Horse Power


I posted awhile back about horses in Detroit. My friend and former coworker Pasha Ellis organizes monthly equestrian events for kids in his central Detroit neighborhood with the group Motor City Horsemen. He envisions a future Detroit where horses become a prominent form of transportation.

It may seem like a bit of an esoteric goal. In an interview we did this summer, he explained his thinking. He said horses are about:

Bringing people closer to who they are. Helping people find definition without things, objects, man-made products. Yo, riding a horse is an exhilarating experience man, especially for people who’ve never rode a horse before. It’ll definitely cut down on pollution, and it will spark an interest, I feel, in nature and being closer to nature.

As the leader of the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, Pasha organizes a wide range of projects in the neighborhood—tending gardens, cleaning streets, building community spaces in vacant lots. He argues that American consumer culture perpetuates an internalized mentality of white supremacy in distressed black Detroit neighborhoods. Improving the city’s quality of life therefore requires confronting that culture. Beyond the free fertilizer and saved fossil fuel, horses have a role to play in that work:

I think all aspects of nature have a healing aesthetic, whether it’s planting gardens, riding a horse, raising livestock, since it’s our natural element as people. It just puts us in a better place health-wise, overall. And like I say for these kids, these city kids, definitely just bringing them closer to nature and their humanity, opposed to, you know, ‘ooh I like that new car, that new car!’ You know, fuck that pollution, get up on this horse and stop next to that car. See how majestic you really feel!


I’ve long struggled to adequately explain the racial tinge of the animus toward Detroit prevalent in so much of Michigan. Mark Binelli taps into it pretty impressively. He reflects after realizing how a group of suburban companions seemed to relish littering in a Detroit parking lot before a football game:

A wave of exhaustion came over me, even though I’d only been awake for a couple of hours. The gulf between city and suburbs felt gaping and hopeless. Still, when one of the tailgaters asked about my reporting, I mentioned that things in Detroit felt different, better, knowing I risked scorn for being hopelessly naïve, a dupe. Predictably, the guy shook his head and said he’d been hearing that for the past thirty years. The main problem, he claimed, was leadership, that the city really screwed up by electing the worst people ever, that nothing would change unless you changed things at the top—a not uncommon assessment from white suburbanites, “leadership” often signifying “thieving blacks who demanded the keys to the shop, and now look what fucking happened.” If there was national schadenfreude about the failure of Detroit, regional schadenfreude was even stronger, and it hinged in large part on race.

In that moment, I thought of certain aspects of United States foreign policy—the practice of isolating enemy states financially and then watching the leader whom we’ve labeled a tyrant act more and more like one when his regime begins to crumble under the pressure of the embargo. The leader and his state must fail in order to confirm the triumph of our own ideology. And if his people do not rise up against him, their suffering is, at least in part, their own fault. Here, Detroit was the rogue state, defying the bullying hegemony of a superpower that (in the eyes of many Detroiters) wanted to install its own hand-picked leader, making the transfer of any remaining natural resources that much smoother.

Affirmative Action Is About More Than Diversity

I don’t fault the Supreme Court for focusing on diversity in their decision, but the conversation about affirmative action needs to be broader in scope:

“The original goal of affirmative action is to ensure that people who have been historically discriminated against—oppressed—have access to education and jobs. We’ve lost track of that,” said Mychal Denzel Smith, a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute who has written about the Court’s decision and the emphasis on diversity.

A quick look at the data makes the weight of this history clear. As we wrote last week, African-Americans still face unemployment and poverty rates that far exceed the rates for white Americans.

And it’s not just history, either; we still haven’t achieved equal opportunity based on class or race. Just a few examples: Standardized tests are culturally biased. Smith noted that programs like New York City’s “stop and frisk” disproportionately target youth of color and damage their future career prospects. And being born into a rough environment can make learning nearly impossible—The Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “on an average day in middle school [in inner-city Baltimore], fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety.”

Each example speaks to the value of affirmative action, but none are captured by the diversity paradigm. Why, then, does diversity dominate the conversation?

Continued at Campus Progress.

