Economically, Detroit is arguably a city fighting to diversify, reimaging itself everyday as a hub of entrepreneurship. But socially, some say, Motown is stuck in neutral, still weighed down by decades of racial divisions and a reputation as one of the most segregated cities in America.
"Racism continues to cast a shadow over southeast Michigan, and we are still feeling the impact,” said Thomas Costello. Costello is CEO of The Michigan Roundtable, a human rights group that’s come up with what it considers a bold idea to tackle issues of race in Detroit: an independent truth commission on racial inequality.
Seated a few weeks ago, Detroit's new multiethnic truth commission is the first ever in Michigan and only the second in the United States. The goal in Detroit is to shine a spotlight on the legacy of race-based housing policies, much the same way that the world’s most famous truth commission, seated in South Africa, examined the legacy of Apartheid.
Unlike South Africa’s work, the Detroit’s new commission will lack the power to compel compliance of any kind. Still, supporters say the effort is critical. “Racial segregation is also the segregation of opportunity and hope for the future,” says Costello.
Nine volunteer citizens from across the Detroit region will spend the next two years investigating housing policies and their role in creating segregated neighborhoods and migration patterns that began long before the city’s infamous 1967 riot.
“We ‘ve been living with the impact of policies without looking and without talking,’’ says Akua Budu-Watkins, one of just two Detroiters named to the commission. “We can probably build a roadmap and create some understanding, if we can talk based on fact and not emotion. It’s not an accident that the freeways in this city are where they are. Let’s talk about what that policy did and how we move forward.’’
Budu-Watkins and the other eight commissioners will comb through government documents and take individual testimony for the next 24 months, all designed to lead to a final report for the entire metro Detroit region.
Detroit’s truth commission follows in the footsteps of Greensboro, North Carolina. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created in 2006, to examine the impact of a 1979 incident that killed five people during protests over housing and the Ku Klux Klan. Tensions turned violent as a group of racial justice activists were fired upon as they rallied in a low-income neighborhood. The incident became known as the Greensboro Massacre. Chief among the commission’s final recommendations, anti-racism training for all city and county employees, establishment of police review boards and a special curriculum based on the facts of the incident.
The daughter of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi travelled to Detroit recently, to encourage the new commission.
“In a way,’’ she said during the first formal gathering of the new group, "the process here in Detroit is deeper and takes even more courage than what happened in South Africa, because in South Africa it was a government mandated process.’’
While the Detroit Commission prepares to have its first formal meeting, Budu-Watkins thinks there is a sense of urgency and anxiety about the work.
“We’re still whispering about race’s impact," she says. "It’s a lot baggage but to have an evolution as a city, we have to talk. I hope we’re ready.’’