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Todd Ernst

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Dad, why are there so many black people in Detroit?

Last summer my 8-year-old son Gavan and I were in Detroit for a Detroit Lions youth football camp; we stayed downtown and while on the way to Ford Field my son asked me what I have come to call ‘the question’.

“Dad, why are there so many black people in Detroit?”

To provide some context to the question… my son didn’t ask it with any pre-determined notion or tone in his voice, rather he asked it much like a pending 3rd grader might ask why is the sky blue or why is the sun yellow.

While I thought I knew where to go with the question, I decided it was more important to provide Gavan with an answer that was not only right; but responsible and respectful as well.

My initial response was “Gavan, while I think I know the answer, this is not something I want to get wrong, so when we get home why don’t we call Papa and see what he has to say about your question.”

Gavan’s Grandpa has been a teacher for as long as I can remember and is one of the smartest people I know, in the following week we talked candidly about the question, and the dialogue left me with a far greater understanding of something I felt I should have known more about.

I also decided to push this question to 3 African American men within our community that I respect and trust; all 3 gave me some of the most insightful and honest answers I could have ever hoped for, and to be perfectly frank there was a part of me that sensed they enjoyed having the opportunity for what was a pretty cool conversation and an amazing exercise in American history.

So why am I writing this note and putting myself out in the open to be potentially be flogged publically? I have to submit an application essay for a fellowship grant to continue my graduate work; and I have decided I would like to crowd-source ‘the question’ to gain a broader sense of opinion, as often times some of the best answers are from where you least expect them.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to the dialogue from the TED community!


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    Feb 17 2011: I am also not certain what the debate actually is, the Great Migration (sometimes divided into two different waves) is an historical fact of American history. An interesting one to be sure. But (lacking context, I could be wrong of course) I think you are trying to answer for yourself a question your child did not ask.

    Which is a fine thing. But it is not at all clear to me what the question is that you are seeking an answer to. Is the debate, "Why do people divide along racial lines?"
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      Mar 17 2011: I agree with your answer, but I have some questions in response.

      If you took a child of every race before they could talk and placed them in a controlled environment where they were ignorant of racial conflict in history, would they still divide along racial lines?

      If you took a group of white children and gave some of them many luxuries, while others lacked them, would they divide over economic lines? Would the 'rich' children 'control' the 'poor' children?

      Just like Mr. Bigley said; What if history had gone left instead of right?

      So, in conclusion; Are they really racial lines, or are they historical-economic-racial lines?

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