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Why do we continue to ignore the role of Structural Racism and Neo-Liberal Capitalism when talking about the black community in Grand Rapids?

October 16, 2019

Within the last few days there have been a few news articles that people have been sharing on social media, articles that specifically have to do with economic issues facing the black community in Michigan and in Grand Rapids.

The first article appeared in the online news source Michigan Advance, with the headline, Michigan gets called out for having the most Black children living in concentrated poverty

The Michigan Advance piece is based upon data in a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, looking at child poverty in the US.  According to the report, Michigan has the highest rate of African American children living in poverty than anywhere else in the country.

The second article appeared on MLive yesterday, with a headline that read, Grand Rapids ward with highest black population gets least investment from city

The MLive article focuses on the City’s 3rd ward and how there has been a lack of investment in that area, both from government and the private sector. The MLive article relies exclusively on former or current city officials, which means that those most impacted by the economic disparity are excluded from having any input.

Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear is referenced quite a bit in this article and talks a great deal about the need for equity in the third ward. Having more equity in the third ward would be a good thing, but there is no real conversation about how to create equity, besides advocating for more public and private investment. In fact, what is glaringly absent from both articles is a critique of structural racism and neo-liberal capitalism.

The omission of both structural racism/white supremacy and neo-liberal capitalism should not surprise us, considering most mainstream news sources do not explore these themes. In both of these news articles it is more focuses on how resilient black people are or, in the case of the MLive story, how the third ward can get the private sector to invest in the area. Ironically, calling for more private investment will likely exasperate the problem, since private investment is just one form of neo-liberal capitalism.

In fact, there has been recent private sector interest in the third ward, specifically from AmplifyGR and Start Garden. Of course, both of these entities are DeVos family creations, with AmplifyGR seeking to dictate economic policy in the Boston Square area (by spending millions on buying up property), and Start Garden attempting to convince black people that if they have a great business idea, Start Garden will give them start up money. However, both attempts have serious flaws.

The AmplifyGR model follows the White Savior model of outside investment, but only on the terms that benefit those doing the saving. The Start Garden model might benefit a few select members of the black community, but it ignores the larger, structural problems caused by white supremacy and capitalism. I mean, what does it say about the economic system of capitalism, when people in Grand Rapids have to pitch business ideas within a contest format, with money supplied by the wealthiest family in the area, and then that same family gets to keep some of the profits made by the few black business ideas that are successful.

There are some real alternatives and solutions. Look at what the Movement for Black Lives has been advocating over the past few years. Their platform is very comprehensive and includes the following: An End to the War on Black People, Reparations, Divest-Invest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power

Implementing this kind of platform would not only confront structural racism and neo-liberal capitalism, it would eliminate the need for the AmplifyGR and Start Gardens of the world.

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