How Free is Life in Detroit?

by Alex Wilf

In the past months, I have attended two mini-lectures about the quality of life in Detroit, put on by the “Lunch with Honors” program here at the University of Michigan.  Though the lectures focused on different aspects of living in the city, they each caused me to stop and reflect on whether citizens of Detroit are really receiving the benefits of the American promise we all tout.  “Work hard, move up” is often said to be our country’s motto, but I’ve been learning more about how the cards seem to be stacked against the citizens of Detroit, and I find it difficult to see that the equality of opportunity we espouse is being provided, at least in this city.

The first lecture I attended was with Abdul El-Sayed, an alumnus of the university, and the executive director of public health for the city of Detroit.



El-Sayed showed a map of the city, dotted with red points that ceased at a horizontal parallel about two thirds of the way up the map.  After unsuccessfully attempting to elicit a correct guess from the audience, El-Sayed explained that the map represented the density of “Mom and Pop” convenience stores, which mainly sell unhealthy packaged foods, and that the line was 8 mile road, above which were wealthier neighborhoods.

Only 40% of Detroit residents have cars, he said, and since the city is so spread out (its area is greater than that of Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston combined), it is cost ineffective for large grocery stores to locate in Detroit.  “It was a city built on cars” he said, and that the wealthy and politically influential automotive industry had effectively crippled any chances the city could have had at an efficient public transportation network.

The effects of this influence have been disastrous.  El-Sayed showed graphs, pie charts, and data sets, comparing the rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition related illnesses between the residents on either side of 8 mile road, and the difference was shocking.

When El-Sayed finished his lecture, I was left with the sound impression that people in Detroit do not have the same access to quality nutrition that I grew up with, and that unsettled me.  Already thinking about these issues, I went to a second lecture, featuring Lyell Dungy, former sergeant in the Detroit police force, and Elizabeth Tarnak, another alumnus specializing in using data to prevent crimes.

Dungy and Tarnak spoke about targeting trends in behavior on social media to aid in predictive policing.  In their talk, they brought up many examples of the gang violence plaguing the city’s youth, and showed examples of their triumphs in bringing offenders to justice.  Though their intentions were noble, and their work may in fact be necessary, it left me with the feeling that the people of Detroit, especially the youth, were being closed in on from all sides—from gangs attempting to enlist them, to police attempting to catch them, to their health slowly eating away at them in numbers.

I don’t have an idea of how to tackle these issues yet, but I can say with certainty that the kind of freedom and equality I grew up believing in is not the same as the one people growing up have, only a few dozen miles from where I enjoy a world-class higher education.  There is a problem here.  If one group’s freedom is abridged, that threatens the stability of our whole system of government.  As El-Sayed said, “Detroit is the canary in the coalmine.”  Freedom implies equality.  It is the founding principle of our nation, and it is not being fulfilled, in at least one place.


“Democratic, Christian America”

It starts with the Pilgrims.  From the stories we learn in the very beginning of elementary school, the notion of religious freedom is drilled into our minds.  The idea and its effects permeate our education by way of history and civics classes, debates about “God” on our currency, and introductory science books that now discuss evolution.  Our national identity revolves so much around our ability to worship or not worship according to our beliefs that we sometimes fail to fully acknowledge violations of this liberty when they arise because, in our American mindset, they simply should not exist.

Before attending Student Voices Against Islamophobia, I was not completely oblivious to religious oppression within our nation, but I certainly failed to realize its reach and its repercussions.  The event began with a list of all the atrocities—verbal and physical—that Muslim Americans have suffered in our homeland over the past few years.  Immediately I was floored–how did I not know?  Three Muslim American college students in North Carolina were murdered last year and I had never heard about it.  Student stories poured forth of verbal attacks on the street, of threats against the entirety of Islam, and of ceaseless hours spent shamefully and silently wishing to hide hijabs for safety’s sake.  In a country that worships religious liberty and in schools that exalt its foundations, Americans walk around fearing the repercussions of their beliefs on a daily basis.

As I have learned just this week, Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, beautifully illuminates the hypocrisy behind American Islamophobia.  While slavery and Islamophobia are problems separated by over a century, both are deeply rooted in a horribly outdated notion of what makes an American. Somehow, despite almost two hundred and fifty years of radical equality, social upheaval, and startling diversity, this nation is still trying to fit the description of “tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America”.  We may openly preach religious tolerance, but the practices of certain citizens, some unfortunate politicians, and a widely ignorant society completely contradict our claims, criminalizing and polarizing a group of individuals solely based on their religion.  As Douglass puts it, “at the very moment that [we] are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty” many of us, including some of our government officials, promote a mindset that unfairly targets a group of fellow citizens and often excludes them from our national identity.

I have never experienced this or any persecution first-hand, and I fully acknowledge that I am one of the least qualified people to write on the topic, much less propose a solution.  However, I consider myself both a Christian and a Patriot.  As such, I hope to use my privilege to better this country that I and so many others love, hoping that soon the country may love every last one of us too.

Where to Invade Next

Ethan Hopper


America sucks. That’s pretty much the feeling you get when Michael Moore schleps across Europe, telling you about phenomenal paid leave in Italy, four-star school lunches in France, Finland’s education system (no homework!), drug policy in Portugal, the prisons in Norway, and women’s empowerment in Iceland. If you’re like Moore, you want to ‘invade’ these countries and claim these cool things for the U.S.

You might call me a natural pessimist. But I think it’s pretty easy to get caught up in this feeling — when you watch those French fourth-graders sitting in their school cafeteria, snacking on scallops in a curry sauce with crème fraîche, and that’s just the appetizer, you sort of have to wonder:

Who the hell thinks we’re the greatest country in the world?

But then, I remember I’m watching a Michael Moore film. For the countless cool things that other countries do, the United States does some things right, too. Overall, we are a generally wealthy, healthy, and secure nation. American citizens enjoy many rights and freedoms (whether we exercise them or not). Absolutely, we could do a lot better. We must do better. We must improve social mobility for marginalized groups in our society and ensure that everyone really does get a fair shot. We must be wary of the diminishing freedom and fairness of the democratic process and fight political apathy tooth-and-nail. We must foster a collective understanding that we are, in fact, one nation, and structure the institutions and culture of our nation around the idea that every person (truly, every person) deserves dignity, respect, and justice.


Refugees walking to Sweden.

It’s also just not the case that these Western European and Scandinavian countries are utopias, either. While many of them have incredible social safety nets and progressive policies, the changing global economic landscape will put strain on these smaller economies as they try to diversify. In a lot of ways, Europe is just now starting to encounter problems with racism and discrimination that have been in the United States for several centuries. Particularly in light of the Syrian refugee crisis and general instability in the Middle East, these countries are seeing their homogenous demographics altered. Time will tell if Europe can learn from the mistakes of the United States when it comes to treating minority groups fairly.

The important thing to remember is that these situations are rarely black-and-white. The world is gray, and all nations will lack in some areas and succeed in others. No one is perfect, nor will any ever be. But when Moore goes globetrotting and holds a mirror (albeit a carefully positioned one) up to the rest of us back home, it can be extremely hard not to become passionately disillusioned with this revolutionary, beautiful, screwed-up place we call home.

But we must resist the temptation.