Excerpted from a talk given at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit on Jan. 19.
W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote that black Americans were constantly, in countless subtle ways, being asked the question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" As a young, privileged white person in Detroit, I feel like the question I often get from other white folks, back in Ann Arbor or elsewhere, is the opposite: "How does it feel to be a solution?"
Well, I’d like to be part of a solution. That’s why I’m here, and why a number of people like me are here. Six years ago I was in college in Portland, Oregon, perhaps the whitest major city in the country. While reading The Origins of the Urban Crisis and other books on Detroit history, I had a sudden realization. My God, I thought. I’ve taken white flight to the next level! Just like my grandparents cleared out of Brooklyn for the suburbs, I had left behind the entire Rust Belt for an enclave of bike lanes, and independent bookstores, and people who looked just like me.
I decided pretty soon after that that I was heading back to Michigan. My chief passion was public transit, and I certainly felt I could do a lot more good on that front in Detroit than I could anywhere else, as well as assuage any concerns I had about what pernicious historical significance my westward migration might contain.
It was on a summer morning last year, six months after finally moving to the Motor City, that I was leaving our house and saw a woman walking past. She was a black woman, maybe in her 50s, walking briskly for exercise. Seeing me outside the house, she stopped and asked if I lived there. I said yes. She told me she’d been the previous tenant, living there on a Section 8 voucher with her son, who was in college nearby. They hadn’t moved out voluntarily. She asked me what rent we were paying now, and raised her eyebrows when I told her.
So while I’d like to be part of a solution, I also know there are ways that my mere presence can, nonetheless, create problems for others.
That’s why it’s important for all of us to get beyond the typically American politics of individual guilt and blame to which race is so often reduced. I believe in personal responsibility, for everyone. But personal responsibility only takes us so far, leaving us with an impoverished set of choices. Do I take white flight to the next level in Portland, or displace a low-income single mother by moving to Detroit? There are alternatives to those choices, but only through collective action. There’s a reason why the song is "We Shall Overcome."
I would suggest that today, young white folks of privilege moving to Detroit have some individual and collective responsibilities. We need to work to be conscious of the history of this city, perhaps even unlearn some of the history we’ve been taught. We need to be conscious of the effects our presence is having, both the positive things we bring – which we usually get plenty of reminders of – and the potential problems of displacement that we pose, both the physical displacement of people and also the displacement of black Detroiters from the public image of the city.
There are plenty of cities, like Chicago, where a glittering downtown masks the ugly reality of ongoing segregation and inequality. Let’s resolve to resist that here, to build relationships across racial lines, to work to preserve and expand affordable housing and mixed-income housing in downtown and Midtown and beyond, and refuse to be satisfied until everyone in the region shares in the revitalization which remains so far removed from the experience of most Detroiters.
We’ve also got a responsibility to work for change at the regional level to shift the balance of power away from those who’ve isolated Detroit and its people for so long, and build a larger city-suburb movement for regional transit and regional cooperation for the common good of the whole.
As Dr. King said: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Let us, then, all do our part to build the beloved community of which so many have dreamed.
Joel Batterman is a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit and Policy Coordinator for MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength).