john a. powell is the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He also holds the Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Moritz College of Law. This article is an edited excerpt of a speech given at Urban Habitat’s Social Equity Caucus State of the Region Convening on January 15, 2010.
I grew up in Detroit, in a very large, very loving family. My family was from the South, where my parents were sharecroppers. Which meant, for the most part, they didn’t deal in the cash economy. They dealt in barter. If any of you don’t know about Mississippi and sharecroppers, it’s poorer than poor. Although, I didn’t realize we were poor until I left to go to college at Stanford.
Growing up on the east side of Detroit, I used to hear about all these white people but I couldn’t see very many of them. So I thought it was a myth, until I got to Stanford. Then I started getting a perspective of the community that I had lived in.
In my childhood neighborhood you now see a lot of vacant lots. They are not parks or “open space.” In Detroit, about one-third of the lots—and the houses—are vacant. Today, the average cost of a house is $6,000. Needless to say, the tax base has completely eroded. The people who have left are the people with resources who would help the tax base. They’ve left behind an infrastructure built for two million people that is serving less than a million. The school system has recently been given the dubious honor of being the worst in the country. So, I would say that I grew up in a place where there was declining opportunity—where the chance of succeeding was constantly moving further and further away.