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Acton Institute reports on Trump visit to Grand Rapids: Says Detroit and Flint should be like Grand Rapids

April 4, 2019

The March 28 visit to Grand Rapids by President Donald Trump generated a great deal of local and national attention. Some articles focused on the protest that greeted Trump and his supporters outside, while other journalists wrote about what was said inside the Van Andel arena.

Trump’s visit even received a blog post from the Grand Rapids-based far right think tank, the Acton Institute.

In a blog post from last week, Acton research fellow Dylan Pahman chose to focus on one specific thing that Trump said during his visit to Grand Rapids. The headline from Pahman’s article read, President Trump visits Grand Rapids, promises to turn it into Detroit. 

It is an interesting topic to focus on, especially since there were so many other things that Trump has to say. However, if you spend any time on the Acton Institute blog, you realize that their writers go out of their way to focus primarily on the wonders of the free market, topped off with some theological justifications for the virtues of capitalism.

Pahman brings up the fact that Trump said that the auto industry is coming back, and then talks about the difference between Detroit and Grand Rapids.

We haven’t put all of our eggs in the basket of the auto industry, that’s why. For one thing, while there has been and still is auto manufacturing in the Grand Rapids area, we were once Furniture City, USA and are now proudly Beer City, USA. Grand Rapids can — and does — boast a dynamic, diversified economy.

There is a great deal to unpack in this statement, so lets begin by saying that the Acton Institute writer leaves out a whole lot of history.

First, Pahman leaves out a decades long history of the Big Three automakers constant attack of organized labor, an attack that is well documented in the book, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, A Study in Urban Revolution. Another dynamic well documented in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, is the long-standing structural racism in Detroit that was exposed in the 1967 uprising and the massive white flight (people and investment) that ensued. Since the 1970s, Detroit has been struggling, in part because of the de-industrialization of the mid-west, but also because of the ongoing war being waged against the black community. These dynamics are well documented in the book, The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the US Political Crisis Began in Detroit.

However, the Acton writer wants to simplify Detroit’s problems around the protectionist policies applied to the auto industry. Pahman completely ignores the fact that White Supremacy and Neoliberal economic policies, including harsh austerity measures has devastated Detroit, particularly black Detroit.

Second, when Pahman says that Grand Rapids went from Furniture City to Beer City, he also ignores the complexities of what has happened over the past century. The Acton writer ignores the exploitative practices of the furniture barons, which gained national attention during the 1911 furniture workers strike. In fact, the capitalist class in Grand Rapids was so freaked out by the 1911 strike that they changed the City Charter, making Grand Rapids go from a 12 ward city to a three ward city, which allowed for the capitalist class to consolidate their control over the political and economic climate. 

Third, the Acton writer also ignores the White Supremacy that has plagued Grand Rapids since the 1920s, a dynamic that is well documented in Todd Robinson’s book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Robinson argues that Grand Rapids adopt a form of “managerial racism” that was a more subtle and covert form of White Supremacy.

Fourth, while Grand Rapids did not experience the same level of de-industrialization that Detroit did, the wealth was, and continues to be, concentrated in the white community. In fact, Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap in the entire state, based on a 2016 study. Economic development has primarily benefited the white community, with massive subsidies and other financial incites offered to developers from the City of Grand Rapids and the State of Michigan. This fact flies in the face of what the Acton writer claims about the market freedoms practiced in Grand Rapids, compared to Detroit.

Fifth, the Acton writer then quotes Experience Grand Rapids, which is nothing more than an entity that promotes the city through a Neoliberal economic lens. Here is what Pahman cities from Experience GR:

West Michigan’s global manufacturers supply customers with everything from circuit boards and medical devices, to personal care products, to bullet-proof composites for military and industrial vehicles, to smart rearview mirrors that automatically control a vehicle’s high beam headlights. Grand Rapids’ thriving craft beer industry has even driven manufacturing innovation, with one small startup designing and manufacturing a tool that allows breweries and cideries to can their own beverages for carry out directly from their taproom bars.

While these industries are thriving, they primarily benefit white people and those who are already economically well off. What Experience GR and the Acton Institute do not acknowledge is the profound realities of White Supremacy in Grand Rapids, which is profoundly reflected in the gentrification taking place in numerous parts of the city, coupled with the disproportionately high levels of poverty in the black and latino/latinx communities.

The Acton writer ends his piece with another criticism of Trump by saying:

Rather than promising to turn Grand Rapids into Detroit, the president would do better to encourage Detroit, Flint, and other former auto manufacturing centers in Michigan to reinvent themselves and adapt like we’ve done here.

What the Acton Institute writer is essentially saying is that what Detroit and Flint should do is adopt economic and social policies that benefit white people over communities of color. In fact, this is exactly what Detroit did. The major difference is that there has been more militant resistance from the black community in Detroit and more managerial racism in Grand Rapids. Both cities experience structural racism, its just that Grand Rapids hides it better.

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