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Race for Beginners At Mackinac

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Those who follow race relations argue that violence and injustice has been done against people of color every year or every day since the founding of the United States. The latest mainstream media coverage of racial incidents might have started last year with Ferguson, MO. Native Detroiter Lauren Hood wears many hats. Her most prominent has been as the lone protector of iconic historic Detroit buildings. She sits on the Historic District Commission. Below is Lauren’s second entry on Michigannow.org.

People of color have been having conversations about racial inequity amongst themselves since the concept of race was created. The white majority, however, maintains a comfortable obliviousness toward racism until another white person or white led institution draws their attention to it. 

Race was the focus of just three out of over twenty-five sessions at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference. This reduced the topic to an afterthought or conference ‘click bait.’ In the thirty-five year history of the event, veteran attendees could only remember a handful of sanctioned discussions on race. How could this be in a region that ranks among the ten most segregated in the nation? 

Dialogues on race and inequity can help eradicate racism. I facilitate them in public forums. I’ve interacted with people at various stages of understanding. Some have no awareness of the issue at all, those that were raised in racially and culturally homogeneous places. Then there are those that are so hyper aware of social ills that they can barely function amongst the uninformed masses. Most of us exist somewhere in between.

I don’t expect elected officials, policy makers and others in power, to be in a heightened state of awareness. Some are aware and some are not. My critique is that this particular gathering of policy makers and business leaders is trendifying the issue. Promoting the race dialogues as a ‘special’ feature of the conference, “prompted by the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore”, allows those that are unaware, to believe that the unrest is a response only to recent events.

The city of Detroit and the metro region have experienced racial tension long before even the ’43 riot. As Detroit goes, so goes the rest of the region and state. This was said many times at the conference. Many of the panel discussions featured Detroit leaders and focused on Detroit specific issues. If we want the region to thrive, the city must thrive. If the city is to thrive, we must address the history of racial inequity that is at the core of our dysfunction. Race shows up in quality of life indicators like access to affordable housing, fresh food, living wage jobs, and adequate education. These inequities aren’t new; policy makers should have been talking about race since the conference’s inception.

A serious attempt to address race would require more than three hours over the course of a four-day conference. Presenters at the conference said that these discussions were intended to be “catalyst conversations” for dialogues that should take place once back in metro Detroit. But how likely is that once folks are back in the real world, outside of the conference ‘safe space?’ Would people be willing to challenge themselves in this way? In order for dialogue to be meaningful there should be an action plan established, one that includes some means of accountability. Who will hold attendees accountable for continuing the conversation? Too many will assume that by attending one of the ‘race dialogues,’ they’ve done all they need to do.

At the end of each conference, for the past 5 years, the Chamber has put out a “To Do List.” As Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah says, it’s about things that “the Chamber will hold itself accountable for …resulting from conference discussions.” A standard for racial inclusion was missing in 2015. The Chamber could set guidelines for being more inclusive in the make up of not only panelists and presenters but also who attends the event, and who receives scholarships. The list instead includes:

The 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List is:
Promote ethos of ‘doing well by doing good’ by featuring one civic organization at each Mackinac Policy Conference that is helping to make Michigan a better place to live and work.
Promote financial literacy in targeted communities through partnerships with financial services firms and the foundation and non-profit community.

Support the revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods and narrowing of the opportunity gap through the promotion of entrepreneurship and gain a better understanding of micro-lending programs.

Aggressively work toward the fix to Michigan’s critical transportation infrastructure that effectively solves the problem by dedicating sufficient long-term funding for this issue while keeping intact other critical funding essential to moving Michigan forward.

In speaking with some of this year’s Mackinac attendees about racism, some are in denial, unaware that some of their everyday practices and professionally enforced agendas have racism built in. Others are on the verge of acceptance but require “data” to prove the existence of racism. It’s as if the vacant and decaying city neighborhoods, hording of economic opportunity to the suburbs or certain “desirable” parts of the city, and transportation induced segregation aren’t enough proof.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation came to Mackinac prepared. Not only did they come with data, they presented that data using the language of economics. That’s what business execs and government leaders understand. Their report, “The Business Case for Racial Equity” cites housing, education, health care, and the criminal justice system as areas where a focus on racial equity can bring financial benefits. In their sponsored session, “Race, Health, Education and Culture,” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was to explore “the social and economic benefits of advancing racial equity and investing in early childhood education.” He read a prepared statement, introduced Kellogg’s report and then answered questions from Michigan Radio’s Jennifer White.

The presentation had solid ideas. Robinson said, “progress comes from having difficult conversations.” He challenged those in attendance. He supported Kellogg’s message that attention to racial equity can improve the economy, saying that “different languages” are needed to discuss racial equity with different groups. When appealing to a business crowd, address the impact on the bottom line. Many ‘haves’ believe that they would need to make sacrifices in order for the ‘have-nots’ to “rise up.” Robinson said that “we all benefit by helping those in need” and that “economic empowerment is not a zero sum game.”

The second of the MPC15 ‘race talks,’ “Uniting Two Detroits,” was hosted by two white guys, neither of whom live in the “Detroits” being discussed. Nolan Finley of the Detroit News is from Livonia and Devin Scillian of WDIV is from Grosse Pointe. Scillian acknowledged the irony as soon as he took the stage. This session was designed to “offer an opportunity for attendees to come together, elevate ideas and share what they believe needs to happen to unite Detroit,” all within the designated 45 minutes. It would reportedly address “questions about inclusion, racial equity and economic opportunity for all Detroiters” in light of the “rebirth of Detroit’s downtown and Midtown.”

