The Wayne County executive discusses how not to trample on Old Detroit, racial prejudice and protecting the city’s Hispanic and Arab communities.
On an especially humid morning, we beckon Wayne County Executive Warren Evans to The Breakfast Loft, brand new to Rivertown. Evans is pleasant but there’s no chitchat or excessive small talk. Dressed in a classic blue suit and tie, beard trimmed neatly, he’s got the stately air of a man here to do a job. In his daily duties, Evans is charged with governing the responsibilities of 43 communities – 34 cities and nine townships. Evans served as Wayne County sheriff from 2003 to 2009 and as Detroit Police Department chief from 2009 to 2010, and since assuming office in 2015 as Wayne County executive, Evans has restored fiscal stability to Wayne County when many thought we were headed toward bankruptcy. Amongst the exposed wood and brick and rustic feel of Detroit’s newest brunch spot, Evans and I talk the 2020 census, the war on immigrants and how to stand up to racism.
2020 is a big year with the census and the presidential election. How are you preparing Wayne County – particularly its black residents?
It’s huge, and many people don’t understand that. They see Detroit as this huge city with a predominantly black population, but they lose sight of cities like Inkster and cities like Romulus and a number of other cities in Wayne County that have a large African American population. And not just African American, but Arab communities, Hispanic communities, those are always the biggest undercount, generally speaking. But, it’s much more predominant now because of the administration in Washington and the clear, obvious signals that they send that they want an undercount and they don’t want these people coming forward, and to the extent that they do come forward, they want them to feel intimidated like somehow that’s going to put them in a position to get deported. We have a number of county operations out now trying to get people motivated with respect to the 2020 census. The reality is they won’t come out unless they’re comfortable with who they’re dealing with. That census counter has got to be able to go to communities where people already trust them, not the census, but them. There’s a tremendous amount of revenue that’s lost for every undercount – that averages about $1,800 a year for each of the 10 years, for each person that’s not accounted for. And quite often, those are the people that need the services more than anyone else.
Why did you and Mrs. Evans take to social media after the racial profiling incident at the Rocket Mortgage Classic?
To clarify, there was an issue where my wife was mistreated by an employee of the golf tournament. We don’t know what their motivation is, whatever. I mean, those of us of color certainly have a good idea of what it is. The real reality, to me, is you run a big organization, you’re going to have people who don’t behave like they ought to, and sometimes, quite frankly, you’re going to have fools – that I understand. It’s not that you can avoid the problem, it’s how you respond to it when it occurs. And 100% of my concern was that they didn’t take it seriously enough, they brushed it off. So, the lack of decisive action by them just irritated me to the point that I thought it’s just one of those things people ought to be aware of. I don’t have a fight with Rocket. I don’t have a fight with the golf course. I have a fight with the way this incident was handled.
What do you say to young people of color who are disheartened that this type of racist behavior is still a thing – and feel like it’s being fanned by this president?
What you can’t do is quietly tolerate it. People have to understand, if you tolerate racism, that is in fact racism. I’m not saying go out in the street and grab somebody by the neck, but don’t act like it didn’t happen. Don’t be shy about making complaints about it. As someone who’s run police agencies for years, the end game is if there’s a problem, bring the complaint. At some point, the aggregate amount of complaints will force anyone, who’s reasonable, to say, ‘Look, we have to change some procedures or do something.’ Look at New York City and Eric Gardner who was choked to death probably five years ago. It was just a couple days ago that they fired (Daniel Pantaleo). If people hadn’t kept up the impetus, do you think five years later anybody would be looking at that case to go back and fire the guy? Now, I’m not saying that’s justice, but it’s a far sight better than kicking it under the rug and pretending that it wasn’t there.
Trump seems to be waging war against immigrants. Wayne County has a large Arab and Hispanic population. What are you doing here to make sure those communities feel safe, protected and valued?
It’s hard work. The work is forming the relationships with the important groups – the social service groups, the religious communities, the school systems – so that you have some credibility, and to be vocal when things come up that hurt the community. As county executive, I have to go on record as saying that’s not right and we’re having a problem with that. In many of these communities, both Hispanic and Arab American but more in Hispanic communities, the threat of deportation and threat of immigration is so bad that there are kids who are scared to go to school or another thing, parents are scared to send them to school for fear they’re walking into a trap. People should not live in fear, so it’s my job to do whatever I can to push back against that kind of behavior and make sure the community knows it. It’s one thing to push back, it’s far more important for them to know you’re pushing because you get credit for that and that credit can help when you need to mobilize people.
This is Wayne County Parks’ 100th anniversary. Why are the county’s parks significant to future development?
When I was a kid, it was a basketball hoop and a ball diamond, and that was kind of a park. Now, it’s more horseback riding, fishing, hiking, trail stuff, which is motivating people closer to my age more than people understand, but it’s certainly what young people want to do if they’re going outside to do anything anyway. I really think you’ve got to get away from the smartphone long enough to do some other sorts of stuff, but you have to make it conducive to what people want to do. This 100th anniversary for us is an opportunity to change the paradigm of what the parks ought to look like in the future and at the same time, we celebrate the parks in the past. I’ve been a Wayne County resident all my life and I’ve got to tell you, county parks were not on my list of places to go when I was a kid because I didn’t feel welcomed. We want to make these parks welcoming for everybody. We also want to create connectivity so that if you’re on one side of the county, you can actually get on your bike and go wherever you go, and that connectivity lets little pockets of small cities that don’t have an awful lot, there’s still connectivity to communities that have more, at least for the purpose of recreation. I feel the parks are actually health care, because if the exercise is close and the exercise is something you really believe in, then you’ll use it.
The revitalization that’s happening in Detroit is exciting. But how do we make sure ‘Old Detroit’ doesn’t get trampled as we make way for ‘New Detroit’?
That’s a real challenge and it’s a daily challenge. The best example I can give of it is the Livernois Avenue of Fashion where the road construction over the last 10 years has hurt those businesses. It’s all designed to beautify but you’re also disrupting. They’re killing the oldest area of solid businesses of color in the city of Detroit. There’s no place in the city of Detroit where you can start at Eight Mile, where you have Baker’s, working on down where you’ve got shoe shops and clothing stores and art galleries and florists, all of those businesses that support a healthy community. In my opinion, the way this has been handled, it’s terrible, and it likens me, certainly to a much lesser scale, when the freeway decided to come through Black Bottom. We lost a whole community. I’m not saying this is intentional, but the result is very much the same. How do we correct this mistake before all of those people that have invested – some of them second-generation – are really catching it? We have to be about understanding that we’re not inherently fair, the playing field is not inherently fair, so you have to wake up every morning and say, ‘What can I do to create more equity in this process?’ And I don’t think we do that. If the economy doesn’t gobble us all up, we’re still in a growth period for the next five or six years in the city of Detroit. If we’re really about finding the people and putting them in the pipeline now, they actually get a chance to become a journeyman while there’s still an opportunity to make money.
The Breakfast Loft above Steve’s Soul Food in Detroit is open for breakfast and brunch daily. 1440 Franklin St., 313-209-8804.