Black or White, the Next Mayor Must be Able to Serve Citizens' Needs

May 01, 2012, 9:35 AM

OK so Nolan Finley put Mike Duggan in a bit of a trick bag Sunday with his column calculating the odds of Duggan winning the Manoogian Mansion and becoming the city’s first white mayor since 1973.

Ask me, though, Duggan didn’t help himself any when he responded, in part, with the “see no color” dodge:

"I'm offended by the term 'white mayor,'" he said. "I don't see myself as a white guy ... It's special to work at an urban hospital, because if there's any place in this country where we're starting to move away from historical racial divisions, it's working together everyday in an urban setting. I guess I do see the world a little differently."

Perhaps Duggan, a Democrat, does see the world differently from Nolan Finley and other conservatives, and that’s commendable.

But just as there’s no escaping the reality that race plays out in many of the health-care issues DMC handles every day, there’s no getting around the impact of racism in metro Detroit. Taking offense to the term “white mayor” may seem noble, but is it really the way to go?

I mean, certainly to black voters he’d solicit, the issue isn’t so much “race” where political change is concerned as it is racism. Reflexively ignoring race only suggests you have no language for distinguishing the two. Duggan might want to know that. Saying only that he’s been “told that” he’s a white guy doesn’t strike me as endearing, but rather as evasive and dishonest.

The man just moved in Detroit from Livonia, where he’s been for more than 45 years. Livonia was once dubbed “the whitest city in America.” There would be a glaring racial difference between “white mayor” Duggan and the majority of the city, not to mention every mayor for the past 38 years. Is that something he couldn’t be expected to address because he doesn’t “see” it?

There’s real rhetorical middle ground between the “don’t see color” extreme and the polar opposite of trumpeting skin color as if that alone were some kind of virtue. Duggan, if this talk of him running for office isn’t just more of the sort of short-lived “white mayor” hype that occasionally surrounds Geoffrey Fieger, should really determine how to stake out some of that ground.

As for Finley, he didn’t do Duggan any favors in forcing him to have to bobble a hot-potato matter so soon into his non-campaign. And while the columnist succeeded in turning heads…

It is a bodacious roll. Duggan is white and from the suburbs.

Detroit hasn't had a white mayor since 1973, when Coleman Young became the fulfillment of the African-American majority's dream of black power. Given the demographic trends of the city, which today is nearly 90 percent black, the chance of a serious white contender ever again appearing on the mayoral ballot seemed remote. But surprisingly, nobody seems to be counting Duggan out based on race.

…I think he failed at displaying any substantive understanding of the aims of black Detroit voters.

For one, Finley gets it very wrong when he calls Coleman Young “the fulfillment” of the majority of Detroiters’ hopes for “black power,” not unlike how commentators who consider Barack Obama’s presidency the ultimate realization of “the Dream®” also get it twisted.

Along with men like Maynard Jackson and Marion Barry, Young was part of the next stage of a black advance into the highest ranks of city politics. Far from the “fulfillment” of “what black people want,” the triumphs of Young and his contemporaries represented the broader black political and economic successes many hoped would come.

Secondly, I don’t know how much there is to be “surprised” about with regard to Duggan’s chances, at least as far as race is concerned. I mean, when was the last time a white person even tried to make a serious run for mayor in this town? How can anyone assume, given all the problems Detroit faces, that black people would rule out a candidate who was really the best qualified to improve their lives and the city because he or she wasn’t black?

Black Americans, like any other voters, vote for what and whom they believe to be in their interests. That those candidates tend to be black is usually a function of the racial homogeneity of American neighborhoods, not necessarily the result of any die-hard refusal to vote for non-blacks.

That’s not to say racial fears aren’t real. As we’ll get to in a minute, they are. But in Baltimore and New Orleans, for instance, black populations have fairly recently elected white mayors, though both Martin O’Malley and Mitch Landrieu are both native sons of those burgs not new arrivals who’ve spent the past half-century in—all together now—the so-called “whitest city in America’s.” In Detroit, there tend to be fewer white native sons to around, so race hasn’t really been the issue (at least not in that direct of a way) in many, many years.

Of course, even if a Mike Duggan were to run, there’s still no guarantee he would win, or would even deserve to. Detroit’s last white mayor, Roman Gribbs, was a largely forgettable one-termer. So before we make assumptions about black Detroiters voting along purely racial lines for the past nearly 40 years, shouldn’t we first ask whether there’s even been a most-qualified white mayoral candidate in Detroit since 1973? What if—gasp!—the black candidates chosen were also legitimately considered the best players available?

