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A Detroit music festival charged white people double. Then the backlash started.

A crowd dances at a summer music festival. (Hero Images Inc./Getty Images/Hero Images)

Should white people pay a premium to attend an Afrofuturist music festival in a historically black Detroit neighborhood?

To the organizers of the upcoming Afrofuture Fest, the answer was clear: Yes, they absolutely should. Too often, they saw people of color getting shut out of events in their own communities because they didn’t have the resources to snag tickets the moment they went on sale. That didn’t seem right.

"Often times when dope events happen in Detroit the cheapest tickets are bought and then sold by people not from the community bc they can afford them first, leaving higher price tickets as the only options left,” one of the event’s organizers explained on Twitter last week. “Black and brown people deserve access to quality events in their city and it isn’t fair when events happen in their city that they don’t have a chance of being apart of because people who don’t look like us take advantage and also have more access to collective wealth.”

With that disparity in mind, organizers came up with a race-based pricing model for the Aug. 3 event. Early-bird tickets purchased before July 17 cost $10 for people of color and $20 for white people. General admission would be $20 for people of color, and $40 for whites. A portion of proceeds would go back to Afrofuture Youth, the community initiative hosting the event.

At a time when lawmakers and presidential contenders are debating reparations, the idea of charging white people extra to attend a concert has proved equally contentious. What was supposed to be a small festival where a few hundred would gather at a community farm on Detroit’s east side for music, a bonfire, a drum circle and parade is now at the center of a national firestorm. On Sunday night, Afrofuture Fest reversed course, saying that after receiving racist comments on social media and threats from white supremacists, organizers had decided to change their ticketing model in the interest of safety. All remaining tickets will now cost $20, though there will be a suggested donation for white people.

One chef’s social experiment: Charge minorities $12, white people $30

The concept of race-based pricing isn’t exactly new. Tunde Wey, a New Orleans-based Nigerian chef known for turning meals into a provocative and politically charged piece of performance art, tried something similar last year. As a social experiment, he opened a pop-up lunch counter, where he served up facts about the racial wealth gap alongside plantains and jollof rice. After listening to his brief lecture, customers would learn the price of their lunch. People of color paid $12. White diners would get a choice — did they want to pay $12, too, or hand over $30 and have the profits redistributed to people of color?

Some simply canceled their order and walked away. But more than 80 percent of white customers wanted to pay the higher price, Wey told The Washington Post’s Maura Judkis.

“If I created the framework where I outline a problem that is indisputable, and I position you as an antagonist, and I give you a way to solve the problem tidily and be the hero — in the moment, anything other than the $30 choice becomes antisocial behavior,” he explained.

A similar stunt — though one with very different motives — took place at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, when a conservative student group hosted an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale.” Among the prices listed: Asian men were charged $1.50 for a cookie, white men would pay $1, African American women would pay 25 cents, and Native Americans would get the cookies free.

Members of the Young Conservatives of Texas’ campus chapter said their goal was to call attention to what they saw as a discriminatory admissions policy that gave preferential treatment to marginalized groups. Their experiment didn’t go over well on campus: Within an hour, the bake sale table had been swarmed by protesters who labeled the demonstration racist, HuffPost reported.

In Detroit, the decision to give people of color a discount on tickets was motivated by the organizers’ commitment to social justice. Afrofuture Youth describes itself as a youth-led initiative giving middle-schoolers and high-schoolers the opportunity “to build a new, more equitable world.” On Eventbrite, where festival passes were sold, the group noted the difference between equality, which “means treating everyone the same,” and equity, which meant ensuring that "everyone has what they need to be successful.” The group was aiming for the latter.

The higher-priced tickets for white people began getting attention online after one performer dropped out in protest on July 2, writing on Twitter that she had been “triggered.” Jillian Graham, a Detroit-based rapper who performs under the name Tiny Jag and identifies as biracial, told the Detroit Metro Times that she only learned about the pay structure when a white friend sent her a screen shot. She argued that the policy was driving a wedge in the community.

“It’s nonprogressive and it’s not solution-focused in my eyes,” she told the paper. “It seems almost like it has spite, and unfortunately with spite comes hate, and that’s just not obviously going to be a good direction for us to go if we’re looking for positive change.”

Graham also noted that she had white family members and would not want them to be “subjected to something that I would not ever want them to be in.” She had planned to perform tracks from “Polly,” a mix tape that she named after her white grandmother, she added.

“How do you want me to come to a performance and perform these songs off a mix tape that is titled after this white woman that you would have charged double to get in here?” she asked. “Like, it’s just outrageous from so many different angles.”

As the story was picked up by national and international outlets, critics flooded Afrofuture Youth’s social media accounts, and commentators living far from Detroit began chiming in. Many noted that the festival might be violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in public spaces such as concert halls. Others cast it as an example of political correctness run amok.

“Well done intersectional radicals,” wrote the controversial British rapper Zuby. “You’ve become the very racists you claim to stand against.”

But others spoke up in support of the festival and questioned the logic behind Graham’s decision to drop out.

“My white mom would be PROUD to pay more because she understands the history of economic exploitation of black folk in this country to benefit whiteness & she wants a better future for black folk, including her black kids,” tweeted Ijeoma Oluo, author of “So You Want to Talk About Race.”

She added: “Also note: publicly harming a black woman’s business because you imagine that her efforts at helping the black community would make your white grandma uncomfortable is what internalized white supremacy looks like.”

The controversy came to a head on Sunday, when Eventbrite threatened to pull down the festival’s listing, which would prevent the group from selling any more tickets on the site.

“We do not permit events that require attendees to pay different prices based on their protected characteristics such as race or ethnicity,” an Eventbrite spokesman told The Washington Post in an email. “When we became aware of the violation with AfroFuture Fest, we notified the creator of the event and requested that they alter their ticket pricing accordingly. We also let them know that if they did not comply, we would remove the event completely from our site.”

The festival’s organizers declined to comment late Sunday. Adrienne Ayers, who goes by Numi and is the founder and co-director of Afrofuture Youth, told the New York Times that the decision had been made for safety, and “not anything else but that.”

Ever since right-wing media picked up on the story, she said, people had been sending unwanted messages to her co-director’s family and harassing the community farm’s owner. But no other artists in the lineup had backed out, and the response had been largely supportive. So far, 71 tickets have sold, out of an expected 200.

“There were a lot of white people who were telling us they didn’t mind paying extra,” she told the Times. “Quite a few.”

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