, but black elitists — that have come in and it’s been more of extracting and examining and commentating as opposed to collaborating and working with Detroiters. And when I reference Detroiters it’s the ones that live in the neighborhoods.
Flip it, compared to 10 years ago, do you think black people are getting more positive in their attitude toward white people, more negative or not really changed?
Lewis-Patrick: They’re tremendously getting worse. We are constantly bombarded with negative messages, this whole narrative about Detroit being the murder capital, about black-on-black crime and our schools are failing and our inability to lead ourselves.
All of these mantras are actually creating an atmosphere of more divisiveness, and a targeting of our community and our people. It is definitely a very dark time in this country especially if you are a person of color. It doesn’t matter what your educational attainment is. It doesn’t matter what your zip code is. It doesn’t matter that you obeyed all the rules and you’ve never been arrested. If you find yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, under conditions of an antsy, anxious police officer, this could be your last day. That is a reality our children see play out day after day.
Which is the bigger problem – institutional racism or racism against individuals?
Lewis-Patrick: Institutional racism is the bigger problem because systemic processes have a broader reach. An individual being racist does not have the capacity to extract my grandmother’s pension away from her. Or take my city into bankruptcy. Or deny my voting rights. But an institution does.
Have you ever been treated unfairly by the police?
Lewis-Patrick: I can’t say that I have. As a matter of fact, I’ve been treated very well by the police, especially those that understood that our activism was supportive of them keeping their pensions.
Was the racial makeup of your community a deciding factor in your choice to live there?
Lewis-Patrick: Not at all. What was a deciding factor to me was that I wanted to be part of repopulating the city with people who really care about the city. I wanted to work with people that were about creating land trusts and co-ops and opportunities to keep Detroiters invested in the comeback of the city so they weren’t being excluded. And we wanted to do it through cooperative work and self-determination not wait for somebody to help us, not waiting on some rescue. I live on the east side off Outer Drive and Seven Mile.
I know on my block alone 22 people have had their water shut off. I have a mixture of white, Asian and blacks in my community.
If half of the people who moved into your neighborhood where people of a different race from the current residents, do you think your neighbors would move?
Lewis-Patrick: No, I don’t. It’s my understanding from what I learn from ethnic groups that aren’t black that one of the reasons they moved here was to be in a more diverse, more culturally-rich area.
Since 1967, what progress do you see in the Detroit area? Warren has a significant African-American population, isn’t that progress?
Lewis-Patrick: That was progress created by the pushout (of residents from the city). The progress I see is more at the grassroots level where we are growing our own souls, we are reimagining what community and policy should look like and unashamedly approaching entities with a boldness I don’t think they’d seen before.
Our organization is led by five black women. Over 50 percent of my volunteers are young white kids from all over the state of Michigan. They come in once a month to participate in activities we are doing around water, education, freedom schools. To me that’s where the connectivity is going to happen, not missionary acts of cutting grass and picking up trash. I think these are well-intentioned people, but it’s still a missionary, privileged mindset that, “I’m going to do good in the ‘hood,” and then you go back to where you live.” (Change) is going to be from people really connecting and understanding and allowing people in the community to lead and not be led.
How did you develop your racial awareness?
Lewis-Patrick: Growing up in northeast Tennessee, in Kingsport, I think my first encounter with racism was when I was 14 years old and they were attempting to get rid of African American studies and African American history in our high school. We mobilized and one of the things our teacher talked to us about was, “Don’t just mobilize the black students because it’s not enough of you to save the class. Mobilize with your white friends.”
And through that initiative we were able to encourage our white friends not only to join the African American studies classes, but they also joined the social clubs. The Ebony Teen Kings and Queens, every black talent show, black history events, sit-ins we had in the school. I saw them be able to actually set aside their own issues and embrace the fact that (African Americans) were being disenfranchised or marginalized in our own school.
What’s wrong with Michigan? How do we compare to other states? Is this Michissippi?
Lewis-Patrick: It’s Michissippi. As a matter of fact, it’s Michissippi, goddam.
I call Detroit beloved. When you see water hoses running from house to house, that’s belovedness. So when I talk about this city, I don’t talk about its failures or inadequacies. I will speak on it if asked, or if you want my opinion for an analysis. But for me Detroit is still beloved in spite of what other people say. With its inequities, it’s still beloved.
How do we turn the tide?
Lewis-Patrick: My job is to help black folk deal with internalized racism and oppression that keeps them from being all that they are capable of being. It has to start with us as ethnic groups doing some healing work and dressing each other up instead of dressing each other down. White people’s problem is dismantling white supremacy because they are the only people that can practice that.