Scillian and Finley began with a discussion on Finley’s December 2014 Detroit News article where he describes his version of the “two Detroits.” The first is for “upwardly mobile, young white” residents and the other is for “struggling,” “frustrated” black residents “trapped in neighborhoods that are crumbling around them.” Finley says that in 15 years he had “never written anything that generated more response.” Again, race, when talked about by white folks, is a worthwhile topic. Scillian addressed Finley’s newly developed concern about racial issues.

He said that he became focused on the subject when an out of town colleague hit the streets of Detroit for a weekend and was surprised that he didn’t see any black people. Scillian tried to say that the problem is not unique to Detroit. He asked rhetorically “how many New York’s are there?” “I don’t want two Detroits, I want a bunch of them.” Finley then discussed the abundance of “diversity” in nightspots visited in other cities, and cites the lack of black folks in new Detroit as a “symptom” of the “opportunity gaps” that exist between groups. He expressed concern that the “progress” made in some parts of the city may be “derailed by resentment” of those who have been and continue to be left out.

The question that most people in the room were trying to answer is “how do we get blacks and whites to play nice together?” Intentionality is stressed over and over again as the key to overcoming racial inequity. Shirley Stancato of New Detroit pointed out that the problem is bigger than who is eating in which restaurant, an awareness I suspect only a few of us in the room were conscious of.  Mark Davidoff, the Mackinac Conference chair, told us his “journey” to racial understanding began six whole years ago when his colleague Dennis Archer said often being the “only black guy in the room” and challenged him to fix the problem. Remaining comments and questions from attendees stayed in the “safe zone” with no one looking to offend or disrupt.

The same could be said for the final ‘race talk’: Race and the Art of Cohesion. This session, unlike the other two, was held in the main theater and although it was one of the last sessions on the last day of the conference, was still well attended. The Chamber chose Stephen Henderson to moderate this discussion. He promised a “frank” discussion on the role business leaders and political leaders play in addressing tensions caused by racial inequities. He promised a discussion on “concrete” actions that can be taken to move us past existing barriers to equity.

La June Tabron, president of the Kellogg Foundation plugged the Kellogg report talked about in the last session. She warned that there is an “opportunity cost” to ignoring racial inequity.

Frank Venegas, Jr., of Ideal Group, Inc., addressed challenges when starting his business in Southwest Detroit in 1995. At the time, gang violence was so rampant that there was no way to do business without interacting with these groups. Venegas, being a self-proclaimed “tough guy,” convened a meeting of gang leadership in the area and offered jobs in exchange for peace. Being a descendant of Mexican immigrants himself, he said he had perhaps a greater willingness to extend opportunities to non traditional candidates like gang members or returning citizens. He said that this practice is not only good for the ‘hood’ but also good for business, echoing the Kellogg theme.

Andre Spivey, a Detroit City Councilman, discussed two Detroits saying that “downtown and Midtown will be fine” but stresses that “engagement’ in the remainder of the city is necessary to thwart a Baltimore or Ferguson style uprising. He insisted that not only should the conversation continue off the island, but he challenged those in the room to hold each other accountable for moving the conversation forward by next years Conference.

U. Renee Hall, Deputy Police Chief for the City of Detroit, cited the need for holistic approaches to achieving racial equity. She said that “we can’t arrest our way out” of inequity, describing the disproportionate number of black males in the prison system as evidence. She promises a “kinder gentler” police force, that will, unlike agencies in Ferguson and Baltimore, support citizens exercising their right to protest by leaving the riot gear and heavy artillery behind.

The current trend toward ‘race talks’ extends far beyond the island of Mackinac. Even mega-brands like Starbucks have attempted to go where only people of color have gone. Although these institutions may be well intended, these conversations appear contrived and therefore disingenuous to those of us that talk about race on a regular basis. The ongoing racial dialogue amongst people of color doesn’t just happen when events like Ferguson or Baltimore make news. Racism is ever present. The Mackinac Policy Conference staff help maintain the social climate in metro Detroit municipalities. If there were a genuine attempt at achieving racial equity, we’d feel it.

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Detroit Police Deputy Chief U. Renee Hall said "we can't arrest our way out of this."

Detroit Police Deputy Chief U. Renee Hall said "we can't arrest our way out of this."

Frank Venegas Jr. owns Ideal Group Inc. He generates $400 million annually in part by employing former gang members. Venegas spoke on a panel with Deputy Police Chief Renee Hall.

Frank Venegas Jr. owns Ideal Group Inc. He generates $400 million annually in part by employing former gang members. Venegas spoke on a panel with Deputy Police Chief Renee Hall.

Nolan Finley of the Detroit News and Devin Scillian of WDIV-TV led a discussion with the audience about race.

Nolan Finley of the Detroit News and Devin Scillian of WDIV-TV led a discussion with the audience about race.

The W.K.Kellogg Foundation has pushed for national dialogue on race and class. It is a long-time funder of this non-profit 501 c-3, Michigan Now Radio & Television.

The W.K.Kellogg Foundation has pushed for national dialogue on race and class. It is a long-time funder of this non-profit 501 c-3, Michigan Now Radio & Television.

Jen White of WUOM Ann Arbor interviewed Eugene Robinson, a University of Michigan graduate who has been writing about race for thirty years.

Jen White of WUOM Ann Arbor interviewed Eugene Robinson, a University of Michigan graduate who has been writing about race for thirty years.

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