by Eli Day
Heroes have their place. Yet in the realm of public policy, where structural calamity requires structural remedy, few things are more useless. That’s why it’s been maddening to watch as the intellectuals, journalists, and upwardly mobile of Detroit participate in a bizarre specimen of hero worship: not only trumpeting the successes of Mayor Mike Duggan, but ritually veiling his shortcomings. To be clear, Duggan is not without credentials—his business and political acumen are obvious. The trouble with heroes is that when the time comes to be scrupulous about policy details there’s a collective reluctance to question their wisdom, perhaps for fear of revealing the limits of our own.
Our conversations bear the mark of our immaturity. When the mayor speaks of revival he's reading from an old script, even as he willfully mutes the ghosts it summons. This history, and its legacy, deserves to be treated with the gravity of its consequences.
We can start with the foreclosure auction, wherein tens of thousands of homes capturing roughly 142,000 residents—or 1/5 of Detroit’s population—are slated to be auctioned off in an effort to repopulate the city and reconstitute its sliding housing stock. Many of these homes remain occupied by families swimming against a relentless, and deeply historical, tide of economic devastation enacted at every level of government and reinforced by this policy. The origins of urban crises aren’t mysterious. The facts are knowable.
And so whenever someone invokes Detroit’s return to mid-20th century prominence I’m left with two concurrent thoughts. The first is belief in the speaker’s sincerity. These people mean it. The second is unmitigated rage at what goes unmentioned about this history. What goes unmentioned is that Detroit’s past prosperity was ill-gotten, erected on the plunder of its emerging black underclass. What goes unmentioned is that the legacy of white supremacy isn’t merely a creation of unimaginable moral depravity, but deliberate public policy. What goes unmentioned is that the dislocation of Black Americans—couched in revivalist rhetoric—isn’t a novel idea, but a relic of American history. What goes unmentioned is that the well-being of Black Detroit has long been considered secondary to the city’s prosperity and expendable in times of crises. Social injury hasn’t been a temporary inconvenience on the long walk to prosperity for Black Detroit. It is a matter of historical record. The tools of devastation may transform over time, but the soul of the thing remains. The refusal to consider those injuries isn’t a habit of forward-looking people seriously committed to revival. It is the last resort of a system, and nation, that refuses to take itself seriously.
This is the history within which Mayor Duggan’s programs percolate. Its scars and lacerations are known intimately by the people of Detroit, revealing the inescapable: if we claim to carry the virtues of our national heritage, then we also retain its sins. Yet our inheritance is also one of resistance. It guards against fatalism and instills a hard-earned hope, marked by a survivalist instinct specific to assaulted communities. The evidence dwells on the street corners and porches that serve as podiums for the dispossessed. I knew them in my youth and few lecterns I’ve stood behind since have managed to summon the same gravitas, or the same urgency, that one finds amidst the wreckage. We’d all do well to listen.