Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Race Relations Slow Progress in Metropolitan Detroit

Race Relations Slow Progress in Metropolitan Detroit

More communication, better understanding can tear down the walls

March 9, 2005 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffen
  Hart Plaza, Detroit, May 2003
Despite the civil rights laws of the 1960s and the affirmative action programs of the 1970s and 1980s, race relations remain a highly charged issue throughout the Detroit region. The city’s concentrated poverty and its suburbs’ concentrated wealth isolate the city racially and economically.
Recent legislative activity demonstrates how poorly lawmakers from many Detroit suburbs understand this. Detroit Branch NAACP closely follows the Legislature and scores lawmakers’ votes on bills germane to Detroit. In 2004 Detroit Branch tracked 12 bills, including proposals about charter schools, public transportation, land banks, community development, and payday lending.

Payday lending crystallizes Detroit’s problems. The practice, which the National Association of Attorney Generals has long opposed, targets poor people who live from paycheck to paycheck, have little or no savings, and live far from legitimate financial institutions. Payday lenders typically charge annual percentage rates that approach 400 percent for two-week payday advances.

This practice hits hard in Detroit, where 82 percent of the population is African- American and roughly one-third of the city’s 375,000 households live on less than $25,000 per year. In 2004 the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 474, which would have granted existing payday lenders legitimacy through a new state regulatory process. The Detroit Branch strongly opposed the bill, but 12 state representatives from Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties, all adjacent to Detroit, voted for it and provided the exact winning margin. Three suburban Detroit senators also supported the measure. Fortunately Governor Granholm, a former attorney general, vetoed it.

This example goes a long way toward explaining the Branch’s legislative report card ratings. All Detroit legislators, 88 percent of whom are African-American, received either “A” or “B” grades, but legislators from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties, 95 percent of whom are white, scored low. Only one-third received “A” or “B” grades; almost half scored “D” or “F.” Despite the proximity and profound economic interrelatedness of Detroit and its suburbs, suburban lawmakers often vote in ways that are hostile to, indifferent to, or woefully misinformed about issues that affect poor Detroiters’ lives. The city-suburb difference is stark; too few suburbanites understand it.

But some people remain hopeful.

“Over the past several years race relations in southeast Michigan have come a long way,” said Dalton Roberson, an associate for economic equity at New Detroit, a nonprofit organization concerned with revitalizing the city. “However, we still have challenges to overcome. Economic inequity, educational disparities, and segregated housing patterns continue to hamper racial harmony in Detroit and the tri-county area.”

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org