Racism in America is a deep-seated evil that holds both the victims and the perpetrators in bondage. Liberation comes when we proclaim the redeeming work of Christ as it convicts us of our sin and simultaneously absolves us. We explored the reality of racism in Detroit in order to arrive at a place that will allow us to enter Detroit with the type of awareness and humility that are necessary to be with and for the people of Detroit.
This week we read through some articles and explored their relation to the theology of the cross. Our work can be found in the courtyard area of the worship center on the bulletin board. Please take an opportunity to explore the interactive display we have there.
In 1944 the G.I. Bill was passed, which gave soldiers returning home from war access to very affordable home mortgages, allowing them to purchase homes and begin growing their families. However, most banks would not grant loans for mortgages in communities of color and structural racism prevented people of color from moving into white neighborhoods. This resulted in white people having more mobility than people of color. This is what created the suburbs. The economic disparity of this split weighed heavily on our nation’s urban areas, certainly in Detroit.
As Detroit continued to grow, more and more white people moved to the suburbs. Many of the good jobs followed them there. People of color, unable to settle in the suburbs, lived primarily in the heart of Detroit, which was losing jobs rapidly. The growth of the suburbs also resulted in the expansion of Detroit’s infrastructure, mainly highways. Many of these highways cut right through poor neighborhoods of color; uprooting families, businesses, churches, etc. Anger, frustration, desperation and racial tensions were mounting. It all exploded on July 23, 1967, when a White police force raided a bar in an African American neighborhood. Tempers flared and the altercation spiraled out of control into five nights of violent racial confrontations
That was then; this is now. But now isn’t so different. As jobs continued to leave Detroit, those who were mobile (primarily White people) left as well. The majority of Detroit residents who remained were people of color without the resources to relocate their families. The car industry was already struggling due to high gasoline prices when the recession of 2008 hit. These two events were major blows to Detroit’s economy, which was deeply tied to the success of the automobile industry. Detroit continued to suffer economically in the following years and in July of 2013 became the first major American city to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
The city is now implementing drastic measures to rebuild and, once again, become a thriving metropolitan economy. This past summer (2014), the city began shutting off water for those who had not paid their water bills. Of course, the majority of those having their water shut off were people of color living below or near the poverty level. Some news reports identified large corporations that were also delinquent on their water accounts. Yet the city targeted private citizens whose debt was only a drop in the bucket compared to the amount these corporations owed. Churches and other organizations have created grass-roots efforts to get water to these families on a daily basis.
Housing foreclosures have also taken over the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit. This website will show you pictures of entire communities before and after the wave of foreclosures. The city, in an effort to attract new investors, decided that it must clear out its old housing stock. Vacant homes were demolished. Families were removed from their foreclosed homes and then their homes were demolished. Once thriving neighborhoods, overflowing with laughing children and the smells of home-cooking are now desolate fields awaiting new development. But the fear of most Detroit residents is that any new development will create a housing market too expensive for them to afford. They fear that priority will be given to attracting new working professionals rather than creating a housing market that those who currently live in Detroit can afford.
It is impossible to consider Detroit’s situation without taking a long, hard look at the ugly reality of structural racism. The effects of structural racism are visible in Detroit, but you will find them everywhere. Everywhere! As Lutherans, we are called to pursue justice and seek peace no matter how long the journey or wide the chasm–that includes acknowledging the existence of racism and White privilege. As James Cone, a prominent African American theologian, claims in his latest book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” one cannot consider oneself a theologian of the cross while avoiding the evil of racism and the violence it has perpetuated. Proclaiming the good news of a God who enters our reality and liberates us requires us to be blatantly honest about the bondage people experience.