Earlier this year, I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates speak at the University of Detroit Mercy, lecturing on America’s racial history through the lens of Detroit. Every city across the United States experienced and enforced practices of urban renewal, redlining, discriminatory housing, but the large-scale implementation of these practices in Detroit had permanent implications that we are still recovering from today.
Coates’ 2013 article published in The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations, explains the history of racist U.S. policies from slavery onward, and breaks down their impact on our physical, economic, and cultural landscapes. The meritocratic system which our country so strongly upholds discounts and erases the multi-generational consequences of discriminatory policies and practices. Our achievement-centric capitalist culture instead suggests that access to opportunity is equal regardless of your age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, race, socio-economic status, etc. despite historic discriminatory set-backs. Put simply, to make reparations is to acknowledge and make amends for historic wrong-doing; reparations help to actually provide equal access to opportunity despite historic inequality.
As it relates to my experience with Challenge Detroit, I found our most recent partnership with ProsperUS and TechTown’s SWOT programs to be the most meaningful because of their relationships with the idea of reparations. Our prompts with both organizations focused on improving programming and operations to better serve immigrant entrepreneurs in Detroit. My team spent five weeks speaking with entrepreneurs and visiting small businesses in neighborhoods like Southwest and Grandmont-Rosedale while learning about existing practices and opportunities from ProsperUs and best practices from organizations like BUILD and Grand River WorkPlace.
Toward the end of our project, I asked our partner from ProperUS about the meaning behind their organization’s obligation to help minority entrepreneurs succeed. While some argue that our free-market capitalism allows any good business to thrive, she and I agreed that our city’s complex cultural and political history have resulted in an intentionally uneven playing field. Many Detroiters have ideas for potential business ventures, but often lack the resources and knowledge required to get off the ground. ProsperUS and SWOT are two organizations that help less-traditional entrepreneurs build success for themselves and their communities by connecting them with resources and creating culturally-informed structures for their clients.
In the case of Detroit small business, organizations that practice reparations and restitution ultimately help everyone thrive: individual entrepreneurs, their families and networks, consumers with demand for a good, neighborhoods receiving economic stimulation, and therefore Detroit as a whole. As Detroit continues to grow, I will continue to prioritize support for small businesses because of their valuable role in our local economy, and also for their significance as it relates to history. Our communities can only benefit from the work that ProsperUS and SWOT are doing, and I hope that they continue to grow as models for alternative-entrepreneurship support in Detroit and beyond.
Other suggested resources on the history of housing and race-related policies:
The Racist Housing Policy That Made Your Neighborhood
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Surge
How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond