I’ve mostly stayed away from matters relating to race. Although we are supposed to be having a “dialogue” on racism in America, in practice everyone is expected to accept the narrative and embrace that America is a fundamentally racist country. Those who disagree or raise some objections are immediately tarnished as “racist” and canceled. Not much upside in sticking one’s neck out.
But I can’t remain silent about this diatribe the Detroit Free Press published earlier this month by Lyndsay Green, the publication’s restaurant critic. (The article requires a Free Press subscription, but Deadline Detroit did an admirable job summarizing its essence.) Green makes clear that she isn’t comfortable being in the presence of too many white people, a position for which I’m respectful and sympathetic. My disappointment is with Green’s journalism and the potential harm to Detroit the Free Press caused publishing her hackneyed missive.
Green’s issue is that a handful of swanky downtown Detroit restaurants are attracting what she says is a mostly white crowd rather than a clientele reflecting the city’s 80 percent Black population.
“Crossing the threshold into a new restaurant in greater downtown often feels like stepping into an alternate universe so unlike the city that surrounds it, it’s as though I time traveled,” Green opined. “With my Black husband as my usual dinner companion, our table for two often sits like a raft in a sea of white diners.”
Green argues that Detroit’s “greatest strength might be its rich Black history and landscape of Black men and women” and that the city is “the last place I anticipated feeling othered.”
Native of Mount Vernon
It’s understandable why Green feels uncomfortable in places filled mostly with white people. Green hails from Mount Vernon, a New York City suburb with a majority Black population. She moved to Detroit five years ago and had a valid expectation that she would continue experiencing the comfort of being overwhelmingly surrounded by Black persons.
That said, Green joined the Gannett-owned Free Press last November, and I’d expect the experience would have acclimated her to being surrounded by a sea of white people. I don’t have the Free Press’ exact stats, but I can assure you the newsroom’s editorial staff isn’t representative of Detroit’s demographics.
Not even close.
As recently as August 2020, Gannett disclosed that only 18 percent of the journalists working at its 260 local news operations were Black, indigenous, and people of color. Gannett, a name long synonymous with mediocre journalism, promised to do better, but I’m doubtful the needle has moved all that much. For all the corporate media’s talk about diversity and inclusion, those talking the loudest have the poorest records. The Washington Post is struggling to retain its Black journalists, let alone increase its newsroom minority representation.
Admittedly, the Free Press’ readership isn’t exclusively Detroit. The publication’s target audience includes Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties whose inhabitants include many white people, some of whom possibly comprise the downtown restaurant clientele making Green so uncomfortable. The counties also include sizeable Black populations who also fled Detroit because of dissatisfaction with the city’s mismanagement and persistently high levels of crime.
Lack of diversity
Green’s feature is headlined, “Detroit’s new restaurants lack diversity among patrons – and that’s a problem.” One could reasonably assume from the headline that the “problem” was poor sales because of lack of diversity, but Green offers no insight as to how these eateries are faring after being shut down because of the pandemic.
Just a hunch, but I’m doubtful that the combined 2021 annual revenues of these restaurants matched the $23 million Ford CEO Jim Farley received in compensation last year, let alone the $29 million that GM CEO Mary Barra earned.
I mention this because the Free Press is constantly writing fawning profiles of Farley and Barra despite their mediocre leadership. (see here and here). Yet the publication is comfortable slamming restaurant entrepreneurs who, unlike GM and Ford, aren’t demanding tens of millions of dollars to maintain businesses in Detroit and help the city achieve a comeback.
Green cites no incidents where a downtown restaurant treated her disrespectfully or was accused of creating unwelcome environments for Blacks. The only possible explanation for the overwhelmingly white crowd she serves up is from Thor Jones, general manager of an eatery called Freya, which Green characterizes as a “New American tasting menu restaurant.”
“If you’re a white man or woman opening up a restaurant with flavor profiles that you grew up on in a space where nobody looks like who you grew up around, it’s a simple equation,” Jones is quoted as saying.
Suggesting that Blacks have a unique “flavor profile” is arguably racist, especially given that racist food tropes are among the most virulent. If Green wants to promote that stereotype, she should have provided some examples of the flavors downtown restaurants are remiss not including.
Some of what Green reports is contradictory. As an example, she quotes Kiki Louya, a chef, food, and labor activist, cautioning against cultural appropriation.
“I’m not asking a restauranteur to create a soul food restaurant – in fact, I’m really saying, please don’t, unless you have the education and a thorough appreciation,” Louya said.
Several paragraphs down, Green celebrates Shell Shock’d Tacos, a Black-owned taqueria.
Tacos and burritos are Mexican culinary creations.
What was that again about cultural appropriation?
Diversity at J. Alexander’s
Green also is mistaken that all restaurants in the Detroit area reflect the demographics of their communities. As I’ve previously written, J Alexander’s in Detroit’s West Bloomfield suburb is among my favorite restaurants in the country. (J Alexander’s is a Nashville-based chain, but I’ve only been to the West Bloomfield location.) Although I haven’t been there since the pandemic, when I previously visited the clientele at the bar was overwhelmingly Black, and so was much of the restaurant. West Bloomfield is 84 percent white.
On my last visit, I sat next to a Black couple at the bar, both of whom worked for the administration of Detroit mayor Mike Duggan. What I shared in common with the Black couple and other Blacks I struck up a conversation with (Michigan is a very friendly place) was the belief that in terms of quality and price, J. Alexander’s is easily among the best restaurants in the country.
Detroit’s white and Black history
While Green celebrates Detroit’s “rich Black history,” she is possibly unaware that until the 1950s, Detroit’s population was majority white. There was a dramatic shift after the 1967 riots, which precipitated “white flight” to the suburbs. The relocations caused Detroit to go into a tailspin from which it still hasn’t recovered.
Blacks and whites who remained in Detroit long resented the abandonment. For decades, many suburban whites wouldn’t venture into Detroit except to attend sports and cultural events. That whites are returning to the city to visit and even live is a dramatic and critical shift. For Detroit to prosper and attract new businesses, it needs to shed its crime ridden image and attract suburbanites and tourists.
Local newspapers shouldn’t serve as arms of their local chambers of commerce. But to gain credibility and trust with their audiences, they need to demonstrate a commitment to their cities and foster an impression they want the communities they write about to succeed. When a major local publication trashes a few burgeoning restaurants for attracting too many white people it sends a message that Detroit isn’t an inclusively welcoming city.
Green’s feelings of being threatened by white people must be respected, but I’m doubtful that she swayed many white Free Press readers to accept her arguments and understand her fears. In the current environment, it’s best not to argue but I don’t view that as progress. The cowardly silence only breeds anger and resentment.
At least I have the guts to speak up.