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Suburban Leaders and Media Must Help Detroit Overcome the Racial Divide

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It's no secret that southeastern Michigan for many decades stood as one of the most segregated and racially polarized communities in America. There is much baggage to show how we got here but most of the blame seems to always be directed at Detroit leaders and Detroit residence. Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts said the city must get over race issues to move forward. Roy Roberts said "Detroit is a city that's so proud of being a black city that it hurts us," Roberts makes black pride sound like it's a curse.

We all know about the famous "hit 8 mile" line said by former Mayor Coleman Young that was and still to this day seen as some symbol of black Detroiters racial hate for white suburbanites. That line by Young has been revised, embellished and past down for many, many generations and in reality what Young said was in no way racial. He said, "I issue an open warning to all dope pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers. It is time to leave Detroit. Hit 8 Mile Road. And I don't give a damn if they are black or white, if they wear super fly suits, or blue uniforms, with silver badges. Hit the road."

Mayor Coleman Young made a definitive statement about crime and corruption but this statement has been wrongly interpreted to mean he was saying to the criminal element to go across 8 mile and rob white suburbanites. When the subject of race is talked about some would have you believe that Mayor Young's words began the flight of white people from Detroit but in reality Detroit's population decline began prior to Young becoming mayor and was a direct result of the expressways that carried people out of Detroit to the newly established suburbs throughout southeastern Michigan.

Forty years later Coleman Young is still an easy scapegoat for Detroit's racial problems. But the ownership of the problem belongs to many, not just Detroiters, not just Young who we all know wasn't opposed to using race as a political tool in his toolbox. Coming into office as Detroit's first black mayor, Young swore to outlaw S.T.R.E.S.S (Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), the unit of the police department most identified with the violation of rights of black citizens. He promised to desegregate the Detroit Police Department and he followed through on those promises which obviously didn't go over well with the white power structure or some in the police department.

This had a lot to do with Young being called a racist. When the issue of race is talked about today it's only done as a means of boosting newspaper sales or TV and radio ratings. Detroit News editorial writer Nolan Finley asked in a recent editorial "Is Detroit ready for a white Mayor? He wasn't serious about addressing an old problem of racial distrust that has existed for decades; his sole purpose was to fan the flames of racial disharmony while drawing readers to his newspaper. Finley failed to point out in his story that blacks in Detroit for decades have elected white political leaders to city council ( Mel Ravitz, Maryanne Mahaffey, Sheila Cockrel, David Eberhard) and been instrumental in helping to elect many county and state politicians who aren't black.

Before Coleman Young black Detroiters voted and elected Jerome Cavanaugh and Roman Gribbs, both white. In fact when Coleman Young won the mayor's office he defeated then white Detroit Police Chief John Nichols by only 7,000 votes, so while Finley was doing what he frequently accuses black Detroiters of doing, playing the race card, he left out some very important facts that contradicts the suggestion that blacks won't vote for whites. This certainly pulled back the sheets on his motives.

But Finley is not alone in his culpability. For many decades now there has been anti-Detroit legislation put forth and passed in Lansing. Many Detroiters' view the abolishment of Detroit Recorder's Court, the outlawing of residency for city workers and the takeover of the public school system as racist attacks; outstate politicians have consistently run on anti-Detroit issues to get elected to office. The city's recent financial problems caused Governor Snyder to demand that Detroit enter into a consent agreement or risk takeover by the state. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson in response to a stupid and racist tirade by Minister Malik Shabazz said "You had that black minister a couple days ago saying we're not letting the governor take this city over -- we'll burn it down first. That's what you're gonna see, I think, people fomenting that kind of disorder," he said. Patterson called Detroit a "tinderbox" facing the prospect of civil unrest given the opposition to the state's involvement.

Keeping a divide between Detroit and Oakland County has been job #1 for Patterson for decades and for him it is done for economic reasons; keeping the businesses in Oakland County and out of Detroit. He, like Coleman Young does not mind using the race card from his toolbox; it doesn't make either of them racist, it just says they are very skilled at playing to a willing audience. And Detroiters too at times have been a willing audience. Race has been used as a divisive tool in order for some to achieve a certain end. Some black folk in Detroit's business community and in the pulpit will scream racism if it will help them get a piece of the pie as we saw when casinos were first introduced in Detroit.

People that hold positions and are respected in the community pimp their constituents and their flock for mere crumbs for themselves. This kind of rhetoric hurts any possibility of southeastern Michigan ever getting past the racial division. For progress to be made all, not just Detroiters, will have to be full participants in starting a new conversation. Unfortunately there are so many who have made a living playing the race card. They win but we all lose.