Marisol Bello, Detroit Free Press, Sept. 21
A majority of the Detroit City Council wants to implement an economic development plan it commissioned for $112,000 that preaches racial isolation and rails against immigration in its bid to gain economic success for poor blacks.
The crux of the plan is the creation of a business district — dubbed African Town — that would be funded in part with city money and made up of black-owned businesses catering to a black clientele.
The report also complains that immigrants from Mexico, Asia and the Middle East are stealing resources, jobs and other opportunities from blacks and calls on city leaders to stop the economic shift.
The report does not call on the city to stop immigration — and the city wouldn’t have any power to stop it, even if it wanted to — but the report does call on the city to level the playing field between blacks and the newcomers who it says are economically surpassing them.
“We see this as another compliment to the exciting development going on in the city,” said Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who introduced the effort to the council earlier this summer. The plan is under scrutiny by some city leaders and economic development experts who question the legality of an effort meant to help only one race. Some officials decry the council’s efforts as threatening to reverse strides made in the region to improve race relations and the city’s relationship with its neighbors.
Such a plan also could further alienate efforts by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to seek regional cooperation and funding for major projects, such as an expansion and renovation of Cobo Center.
One official calls it outright racist.
“It’s reverse racism,” said Kay Everett, one of two councilwomen who voted against the plan. The other council member who rejected the plan was Sheila Cockrel.
“This is foolish,” Everett said. “They don’t understand. They’re not thinking of the city as a whole. We need to bring harmony to this city, and if we say that we do not want any other people here, then we’re being racist.”
Council members who voted for the plan are quick to say they are not against immigrants. They say the city must act to help blacks, who more than any other ethnic group in the United States suffer from high levels of poverty, unemployment and school dropout rates.
Kilpatrick vetoed efforts by the council in July to implement the plan, but last week the mayor met with the plan’s creator, Claud Anderson, a former Detroiter who had unsuccessfully applied for a casino license. He is also the author of popular books about the economic state of blacks in the country.
Kilpatrick officials said they did not sign any agreements with Anderson, but they are working to help him find land for a business district. So far, they have been unsuccessful.
A mayoral spokesman said that while the meetings were not an endorsement of the politics behind Anderson’s plans, the mayor sees merit in the portions of the plan that are focused on creating jobs and increasing the number of black-owned businesses in the city.
“As they do with any potential investors, the mayor and his development team will continue to evaluate any economic development proposal presented to the city as part of its ongoing efforts to grow Detroit,” said mayoral spokesman Howard Hughey.
“This administration is committed to improving the social and economic conditions, not only of African Americans, but also other traditionally disadvantaged groups.”
He said the administration is against the council’s efforts to institutionalize a system that only helps blacks to the exclusion of other races. The council will find it difficult to implement its plan without the mayor’s approval.
The report, “A Powernomics Economic Development Plan for Detroit’s Under-Served Majority Population,” says inner cities should be improved for its residents, who should own and control the businesses in their neighborhoods. He calls on blacks to support black-owned businesses, in the same way he says other groups frequent stores owned by people of their own ethnicities.
The report also says integration has failed blacks and that regionalism is a bid by whites to control the city’s resources. Anderson warns city leaders to beware of non-blacks moving into the city because they will have their own agendas.
Anderson says his theories are not racist, but they are honest.
He said the city is bordering on an economic crisis, with 26 percent of the city’s population living below the poverty line.
“The biggest problem in the city of Detroit — and it’s true of all urban areas — are black leaders and white leaders who continue to use and hide behind the myth of a color-blind and race-neutral society and use it as an excuse not to deal with this dilemma,” Anderson said.
“There are special problems unique to black folks, and the city needs to address their problems.”
Detroit is the first city to begin to implement his Powernomics philosophy, Anderson said. He wants to create a business district for blacks, like Mexicantown or Greektown, that would include a fish factory with its own hatchery, black hair-care supplier, popcorn factory and fruit juice producers.
He said he has some investors lined up to help with such a project, but he would not reveal their names.
The executive director of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Boston-based nonprofit created by a Harvard University business professor, said the council is right to want to implement a plan to help blacks become entrepreneurs. But the director, Anne Habiby, said black-business ownership is not a panacea, especially if there are no plans in place to help the business owners succeed. The initiative is in talks with Detroit to work as a consultant on economic development issues.
Habiby said Detroit has suffered so much population loss that its future success depends on more people moving into the city.
“Detroit must be an attractive place for people to live,” Habiby said. “It’s shortsighted for city leaders to create an environment that feels unwelcoming.”
Activists in the Hispanic and Arab communities say the city should work to help African Americans, but they said they worry that if the plan is seen as a race-based solution, it may deepen rifts between ethnic groups.
“I do think it’s the city leadership’s duty to work with the community and no doubt, the priority is African Americans,” said Imad Hamad, Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “We have to go by the makeup of the community. . . . My concern here is that it depends how people read it or react to it.”
One Hispanic business leader said the city should open its doors to all ethnic groups. She said the Mexican community has been part of the city since the early 1900s. Hispanics account for 5 percent of the city’s population.
“There’s a lot going on in the city of Detroit, and if there is a need for an African Town, go for it,” said Maria Elena Rodriguez, president of the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation. “But we should not be knocked for trying to get a seat at the table.”
And John Carroll, who heads the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said like it or not, the city and the suburbs are tied together.
“We think it’s not a good option to pursue,” he said.
But seven of nine council members did. They voted in July to begin implementing parts of Anderson’s plan, including a resolution that designates blacks, who make up 83 percent of Detroit’s population, as the “majority minority” group and another that creates a development corporation that would operate as a loan fund exclusively for black entrepreneurs.
The mayor vetoed both resolutions, but the same council members overrode the veto.
Councilwoman Cockrel, who supported the mayor’s veto, said: “I’m not prepared to support an economic development strategy that has the unintended consequences of pitting people against each other. At the end of the day . . . the plan . . . advocates exclusionary classifications and illegal set-asides that only serve to divide and polarize within the city and the region. And we have plenty of that already.”