By Sarida Scott
It is only fitting that our new administration should be launching its work as Black History Month begins. If there has ever been a time that this country needs to center Black people, it is now. Four hundred years of history led to the events of 2020, when Black people died from COVID-19 and suffered the pandemic’s economic consequences in horrifyingly disproportionate numbers, and the country faced a racial reckoning after the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others. But now, we have the opportunity to make change. This February, CCI is spotlighting four Black women alumnae of our Fulcrum Fellowship, who will share their visions for how to center Black people in community development.
Last week, Joanna Trotter spotlighted a Chicago collaborative that is including Black and Latinx community members in identifying local economic recovery and neighborhood investment strategies. This week, Sarida Scott focuses on the importance of centering the needs of Black workers in such strategies, especially in places like Detroit whose historic unemployment issues stem not just from economic fluctuations but from the long-term impact of system racism.
Thoughts on Centering Blackness and Employment Equity in Detroit
When we center Black people, a just recovery will result in solutions for all, disrupting the constant focus on white supremacy and rejecting tired racial stereotypes. Looking at the issue of employment equity, centering Blackness would respond to data revealing that even pre-pandemic, Black workers fared worse than any other population of U.S. workers—and they have continued to do so. Centering Black people in our efforts to address employment equity would be a more than appropriate response to longstanding inequities.
In Centering Blackness: The Path to Economic Liberation for All, authors Anne Price, Jhumpa Bhattacharya, and Dorian Warren provide a sound definition for what it means to center Blackness and how the realities of this country necessitate this focus, which will require new thinking, a paradigm shift. We can use Detroit as an illustration of what it means “to consider the Black experience as unique and foundational to shaping America’s economic and social policies—and our nation’s collective future.”
Detroit—a city whose population is more than 80% Black, with a poverty rate of approximately 40%, situated in a region with a long history of systemic racism—was hit hard by the pandemic. By June 2020, Michigan had the fifth highest death toll in the country, with more than 75% of the deaths occurring in Detroit. At its height during this time, the unemployment rate in Detroit was nearly 25%. Michigan is also recorded as the state having the steepest March-April unemployment losses.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit was still working to recover from the Great Recession. While some progress had been made, the city’s post-2008 job gains were wiped out during the first four months of the pandemic. More than a third of the pandemic layoffs are predicted to be permanent, and the jobs most impacted by COVID losses tend to be more entry level, low-wage positions—the ones disproportionately held by Black workers. The result for Detroit will be a population of workers with fewer skills and less experience, on top of an already-large existing population of unemployed residents, many similarly situated.
When we also apply a racial equity lens to account for the impact of systemic racism, we find that this impact also reflects a long history of limited educational opportunities, limited job opportunities, and overall diminished opportunities for upward economic mobility. A just recovery cannot occur without acknowledging and addressing the Black experience in this country and rejecting the influence that anti-Blackness has on society. To successfully overcome Detroit’s issues, we must consider the conditions created by history, not just the recent pandemic.
Developing a recovery strategy that centers Black workers is a critical way to be responsive to this reality. Such a strategy will address the actual need and the most impacted population. It will mean advocating for safe working conditions and creating pathways for career development, not just job attainment. It will mean ensuring living wages and benefits. It will mean centering workers, elevating worker voices, and allowing workers to identify their needs so that we can craft responsive employment solutions. These approaches are also inclusive. Centering Black workers can result in employment equity for all workers. It can also bring us closer to the American ideals we espouse, allowing us to recognize and honor the humanity of all. And it will be the only way to actually ensure a just recovery.
Sarida Scott is a passionate Detroiter and has spent her entire professional career living and working in the city. Her work has primarily been focused in the area of community development. Her experience includes philanthropy, nonprofit, local government and academia. Sarida received her J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and her B.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan.
 Amy Liu, Vice President and Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the Adeline M. and Alfred I. Johnson Chair in Urban and Metropolitan Policy, July 15, 2020.