The Unfinished March

Like much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, it turns out that the “March on Washington” has been kinda whitewashed. The 50th anniversary of the event is this year—maybe an ideal time to reclaim the history?

Has Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream truly been realized today? There was a lot more to the 1963 “March on Washington” than just King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it’s reflected in the event’s oft-overlooked full name: March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom.

Marchers rallied not just for civil and political rights for American blacks, but also economic demands including full employment and a livable minimum wage.

We’re doing pretty poorly on those demands:

Despite the Civil Rights Movement’s successes, African-Americans still face residential segregation, segregated schools, unemployment rates twice that of whites and 36 percent work for poverty-level wages.

Read the rest at Campus Progress

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love LeBron

Or at least to cut him some slack.

I’m one of those people who see the Miami Heat as basketball’s Evil Empire, or like the bad guys in an underdog-story kid’s sports movie. I still haven’t forgiven LeBron for “The Decision” (or for beating the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs). Having him, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh—three of the league’s elite players—on the same team just feels like stacking the deck. It’s as though a team that talented is supposed to win. What fun is that?

But Mychal Denzel Smith has me reconsidering. I spoke to him yesterday for a story I’m writing on money in college sports, and as an aside he said:

In 2010, when LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh all decided that they were going to play in Miami together, what you saw was a shift with black men taking control of their destiny in professional sports and no longer being necessarily what William Rhoden called the “40 million dollar slave,” right? They were understanding their value, and understanding the market, and understanding what it is that they bring to the table. And capitalizing off of their talent and their business savvy in order to do what it is that they wanted to do in order to make themselves more profitable and their brands more profitable.

Maybe as sports fans, we’re not accustomed to athletes being strong self-advocates and asserting control over their careers. And it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that race influences our expectations. I’ll almost always still root for the underdog (in this case, against the Heat) but I’ll definitely try to spare the scorn. 

Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens?

My big one is out today in The Atlantic, on Michigan’s emergency manager law and the residents suing to overturn it. A taste:

The suit highlights the paradox of American municipal governance. Local government is deeply ingrained in the ethos of American democracy, from colonial-era New England town hall meetings to New York City’s experiment with people-powered budgeting. But it is not an inalienable right. The U.S. Constitution guarantees all states a “republican government,” but gives states power to grant — or not grant — home rule to municipalities.

Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, contends that the state has an obligation to make sure local governments are on solid fiscal footing. Despite the demographic disproportions in the affected cities, it’s unlikely that discrimination has motivated the governor’s EM appointments. The areas under emergency management are some of Michigan’s largest clusters of concentrated poverty, ravaged by decades of deindustrialization.

Discrimination aside, the Michigan appointments — whether constitutional or not — set a troubling precedent by curtailing local representation in the state’s most chronically impoverished cities.

Read the whole thing

How Detroit Lost Its Democracy


Detroit’s skyline. In several Michigan cities, Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI) has suspended local democracy and then rolled back the public sector. The Motor City may be next.

For years, progressives have been battling to defend the public sector of the American economy against the likes of Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc) and Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. And more recently, they have fought against the Republican-led legislative efforts to restrict access to voting.

In Detroit they will have to do both at once.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder is using a highly contested Michigan law to bring the city of 700,000 under state “emergency management.” Kevyn Orr, his appointed manager, will have near-total control over the city’s affairs, superseding the elected mayor and city council. Orr—a lawyer with a background in business restructuring—will be tasked with fixing the city’s chronic budget woes.

Needless to say, many Detroit residents are not happy. “Essentially what it means is that Detroit voters have been robbed of the right to vote,” said Darrell Dawsey, a columnist for Deadline Detroit and Motor City native.

In a referendum last November, Michigan residents—including 82 percent of Detroit voters—overturned Public Act 4, the law that gave emergency managers such sweeping authority. But shortly after, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a new, similar law.

Snyder and his supporters contend that state control of Detroit’s finances is necessary because city leaders haven’t come up with a feasible plan to return the city to solvency. Snyder has given little detail, though, on how Orr will solve decades of structural economic obstacles in a span of 18 months.

But what if he doesn’t solve them at all? If Snyder were looking to push a conservative economic agenda on an unwilling populace (sound familiar?), emergency management would be the perfect way to do it.

