Healing Detroit: Moving Toward a Transitional Justice

by Eric Riley

Detroit is changing, and at times it seems inevitable that these changes could be for the worst. But putting aside the favorability of these changes, it is important to take this moment for what it is; a period of intense transition in Detroit’s history. And this history is important, not just the history of white flight, but of black and brown bodies and their narratives. Detroit is two years out from its historic bankruptcy, in the midst of its largest economic “revitalization” effort in years (for some neighborhoods), working with the surrounding counties on regional cooperation initiatives that will change political and policy dynamics (i.e., the new Regional Transit Authority and Great Lakes Water Authority), a new planning director poised to change the conversation around development and community, and a movement towards increased privatization of public spaces. All of this is to say that we, as a city, are transitioning towards a new Detroit unlike anything we have experienced before.

Before we are pushed into this New Detroit, one with high property values, and low numbers of black and brown residents, we have to substantively address the past. In response to the last article - Don't Call it A Comeback – that discussed the romanticization of Detroit’s past and current success entitled”, a Facebook comment responded with “Truth and Reconciliation”. If we are going to enter this new period of Detroit’s history, we need to look at our past and we have to talk about transitional justice and truth and reconciliation. The International Center for Transitional Justice defines transitional justice as:

“The set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses. These measures include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms.”

The most known example of transitional justice and truth and reconciliation commissions is South Africa. While I do not have the time or space to adequately discuss the complexities of the South African case, I bring it up because I think this it is the only example of a white supremacist minority having truly conversed and engaged with the victims of their racist violence on a level that, at times, bore out real results. There have been conversations around addressing the United States’ intense past of racial trauma and injury but all these talks on the national scale seemed doomed from the start.

Detroit’s history of racial segregation; the white supremacist policies that degraded and razed black and brown communities while allowing white people to flourish; and the continued victimization of black and oppressed communities through evictions, gentrification, and other state practices of mass violence, make it a microcosm of our country’s larger issues. Transitional justice processes, including Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, have had mixed results, but these processes are not static and can be tailored and fitted for the specific context. As Detroit moves into this new epoch I believe a formal transitional justice process should be established to acknowledges the true experiences of marginalized communities in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. It is important to state that this is not some strategic framework or plan to be executed by the city, but more of a vision, and look into what such a process would require for any type of success.

It seems that at the core of many of Detroit’s issues is this idea of acknowledging the past and finding equitable and socially just paths forward. It is important to remember that when we talk about racist policies, politicians and the impacts they have had on history and the present day, we are talking about people; people who have families and lives that are impacted by the decisions that people in power have the privilege and unearned advantage to make. Detroit’s past and present is riddled with  political decisions aimed at making the city more white and affluent – from the construction of highways through communities in the past to the new bridge destroying a portion of the Southwest community today. A Metro Detroit Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be about addressing our past in a way that we never have. Bringing the victims of oppressive policies and regimes into direct dialogue and engagement with those who have indirectly benefitted and those directly responsible.

While one of the main goals of this process is getting to the truth, and achieving some form of apology, reparation and forgiveness, true accountability must also be established. This accountability is not without the power dynamics that are inherent to our white supremacist, anti-black world, which means that privileged people, specifically white people have a larger role to play in understanding how the power society has stripped away from others and bestowed upon them needs to be deconstructed for a harmonious future. This also involves addressing the inevitable complaint that many white people have about redressing the past: that is they are not responsible for the acts and pain caused by their ancestors, even if they currently benefit from it. A friend of mine and excellent writer and intellectual, Alexis Farmer, commented on this brilliantly:

“Victims do not have the luxury of removing themselves from past wrongdoings, because it impacts their everyday lived experiences."

The urge to quickly remove oneself from your ancestors past wrongdoing is ultimately an expression of privilege; a privilege that allows you to divorce yourself from the injuries of your past in a way that people who have suffered and struggled will never be able to. White people in the Detroit Metropolitan area have in many cases never had to interact with the harsh realities that their nice suburbs necessitate.

In order for real truth to be shared and accepted regarding the realities of life for black and brown people living within Detroit borders, there can be no rush for apologies or forgiveness. Further, once real truth is achieved, forgiveness cannot be forced. Too often in these processes, the victims are forced to forgive their oppressors for the sake of transition. In an article by Robert Jones Jr., also known as Son of Baldwin, he eloquently articulated this point: “forgiveness without a strategy—without a means to secure justice, as merely an appeal to the invisible, intangible, and indifferent—is surrender, and not even a surrender to anything as principled as peace. " Yes, Detroit is transitioning into something very different, a new political and policy state, but this transition can’t be rushed and neither can this transitional justice process. There must be adequate time for people to understand the depths of suffering and struggle that intentional systems, institutions, and policies have created. This requires validating the experiences of people very different from you and acknowledging truths that may implicate you in larger systems of oppression.

Transitional justice processes for the city would also involve accountability, redress, and reparations. Even though this Truth and Reconciliation process would be on the local scale, there is no better articulation for the case of reparations on a national level than Ta-Nehisi Coates’ aptly titled essay The Case for Reparations. Coates lays out in every way the reasons that reparations are needed and most of his examples draw on data from urban areas like Detroit. What I think is most important about the reparations piece of this process is understanding that you cannot quantify suffering, and thinking that you can repair past traumas with one time payments or monetary deals is unacceptable. Reparations should be thought of as the creation of new institutions and policies that specifically serve those who have been historically discriminated against and suffer from the effects of the past. These need to be longitudinal solutions that look to continually address these issues in the future. In the context of Detroit, this involves looking at how the surrounding suburbs have extracted resources and figuring out ways to purposefully and strategically pour those resources back into the city, in order to more equitably develop and inclusively revitalize under resourced areas.

Detroit is in a moment right now that is characterized by fluctuation. All of the above mentioned changes and transitions must be capitalized upon; not in an exploitative way, but as a period to look towards a truly different future. A Metro Detroit Truth and Reconciliation Commission could have mixed results, and even with all of the prescriptions I’ve mentioned, it could achieve nothing. To be successful, this process will requires that blackness and the experiences of other communities of color be centered and remain the focus of the conversation. Too often when we talk about truth, reconciliation, apology, and forgiveness, whiteness is at the center of our conversation. This is problematic and hinders our ability to make real changes and connect with one another on a level that would truly, positively impact us. Appealing to the white gaze and putting their experience at the center of transitional justice processes won’t give us the answers we need or point to solutions that will radically change our systems. If we are going to truly analyze Detroit’s history and have an honest conversation about it, we can’t be afraid to talk about the bad, we can’t be afraid to talk about how the present is impacted, we can’t be afraid to hold those who have benefitted accountable, and we can’t be afraid to center and allow the voices most oppressed to lead us into more enlightened and radically necessary ideas.