After all, Young wasn’t some slouch who got over just by “playing the race card,” whatever the hell that really means. He was a masterful politician, a longtime labor activist, a military veteran and a man who stood up to the anti-Communist lunacy of Joe McCarthy.

Dennis Archer was a state Supreme Court Justice, a man who, after he left office, went on to be president of the American Bar Association. Former pro baller Bing was a CEO hailed for his apparently keen business acumen and a supposedly quiet determination in getting things done. (Both were also dogged as “outsiders” and carpetbaggers, like Duggan undoubtedly would be, but Archer at least forged real progress.)

Even Kilpatrick, now exposed as a base crook and inveterate liar, was thought a little more than decade ago to be the bright shining light of not just Detroit politics but perhaps even the entire Democratic Party.

Of course, this isn’t 2001, let alone 1974. Decades of disinvestment from the area, chronic unemployment among generations of residents, bad schools being made worse by the state, white flight and the accelerated departure of black middle-class professionals to aging bedroom suburbs have left Detroit in worse shape than ever.

Meanwhile, from the county to the city proper, the corruption that always festers in any metropolis’ politics has turned straight-up bubonic here, a virus now run amok without the antibodies of a robust tax base and an engaged populace to keep it in check.

So blend that with increasingly middling leadership (including Dems like Robert Ficano and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm) and mounting right-wing attacks on unions, civil-rights laws, public schools and even the black vote itself, and it’s no surprise that many black people are more than a little anxious about the erosion of hard-fought political gains. State takeovers of the school boards, consent agreements, revisions of local electoral maps, accession to greater suburban control of Detroit’s assets—all have been underscored by ongoing fears about white control over a majority black city.

And lest we forget, those fears have a very real foundation: The rise of black political power in Detroit came after decades of inhumane brutality at the hands of the police; forced segregation into some of the most decrepit conditions in the nation; the razing of thriving black neighborhoods to build freeways; the racist maldistribution of resources that made it much easier for whites to buy homes and move into the middle class; and the wholesale exclusion of blacks from the city power structure.

So yes, when there’s talk about the possibilities such as Michigan not having a black representative in the United States Congress for the first time in more than a half-century, expect many black voters to think long and hard about what they feel a Mike Duggan run would say about black political advancement.

During a discussion Monday about the Finley column on the radio show Inside Detroit, my friend and veteran journalist Cliff Russell called in to announce that he fears black power in Detroit “is dead.” He was none too happy in his assessment either.

Some might disagree. I know others who argue that black voting power is black voting power regardless of whether that vote results in the election of a black politician or a white one. They contend that the point of the black vote is secure gains for the voters, not merely to make jobs for black politicians who won’t or can’t deliver.

I get that point. But I also think, to Cliff’s point, that having black people in office who genuinely represent black interests remains critical.

Are black Detroiters to think now that, in a city that’s 82 percent African-American, that has become impossible at the highest level? No one’s said that outright, of course, but the thought surely bubbles beneath the surface of any question about Duggan taking up residence in the Manoogian. And to some, it would symbolize just how severely corruption and incompetence have diminished a black political class built on the accomplishments of activist pols like Young and late City Council President Erma Henderson.

Of course, Duggan, once part of the old machine of late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, also hails from a political familia clouded by scandal and accusations of venality. And for a city wearily slogging its way through another seemingly-endless series of corruption scandals, these involving the current Wayne County Executive Ficano’s office, that’s sure to come up as a red flag more than once if Duggan’s non-campaign grows roots. (There are also those who question his reputation as a “turnaround specialist,” considering that the Detroit Medical Center was still struggling under his leadership before it was sold to Vanguard.)

So contrary to what the headline of Finley’s column—“Is Detroit Ready for a White Mayor?”—might have you believe, the real question is whether any potential white mayor is ready to lead Detroit fairly, with integrity and more effectively than anyone he’d beat out or succeed.

I doubt that the former county prosecutor is really that guy. But to even be considered, Duggan likely would need a much deeper understanding of African-American voters than, say, Finley’s column betrays. And he’d surely need to be a whole lot more honest—about not just the harsher realities of race, but the rather obvious ones—than he was in his response to it.

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