“For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with tremendous public assets,” The Nation’s John Nichols reported. Oft-discussed plans for “fixing” Detroit include privatizing the city’s water department and converting beloved Belle Isle into a state park or—less realistically—a sovereign territory run by wealthy libertarians. Emergency managers in other Michigan cities have dissolved union contracts and sold off public assets.

Half of Michigan’s black residents are now governed by an unelected emergency manager; Detroit is over 80 percent African-American.

“You can get away with doing this to struggling black townships and cities,” Dawsey said. “But I think this is going to find its way into a lot of white folks’ communities too. It’s sort of like my aunt used to say down south: ‘If they come for me in the morning, they’re coming for you at night.’”

Posted at Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / Ian Freimuth.

There’s No Riot Goin’ On


While the late 1960s violence that erupted in urban centers across the country was all somehow related to racial politics, historians and social scientists have disputed the extent to which race played a role in the Detroit riots of 1967. A number have suggested that there should be a shift in emphasis from race to poverty in understanding what happened that summer. But we shouldn’t be cavalier about teasing apart these important social dimensions. In the mid- and late 1960s, the black community in Detroit was suffering through the first wave of what would turn into a decades-long (and obviously still continuing) period of economic hardship. […] Even just twenty years earlier, when housing discrimination was especially bad, young black men could look forward with reasonable optimism to finding service employment at one of the auto plants or their subsidiary factories. But early in the 1960s, the job market for African Americans in the inner city had collapsed, and prospects, especially for young black men, were dismal.

—Pp. 53.

After the riots, Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission found that they were caused by lack of employment opportunity. According to Thomas Sugrue, about 25 percent of young black men in Detroit were unemployed at the time. A quick search of BLS data puts Detroit’s current unemployment rate at about 18 percent.

From the Annals of Gentrification

This was on a neighborhood listserv earlier today:

Several neighbors in my block encountered a scam situation yesterday. Two girls approach the house and ask to walk a dog for $10 to donate to an animal shelter. Or they try to sell a basil plant for $15 to benefit a homeless shelter.
This is obviously a scam… The true sad part? An adult woman that walks
with them points out the houses that they should go to.
This happened last night in the 1900 block of 1st St NE around 7pm.
They knocked on my door too but I didn’t see the adult woman. I simply said “no thank you” and didn’t think much of it. Should I call the police when i see this? Child protective services?

Thankfully, there was a thoughtful reply: “There are other ways to view this.  It’s incorrect to assume that criminality is involved.  Perhaps this is adaptive, industrious behavior meant to support children in the absence of jobs, [TANF] and other sources of income.”

Still, I’m amazed at how someone can move into a gentrifying neighborhood and misunderstand so badly what goes on there. Kids trying to make money? Call the police!

The Black Vote and Its Discontents

From Democracy Now, a former Florida GOP official by the name of Jim Greer claims that his party explicitly discussed keeping minorities away from the polls:

“I was upset because the political consultants and staff were talking about voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.” He continues: “They talked about not letting blacks vote … and minority outreach programs were not fit for the Republican Party.” His comments come amidst Florida’s standoff with the Justice Department and civil rights groups over a voter purge that critics say particularly targets people of color. In recent weeks, at least two top Republican state lawmakers — state Senator Glenn Grothmann in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai — have predicted that restrictive voter ID laws will help Republican candidate Mitt Romney win their states in November.

We know that the voter ID craze is illogical—fraud at the polls is almost nonexistent. Because of that, I’ve often wondered why Republicans are so intent on instituting laws that “protect” against this phantom threat. Is it a conspiracy to undermine civil rights? A lot of people have suggested as much, but that just seems so evil to me. I wonder: how much of it is just fed by the all too common ignorance of people with good intentions?

To answer such questions, we’d need to enter the mind of the elites at the highest echelons of political power. Since we can’t do that, glimpses like the one above become extremely important. We’ll never know exactly what our leaders are thinking and plotting, but if we manage to assemble enough of these wisps of insight, maybe we can piece together the picture.

In the case of voter ID laws, that picture is not looking too pretty.