State of Black Detroit 2013

By William Copeland

“Today, the dream of more equitable income distribution; a government restrained in its use of war; racial justice; environmental protection; gender justice; and a vision of a United States that has been decolonized, in the literal sense of the word, is further from being realized than ever. As African Americans, we are experiencing our most profound existential crisis since our collective experience of being enslaved, even with a ‘Black President.’ — Ajamu Baraka

I’ll begin this “where are we now” by looking at two events that recently magnetized the African-American collective conscious.

On the cultural end, we have the release of “Django Unchained” described by The Black Agenda Report as “Killing Whitey While Protecting White Power” and on the political end, the re-election of Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama.

Both of these events have been widely celebrated within the African-American community — Django for bringing Black vengeance and the injustice of slavery into the mainstream; Obama’s re-election as a pinnacle of Black American achievement and the realization of civil rights dreams. The celebrations shifts our focus towards Black exceptionalism: individual rebellion, achievement, revenge, or success.

In both cases this can de-emphasize the importance of collective struggle and hide the nature of white supremacy as a system of power. This distinction is greatly promoted by the media and serves to push the African-American community further and further away from a revolutionary relationship to these times and to the problems we face as a Nation within a nation. This is today’s national context that Black Detroit finds itself mired in.

“My man came over and said, “Yo we thought we heard you”
Joke’s on you; you heard a bitin-ass crew” — The Roots “Never Do”

A respected activist who hadn’t lived in Detroit for a while told me that she had been hearing good news about development creating opportunities in Detroit recently. I don’t know yet about calling them “opportunities,” but we definitely see changes and forces at work to transform the city. As individuals and organizations position themselves to receive opportunities, communities debate whether this is progress or betrayal; so we see divisions within the Black community. Along with this investment comes a change in demographics. Mainstream media heralds the first white mayor since the 1970’s — this is unspoken code for the decrease of Black community power and the increase of a white politic that can effectively promote mainstream usa interests within city limits.

Looking closer, these incentives and positive developments are structured to bring new people into the city, rather than contribute to the development of Detroiters that are already here.

I learned recently that collective punishment was made illegal by the Geneva Convention. That’s ironic because collective punishment is the exact term I use to describe the conscious policies of economic underdevelopment that were applied to Detroit from the early 1970’s until recently. So now, even though there is an onslaught of development and investment within the city limits, Detroit’s poor are often insulated from these benefits by shitty education, removal from the labor market for years, non-living wage jobs and criminal criminal justice policies.

“We are creating a generation of people, several generations of people, who know this society does not care about them.” – Detroit Mayoral Candidate Krystal Crittendon

The youth today are in the eye of this storm.

They live through injustice in these assimilationist times; and also face nearly omnipresent corporate media manipulation and unprecedented educational manipulation.

Education today is at the same time mandatory, viewed as a necessity to make a living, tightly attached to a community’s income level, and being dismantled right in front of their faces.  They face daily the punitive nature of our society via suspension or expulsion in schools, juvenile or prison sentencing, and the economic punishment of poverty made more unforgiving by the last 30 years’ destruction of safety nets.

Detroit youth attend college in a time when rents are rising due to gentrification and financial aid leans heavily towards loans instead of grants. Demands to maintain income while studying, and often supporting family financially, logistically, and emotionally create a pressure that takes heroic effort to overcome.

Local activist Siwatu-Salama Ra shared her experience of leading a workshop in a Detroit high school. She asked what topic they wanted to address and proposed many traditional social justice issues. The top two issues raised were kidnappings and rape.

A significant number of the young women discussed having been assaulted or raped.  The conventional school setting is no place to discuss the extreme violence that young women are subjected to. It would take a miracle for these institutions to offer a safe space or place of healing. Even activists rarely recognize how deeply this is needed in young Detroit today.

From the broader society most Detroit youth receive minimal employment possibilities and limited opportunities to be mentored and learn from elders how to navigate society.

For decades it’s been described that we have “babies raising babies;” now we have youth raising youth, meaning that groups of young people often parent and mentor each other. In Detroit, the presence of active and dynamic veteran elders has cast a broad shadow that today’s youth are peeking out from to join the struggle as they see it.

Still there are significant communication gaps among the generations — in the neighborhoods, institutions, and even in activist circles. Adults can definitely play a role by challenging the systems of oppression that we face and offering to them our struggles — past, present, and future.

“The more Afrika you are here, or more specifically the more humanely dark, the more you are a threat to the normality that all else are deemed to “deserve.”  — Poet Miriam Gabriel a.k.a. Maryam Imam

Fortunately for us all, the pieces of the puzzle are all on the table.  We do have many of the practices, philosophies, and proposals that can lead us out of this capitalistic nightmare.

Detroiters have collectively drafted new forms of policy that get their strength from elevating the needs of the collective, especially those suffering under our policies, above the demands of corporations. We see this in nearly all aspects of life: water access, food justice, housing, utilities, environmental justice and public health, green jobs and new work, communications and education. Some have even been approved already by City Council.

Collectively, they have yet to be assembled into a survival system. We struggle with how to build power and how to share potent, unpopular ideas with the multitudes in our communities. I believe that this synthesis can truly create a twenty-first century socialism that doesn’t emulate the late-twentieth-century Western assumptions about standard of living, but instead creates a living model of localized systems of collective well-being.

It is no coincidence that these models come from Detroit, our historic stronghold of Black Nationalism.  It is time to elevate the traditional values of self-respect and collective well-being.

Today’s system of employment is docile at best; blindly obedient and pro-capital at its worst. Most politicians have no vision for addressing Detroit’s needs besides begging corporations to bring in more jobs. Even at its best, this can only give people full bellies and empty spirits with no vision of self-determination.  That is the 21st century American Dream and we see it seeping throughout the usa empire. At its worst, it will create two Detroits — yet again separate and unequal.

Now is the time to create a new path. It’s time to create new systems of work and new systems of education that embody traditional values such as creativity, collective responsibility and self-determination.  Detroit has the seeds and the roots for a new social system for our people. Many Detroiters recognize that “Black” and “African-American” are labels that came out of our encounter with the colonizers. Detroiters are applying Kemetic, Moorish, Afrikan, and other ancestral identities and values to our situations today.

Our existence didn’t start with slavery and capitalism and it won’t end there either.