THE BLOG

Mike Duggan: Detroit Rejected or Detroit Recovered?

01/13/2014 05:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014

40 years ago, the War on Poverty began its staccato phase. The racial unrest of the 1960s and the Vietnam War moved American politics to the right. In 1974, the republicans controlled the white house and liberals retreated from bold social experimentation. The momentum of the civil rights movement faded. The middle class celebrated victories, but the promise of ending poverty and expanding opportunity for low income black Americans was no longer a national agenda.

40 years ago, Detroit's mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, a white man, was elected by black Detroiters because he was a symbol of economic advancement and social reform. 50 years ago in January of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a plan to restore faith in America by annihilating poverty. In 1966, the war on poverty led to new legislation that initiated 150 Model Cities programs. Though only lasting for five years, these programs were intended to develop antipoverty programs and stimulate growth in urban America. They were spurred on by the rising concerns of widespread urban violence and limited progress in urban renewal. Sensing a need to stabilize democracy and foster a goodwill and civic engagement, they also helped develop a generation of urban black leaders.

40 years ago, Detroit was one of the largest Model Cities projects and Mayor Cavanagh was the only elected official to serve on Johnson's task force. Detroit was given $490 million and tried to turn a nine-square-mile section of the city into a model city. This feat was lauded, but ultimately failed. Conflict of interests and racial tensions cooled the passion to end poverty and promote democracy in Detroit. It has been 50 years since the War on Poverty began, and 40 years since it ended. Still today, racial tension, urban violence, controversial experimenting in education and a lack of economic growth for the many urban black poor are acute and real problems in Detroit. These are problems that demand solutions. The federal government is invisible amid the crisis in urban America and state government is insensitive. Poverty is creating a Detroit that is losing people and a forsaking a political will for progress and peace.

40 years later, Mike Duggan, Detroit's first white mayor in 40 years, took office in a bankrupt city drowning in a sea of poverty. At his swearing in, Duggan said he was going to continue Mayor Dave Bing's work. Too short to play basketball, too white to be ignored by Gov. Rick Snyder and Kevyn Orr, it is hard to understand what he could mean. He has limited powers and is mayor of bankrupt city, but was not elected to act like an appointee of Keyvn Orr. He was elected to lead. With the world watching, the key question is whether under Mike Duggan will Detroit continue to be rejected or will it recover? He campaigned on a promise to fix Detroit. Former council woman, Sheila Cockrel claims he is ready to hit the ground running. However, if snow plowing and garbage pick up are his grand ideas, then it is clear he has no sense of Detroit's or bold plan for Detroit's recovery. Success for Mayor Duggan and recovery for Detroit demand he consider the lessons of the past.

1. An unengaged underclass can erupt
Mayor Duggan wants to be neutral about the issue of emergency management. Some say he has signed an agreement not to criticize Kevyn Orr publicly. Whatever his hopes are, he cannot remain neutral. Beyond Mr. Orr's attack on the pensions of city workers and liquidation of assets, the real issue is that his presence is an affront to democracy. Kevyn Orr removes any significant reason for citizens to feel or think engagement in any process is fair or meaningful. Because of the Snyder administration, Detroit is ripe for a George Wallace style populism that brands Kevyn Orr and Mike Duggan as proof that poor black citizens remain segregated, invisible and locked out. The message of a strange freedom that doesn't need government may resonate in a city where people have no role in government and are not being serviced by government.

2. An inequitable city government will be opposed
Voting is important. Citizen's voices should be heard, but there is more to politics than engagement. Government should deliver access and economic opportunity. 35 percent of Detroit is on some kind of public assistance. It is a city with a strong informal economy. Mayor Duggan cannot rest his laurels on mere trash pick up and snow removal. He has got to attack poverty in Detroit head on. He cannot simply create a model city within a city. This failed in the late 60s and early 70s and it will fail today. A new stadium for Mike Illitch, new development by Dan Gilbert in downtown, and other midtown business ventures will not deal with the 250,000 citizens that yearn for a real opportunity for economic gain. In a city that is 80 percent black, Mayor Duggan must reject the mindset of his conservative advisors and think for himself. He must offer a plan for economic recovery, not black removal in Detroit.

3. Racial tensions can block economic recovery
Mayor Duggan wants to ignore race. He was elected by black people, but was funded by white people. Merely, surrounding himself with token blacks in his administration doesn't remove his requirement to deal openly and honestly with racial prejudice in Detroit. The continued growth of an "us versus them" political climate will frustrate any chance for coordinated action based on consensus. Mayor Duggan must seek more than tangible results. He must find a way to create true racial reconciliation in Detroit. Otherwise, racial mistrust in Detroit will make his polices mere examples of continued attempts at either take over or tokenism.