The needless waste resulting from the Detroit City Council dithering away the state’s offer to lease Belle Isle last week is all the more pathetic for having been completely predictable. Detroiters rarely pass up a chance to make things worse.
John Fund, writing at NRO, cites Detroit as an example of several American cities that are dying, “and the worst part is that these grievously ill patients often are refusing to take even the mildest medicine that would make things better.” (“America’s Suicidal Cities”).
To Fund, the Belle Isle plan sounded like:
a win-win idea, but Detroit’s city council nixed it at a tumultuous meeting on Tuesday night. The council voted 6 to 3 to not even put the proposal on its agenda. Governor Rick Snyder’s office then promptly withdrew the offer because a key deadline for the state’s budget wouldn’t be met.
Opponents who showed up at the meeting angrily denounced the proposal as akin to selling the island to outsiders. “The governor has his hands on our jewels,” one skeptic told the council.
Fund quotes Detroit News cartoonist and writer Henry Payne telling him “the tenor of the council meeting depressed him. ‘It was a throwback to old conspiracy theories that have long prevented progress in Detroit,’ he told me. ‘Several speakers raved on about the Belle Isle deal being a suburban plot to take over Detroit.’”
That’s because the conspiracy theories Payne has in mind aren’t old at all – they’re quite current, alive and well. (If you doubt it, listen to Mildred Gaddis’s show for a week or two). John Carlisle at the Detroit Free Press gave an account of one “regular” at council meetings denouncing the Belle Isle rescue plan last Tuesday:
“It’s a plan to have us out of Detroit and that island out there,” he said. “They don’t want that island out there for black people to enjoy. They want to turn that island into something other than a black island. Detroit is under attack. It’s under assault, and nobody wants to admit it, but it is.” (“John Carlisle: City Council's regular speakers put on a good show”).
Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor at the Free Press, thinks things could have been much worse. “Truth be told, this council is eons better than what we were faced with four years ago, when members were literally singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ in defiance of the plan to regionalize Cobo Hall’s management.’”
Many of us regularly ask ourselves why Detroit’s leaders consistently make such self-defeating choices? Fund says “[t]here are many explanations, but a common one is that Detroit has a reactionary political class that views almost any proposed change as smacking of ‘union busting’ or ‘selling off the city’ to white interests.”
Fund is writing on his tiptoes when he says there are many explanations, because there’s really only one that makes sense:
And I don’t mean white racism against blacks, but the other way around. Only a simmering hatred for white people explains why so many Detroiters, year in and year out, choose such awful leaders and strangle progress rather than be found making common cause with “people who don’t look like us.”
All racism is bad, including the kind eating away at millions of America’s blacks. That should be obvious, but the fact is pointedly absent from any of the warmed-over homilies from the sixties and seventies slopped up regularly to explain things to the rest of us.
There’s obviously no equivalence between the social and political harm done to blacks by slavery and Jim Crow, and whatever social harm whites endure as a result of black racism: yet that’s not the important thing anymore. The harm that matters most is the harm to the souls of the haters themselves. The savagery of the hatred of whites for blacks in the segregated South was surely all the worse for the absence of the kinds of checks Southern society’s mediating institutions – its families, its churches, its law courts – provided in other areas but refused to provide in matters of racial prejudice. Passions like those are hard enough to keep down when strict sanctions are in place to tame them; remove those sanctions and a lot of ugliness is sure to follow.
In spite of that, in response to the civil-rights movement and the racial strife of the 50s and 60s something very remarkable happened: a genuine moral awakening. White society accepted – if not completely and all in a single moment, at least eventually and within an astoundingly short period of a few years, and from the heart -- all the lessons of the civil-rights leaders: that blacks and whites are equal, that prejudice is irrational, and that denying people their rights because of the color of their skin is immoral. Critically, it wasn’t only laws that changed, but private behaviors as well. The same religious, social, cultural, and familial inhibitors that before had failed to punish racist tendencies now were punishing them to the nth degree; outbursts against blacks became a rare occurrence even among whites in unmixed company. It’s nothing these days to observe in places where America’s working-class whites congregate a pair of redneck grandparents doting on a black grandchild, perhaps born to one of their children, perhaps adopted, without a care in the world for its race.
This gigantic historical fact of the majority culture’s transformation is one of the best-kept open secrets of our time, partly because the phenomenon of white guilt keeps us from seeing it, and partly because race hustlers work overtime to deny it. But their work’s getting harder. To keep the cauldrons of racial hate at a steady boil they’ve had to keep turning up the rhetorical dial, which now is past saying that things are just as bad for America’s blacks now as they were during Jim Crow, to saying that blacks are hardly better off now than during the days of slavery. Only a community wallowing in racial resentment would react to such demagogues with anything but tar and feathers.
Still, it was the social and cultural inhibitors that played a critical role in this transformation of the majority culture in response to the civil-rights movement, and still play that role. And those same inhibitors are barely at work in the black community, if they exist at all. In a community that embraces the pretense that black racism is either a contradiction in terms, or else a justifiable reaction to “injustice,” anti-white hostility (i.e., racism), will be regarded as, at worst, tolerable, and at best, virtuous. A young black child might hear from every model provided for him to emulate -- from the elders in his family, from the clergy in his church, and from his teachers at school -- the same poisonous message that white folks care for nothing more than hurting him. Forget the hopeless wrangle over whether that’s really true or not. Focus on what must become the content of that child’s character if this is what’s been used to fill it up? Will he, like those outraged citizens at last week’s council meeting, join in with the old hymn that everything is all “about race and disrespect”?
In this sense, Detroit’s problems aren’t complex at all. They’ll continue to be intractable as long as Detroit wages a futile war of getting even with against “outsiders” who aren’t trying to get even with them. Regardless, those outsiders aren’t going to keep watching resources poured down the drains of an unreformable kleptocracy.