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The function of Managerial Racism in Grand Rapids today

June 19, 2017

People often say that Grand Rapids is not Chicago, Detroit or New York City. This sentiment is applied both to an analysis of how oppression functions here and how we respond to it.

I will agree that at some level the oppression directed at communities of color may not be totally like it is in larger cities, but this in no way lessens the harm being done. Sure, we can argue that the number of murders committed by cops in Grand Rapids is not like that of other cities, but this does not diminish the role that law enforcement plays in repressing communities of color.

One might even say that there isn’t the same kind of overtly White Supremacy in Grand Rapids as there is in other cities, but that could have to do with how the power structure in Grand Rapids has historically dealt with communities of color.

Grand Rapids loves to white wash this history. Those in power put up statues to honor native leaders, without wanting to tell the history of settler colonialism

In Todd Robinson’s important book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he names the type of structural racism and white supremacy in Grand Rapids as Managerial Racism.

Robinson notes that in the mid-1950s, there was a shift in the local power structure with the ascendency of the Citizens’ Action movement, a group of businessmen who made reformist changes to how politics was practiced here. The author states early on in the book, “members of the Citizens’ Action movement replaced a citywide policy of overt discrimination with a complex system of managerial racism.”

Throughout his book, Robinson offers numerous examples of how managerial racism was practiced, but maybe the best example was from chapter 4 of the book. Chapter 4 focuses on education and the black struggle, but his statement about managerial racism is much broader and should be seen as how the power structure in Grand Rapids dealt with African Americans on all issues. He states on page 96:

The managerial form of racism practiced by Chamber of Commerce members and business politicians placed whites in the role of patrons and blacks as clients. Designed to filter each racial issue, managerial racism ultimately sought to locate a “middle ground,” as long as it was situated squarely on the interest-side of the “race managers.” Thus the application of managerial racism relied on strict procedures designed to bog down racial change while effectively presuming a position of compliance. Phillips’s appeals satisfied the paternalistic prerequisite for advancement in Grand Rapids, because he operated within the traditional framework. Orderly black progress could occur at a piecemeal rate so long as the “managers” of race in the city approved and set the terms of agreement.

This analysis by Robinson is not only important to how we understand the function of white supremacy in the history of Grand Rapids, but it provides an analytical lens for how we could understand the ways in which managerial racism in practiced today.

Practicing Managerial Racism Today

There are no shortages of how managerial racism is practiced today in Grand Rapids. We just have to look for it. We offer a few examples of contemporary managerial racism in Grand Rapids, but we also invite people to give their own examples.

Policing – One of the most evident examples of managerial racism in Grand Rapids today has been playing out in the past few months with the recent police treatment of the 5 African American boys in March of this year. The GRPD falsely assumed that these 5 black youth had been involved in violence and then pulled guns on them while on patrol, making them get on the ground. The trauma of this incident has mobilized the mothers of these 5 boys, it has mobilized the community as a whole and it brought forth a groundswell of responses from communities of color on their collective experience of police abuse and intimidation in this city.

Rallies have been organized in response to the police treatment of these 5 boys, along with prayer vigils and frequent visits to Grand Rapids City Commission meetings. On May 9th, dozens of African American men showed up at the City Commission meeting to collectively call for a “state of emergency” in regards to how they police are treating the black community.

The Grand Rapids City Commission has offered some verbal responses to these demands, but to date, the best they can offer is to host a series of community/police relations meetings

This is managerial racism at its best. The African American community calls for a state of emergency and the response is, “we’ll hold some meetings about how to rebuild trust between the cops and the community,” when the community has been saying all along that they do not trust the police and haven’t for years.

The City of Grand Rapids spent thousands of dollars of taxpayers money to have a report to tell them that communities of color are stop by cops more frequently that white people are. However, African Americans in Grand Rapids have been telling city leaders this has been their experience for years. Not only was the report a waste of public money, it was a slap in the face to the black community, essentially telling them that the city doesn’t take them seriously.

The Housing Crisis – Another area in which it is fairly easy to see how communities of color are being exploited and oppressed is in the current housing crisis in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids has seen the reversal of white flight that took place in the 1960s and 70s, where in the last decade white people, particularly through white-owned development companies, are now “re-discovering” the urban core.

Look at what has happened along the Wealthy Street corridor over the past 10 years and what is currently happening along Michigan Street, in the Belknap neighborhood and on Bridge St. and West Fulton. These areas are being heavily gentrified through development of businesses and market rate housing that will primarily benefit the professional and creative class. These are neighborhoods that have traditionally been working class neighborhoods, where families and communities of color can no longer afford the cost of rent. People have been displaced directly through the destruction of existing homes or because of the increased costs to live in areas that many people can no longer afford.

The response we often hear from people is that these neighborhoods have been under-developed for years and people should welcome all the re-investment, or they say people should be thankful that these areas have been cleaned up. What this really means is that; 1) white people do not want to own the history of white flight/white disinvestment in neighborhoods and; 2) white people do not want to acknowledge that these development projects benefit white people at the expense of communities of color. Again, Robinson’s notion of managerial racism applies here – managerial racism relies on strict procedures designed to bog down racial change while effectively presuming a position of compliance.

Such an example of the housing crisis and how it impacts communities of color is also being played out in the proposed re-development (read – gentrification) in the Boston Square area being facilitated by the DeVos created group AmplifyGR and Rockford Construction.

The Boston Square neighborhood and the Cottage Grove area, also known as Southtown has experienced de-industrialization, poverty and white flight in recent decades. Now, the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation and Rockford Construction want to play White Saviors in this situation, promising to transform this neighborhood with plans they already have. Look at the imagine above they have been using in planning meetings with people other than neighbors.

The message in these pronouncements of “opportunity” suggests that the people in that neighborhood are:

  • Incapable of envisioning a better future for themselves
  • That the residents are somehow to blame for their current condition, and
  • Only with the help of White Saviors can they possibly achieve a better life

The response that AmplifyGR wants from the community, particularly the black community, is a display of gratitude for the benevolence of the likes of Doug DeVos and Mike VanGessel.

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