Jan 16. 2012

Dr. King’s Dream: 49 years later

by Nora

Today’s Martin Luther King day, and we have a story for you. Detroit is where MLK first uttered those iconic words; “I have a dream.” It was June 23rd, 1963:
“[Talking about segregation] Now in the North it’s different in that it doesn’t have the legal sanction that it has in the South. But it has its subtle and hidden forms and it exists in three areas: in the area of employment discrimination, in the area of housing discrimination, and in the area of de facto segregation in the public schools. [...]
I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.”
  Looking at the reality of Detroit in 2012, Dr. King’s dream has yet to be achieved. I’m just returning to Detroit after two weeks in France, the longest I’ve spent there in three years. This time, I realized how much of an expat I’ve become. On the plane back to the US, the idea of watching American sitcoms suddenly excited me more than eating cheese and using public transportation. One of the series I watched was “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Here’s the scene that struck me.
http://youtu.be/cCWkJw5xEhU Flying back to the US, Larry David’s anti-PC jokes took a singular meaning for me. One year ago, Eric Zemmour, a French journalist known for being controversial, was fined by French courts for saying that “most of drug dealers [in France] are Blacks or Arabs” – sparking a huge debate in the media. In France, “freedom of speech” exists but the law forbids census taking based on race. Only one university explicitly practices “positive discrimination,” (what you call “affirmative action” in the US) creating quotas for minorities. But it’s never on the basis of religion or ethnicity; “positive discrimination” follows territorial or socio-economical criteria. As a result, the French don’t know what percentage of the population is Black or white, and never talk explicitly about race. This taboo helps nobody. There’s still racism in France. The Parisian suburbs clearly house the majority of African immigrants, who live in high rise flats people refer to as “ghettos.” France will have a new President next Spring, and people are scared shitless about the far-right winning; they do better and better in the polls. When Helene and I arrived in Detroit last August, we were shocked at the segregation here: the “inner city” is clearly separate from the suburbs. We knew from the get-go that Detroit is more than 80% Black. But we expected to see this reflected in everything Detroit. We soon saw “gentrified areas” that were either/or; White or Black. We saw that generation Y rarely mixes racially. Because of our work, we’re lucky to meet people from all walks of life. Talking to Detroiters, we were told that the reasons for segregation are more cultural than racial. Yet we’re still incredulous. In Detroit, the situation’s obviously different than in France. People openly talk about race, but instead of censoring one another like in France, they just don’t  listen to each other. I recently saw a white man confronting a Black woman: “We talk about what we don’t have in common enough. Race isn’t the issue,” he preached. Having experienced racism herself, the woman proved him wrong in a heartbeat. Not sure whether the guy’s changed his opinion since then, though. Communication is all about framing. When I talk about Corktown, I could focus on the forever hip Slows BBQ, or I can cross the freeway and be in a “dangerous” neighborhood, with its abandoned houses – still Corktown, by the way… a couple of blocks from Martin Luther King Boulevard. I opened this post with Larry David because his show, like 30 Rock or Oprah, presents a vision of a “postracial America” – which some say is an effect of the Obama-era. Last year, a Black author named Touré published a best-seller entitled “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness,” while Steve Stoute (a very influential former music executive) published “The Tanning of America” which was adapted into a show on the Huffington Post. I wish that Detroit was “post-Black” too. I worry that the initiatives coming to town reproduce a system that exists outside of Detroit, but doesn’t belong here. So when I watch PSAs about the young entrepreneurs of Detroit, or walk into a Midtown bar, I still don’t see “the 80%.” When I walked through Occupy Detroit, I also wondered where 80% of the 99% were. Birds of a feather flock together. But people aren’t birds. Thankfully, organizations such as the Boggs Center, EMEAC and Detroit Future Media know that. Today they’re the ones who are doing incredible work in the city, empowering Detroiters and building towards justice, which has all the elements to bring the Detroit of Dr. King’s dreams to reality in the 21st century.
  • R. GARY

    J’aime beaucoup ton analyse Nora. La question qui se pose en France est celle de la re-création de la nation, non pas une nation uniforme (nos ancêtres les gaulois…), mais une nation plurielle qui évite à la fois uniformité (dépassée) et le communautarisme (dangereux). Comment créer une culture plurielle commune ? J’ai l’impression que contrairement à ce qu’on l’on croit, les Etats-Unis, n’ont rien d’un modèle en la matière. Leur expérience du communautarisme, depuis les Irlandais ou Italiens et les Noirs, depuis la fin du XIXe siècle, semble avoir difficilement évolué vers une culture commune. Est-ce que je me trompe ?

  • Caro

    Merci Nora pour ce nouveau billet aussi intéressant que spontané! Tes observations et commentaires sur Détroit nourrissent la réflexion qu’on peut avoir ici en France. Et dans l’Hexagone, tout n’est pas perdu: dernier jour, dernière heure, je vais pour m’inscrire sur les listes électorales en vue de la prochaine élection dont tu as touché un mot… Moi qui pensais être pointée du doigt en mauvaise élève, j’ai été stupéfaite par l’interminable file d’attente qui m’attendait. Des centaines de personnes venues, en plein week-end, accomplir leur devoir civique et faire valoir leur droit d’expression politique. Des centaines de personnes aux origines raciales et aux âges les plus diverses… c’est ça ma France! Tout ça pour dire, encore une fois, que ça n’est, certes, pas gagné… mais tout n’est pas perdu non plus…


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