Human Rights

Welcome to Africa Town

Detroit wants to create Africa Town to promote African-American businesses, at the expense of immigrant residents of the city.
Desperate circumstances cause human beings to make questionable decisions. Take the Detroit City Council, please. They recently approved by a vote of 7-2, a proposal to purchase city-owned property with the intent of creating an area known as African Town. The purpose of African Town would be to create an economic development zone promoting black owned businesses. Detroit could do much worse. It could be like Washington, D.C., which has just entered into an economically ruinous agreement to bring the Montreal Expos, a baseball team no other city wants, to a brand new RFK stadium. Taxpayers will foot the $440 million bill for this corporate welfare handout.

The impetus for African Town and homes for moribund baseball teams is the same. Black urban areas are in bad shape. High unemployment rates, a dwindling tax base and a lack of community-owned businesses are all recipes for high crime, bad schools, and well meaning but foolish solutions.

In their infinite wisdom, the members of the Detroit City Council added an extra dose of unneeded drama to an already bad situation. It is true that Detroit's city government created a Greektown and a Mexican Town to promote tourism and economic development. The idea of an African Town is equally legitimate, and yet it would have the dubious distinction of recommending that immigrant groups be excluded from enjoying any of its benefits.

The Council commissioned the report, "A PowerNomics Economic Development Plan for Detroit's Under-Served Majority Population," from Dr. Claud Anderson. Dr. Anderson's report makes statements such as this:

"For blacks, immigration has always had negative consequences. It has harmed native blacks in Detroit and across the nation."

Black American resentment of immigrants is not new, neither is it unfounded. The group most subject to oppression and the resulting inability to build wealth, watches again and again as people from every corner of the globe move into their neighborhoods and accomplish what they have been prevented from doing. To add insult to injury they are then told that the newcomers' success is proof of their own worthlessness.

Needless to say, the immigrants in question are not happy about taking the blame for all of Detroit's deeply entrenched problems. Asian, Latino and Arab groups rallied against the proposal and demanded an apology from the City Council. The anti-immigrant sentiment in the report begs another question. Would black Americans in Detroit and elsewhere be better off if immigrants left? Would their businesses suddenly become owned by black people?

Residents in those communities not already in business for themselves would not magically turn into entrepreneurs. The lack of access to capital is an ongoing problem that would not be resolved if Koreans no longer sold black people their own hair care products.

The furor created by the African Town proposal raises another issue. Detroit's population is 80% black. In theory, the entire city should be a boom town for black people. If a majority black population and black political leadership can't provide economic development for Detroit, then the African Town discussion is a waste of time and energy that might be better spent developing a real plan for that city.

Detroit is doomed if its elected representatives spend time and money to commission reports that only result in made up terms like "PowerNomics," hurt feelings, and lots of back and forth in editorial columns. Perhaps Detroit should have taken the Montreal Expos. Two baseball teams might succeed where "PowerNomics" failed. Then again, maybe Detroit needs Ebonics. The City Council could host an Ebonics/PowerNomics summit that would bring millions of dollars to city coffers.

It is easy to make fun of all this sound and fury, but the rest of the country is no better than Detroit. New York City just suffered through major inconveniences and a mini police state in order to host the Republican National Convention. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, promised a windfall for New York but the event may end up costing the city $309 million.

The corporate model for development simply does not work. It doesn't work in Detroit, in Washington, or in New York. The Detroit City Council and city councils throughout the nation should think of these words from the Black Commenator the next time they address this all important issue:
"It must first be said that there is no hope for anybody's independent business survival in a corporate-ruled marketplace. Black business, small business, will find its only protection under the umbrella of people's political power, the only defense against the corporate regime."

When there are real plans for American cities, no one will be saddled with useless stadiums, expensive political conventions or dubious reports. Political leaders who are wealthy Republicans or struggling Democrats will no longer waste their time on unworkable solutions. The cities will truly have saved themselves.
Margaret Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. 
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