Emergency Manager Law, Emergency Managers — December 8, 2011 at 9:51 am

Detroit Free Press Brian Dickerson: Emergency Mgr Law’s impacts not racially-motivated


Detroit Free Press Deputy Editorial Page Editor Brian Dickerson has an op-ed this morning titled What’s really driving state takeovers: It ain’t race. In his piece, he argues that the disparate impact of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law on minority populations isn’t related to race but rather to the shrinking populations of the cities involved.

As the prospect of some sort of state-supervised receivership looms larger for Detroit, politicians who exploit racial division for fun and profit are fond of pointing out that all four of the Michigan cities currently under such supervision are predominantly African American. […]

It’s the same with the four cities in which Gov. Rick Snyder or his predecessor have installed emergency managers. Yes, all of them have black electoral majorities. And in each of the four, the elected leaders displaced by an appointed emergency manager were African American.

But Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint and Pontiac have something much more important in common: They’re all shrinking — hemorrhaging taxpayers, homeowners, employers at an alarming rate.

And in each case, African Americans are rushing for the exits just as fast, and in some cases faster, than their white, Latino and Asian neighbors.

I don’t disagree with his assessment, at least not entirely. It’s clear that these cities are facing an amazing loss of population. Michigan as a whole lost only 0.6% of its population and that flight is concentrated in towns like Pontiac, Detroit, and Flint who have lost population at a double-digit rate.

But, to be clear, my pointing out that over half of Michigan’s African American population will be without representative government at the local level if Inkster and Detroit are put under the control of an EM isn’t a direct accusation of racism. The impact on minorities is more complicated than that. Another trait these cities share is that they were once the homes of a successful manufacturing base. However, systemic racism that kept minority folks from advancing to the upper levels of these companies where wages and benefits were significantly better resulted in a working class in these areas that was highly over-represented by African Americans. When the manufacturing base collapsed and factories left town, they left behind workers without the means to adjust to the cataclysmic change. They were essentially stuck in the veritable ghost towns created by the departure of these companies.

At the end of the day, it’s not the intention of the Emergency Manager Law that we’re talking about. It’s the impact. You cannot possibly look at the data and say that it isn’t having a disproportionate effect on African Americans. This is a fact. And it is something that needs to be addressed, not by disenfranchising the residents of these cities but by working in collaboration with them to reinvent themselves as cities. The high level of poverty and the troubled education systems in these areas make them prime takeover candidates. When you struggle day-to-day to simply keep the lights on and food on the table, political fights aren’t on the top of anybody’s agenda. They are vulnerable and that vulnerability is being exploited by those who see Emergency Managers as the only answer, as the panacea that will “fix” these problems.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, the quick fix, balance-the-books-and-leave approach of Emergency Managers will not make the conditions that created the crises go away. What’s needed is a more comprehensive, long-term and creative approach. Simply throwing our hands in the air and saying, “Everything has been tried! This is all we have left!” is poor governing and poor leadership. If things have been tried and found not to work, we must keep trying. We must educate the residents of these communities on how to run their governments properly. We must do everything in our power to restore some element of economic sustenance for these communities so that they can become prosperous again.

I repudiate claims that it’s hopeless and that a state takeover is the only answer. Businesses can experiment and give up if the experiment fails. States and cities do not have that luxury. We must always pick up the pieces, learn from the past, and move forward. This includes repairing damaged relationships and finding ways past dysfunctional relationships that impede progress.

I agree with Dickeson that this isn’t racially motivated. But the impacts are racial and THAT is what we must keep in front of us as we move forward.