When is it a liability to be Black in Detroit?
By Keith D. Williams
Wake up, Detroit. How did we get to the point in this city when it is a huge liability to be an African American candidate for mayor of Detroit? I thought about this question because of what some Detroit voters are saying — far too often — about who should be the next mayor of Detroit, and more importantly, why.
To be honest, I was astonished at the words I heard coming out of some Detroiters’ mouths: “It’s time for a white mayor.” “Bennie Napoleon isn’t qualified.” “If the white candidate gets elected, white folks will make sure resources flow into the city and some of it just might trickle down to us.”
This conversation was fueled, in part, by Detroit News editor and columnist Nolan Finley, who posed a provocative question: “Is it time for a white mayor in Detroit?”
For anyone reading Finley’s column, such a question suggests our current crop of leaders, who, because the city is 80 percent African American, are incapable of leadership.
What Finley’s column failed to mention is that before the election of Coleman A. Young, in 1973, Black people always voted for white elected officials including white mayors. When the late Richard Austin ran for mayor against Roman Gribbs back in 1969, based on his qualifications, he should have been Detroit’s first Black mayor.
I want everyone to understand I’m writing this, not to further divide Detroit, but to start a critical discussion already taking place in this city, online, in churches, homes and barbershops. How do we make this city better by telling the truth about a highly charged subject — Black racism in reverse?
As a former elected official who served as vice-chairman of the Wayne County Commission, and an African American, I am concerned about conversations and opinions among Black voters that diminish the image and contributions of Black elected leaders, as a group, who have played a major role in the history of positive developments in Detroit, Wayne County and even the state.
Some of the names that come to mind are Coleman A. Young, Nicolas Hood, III, Jackie Vaughn, Morris Hood, Sr., Erma Henderson, etc.
I am also concerned about Detroit residents who use the six-year tenure of former mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick as an excuse to eliminate any consideration of another Black candidate as mayor of Detroit.
While Kilpatrick’s indictment, trial and conviction are not the high point in Detroit political life, a refusal to consider another Black candidate for mayor because of Kilpatrick’s trial and conviction would be like white voters refusing to vote for a white presidential candidate because former President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office to avoid impeachment because of his involvement in the Watergate break-in, burglary and cover-up.
Not only does that not make sense, in a majority Black city, it’s embarrassing, divisive and guaranteed to result in more of the kind of political chaos, infighting and strife that will make it even more difficult for this city to recover.
As a former Black elected official, who has voted for white candidates, I don’t have any problems with Black voters — or anyone else — voting for candidates of another race.
In fact, when I was a county commissioner, I worked well with my colleagues who were white and fought for their constituents — just like I fought for mine who were predominately Black. I respected their dedication and hard work.
That was one of the main goals of the Civil Rights Movement. But no one — especially Blacks — should use the fact that a candidate is Black to eliminate him or her from consideration.
That is not normal and exposes a weak Black grassroots and political culture — especially for such a large city. It could make Detroit the object of both curiosity and division — nationally and globally.
Instead of what I’m hearing in the neighborhoods, aided in no small part by the unbalanced coverage of the white candidate’s campaign complete with full color photos, I was very happy a major Detroit newspaper ran a front page story, which not only absolved the former mayor Coleman A. Young of being the source of Detroit’s current problems by pointing to deindustrialization, racism and discrimination as key factors, but also crowning him the most effective Detroit municipal finance manager since World War II.
Mayor Young achieved this with only a high school education and a damn good one from Eastern High in Detroit.
Detroiters are obligated to vote for whomever they believe will be the best mayor for Detroit. But it would be a huge mistake not to understand, if Michigan’s largest city with a majority Black population is so lacking in self-confidence, pride and appreciation of its history — which includes great Black political leadership — it rejects a qualified and committed candidate for mayor….just because he is Black, spells not only the end of Black political power, but also the effective end of a city that gave birth to the union movement, put the world on wheels, gave it the Motown sound and created the Black middle class.
Keith Williams is former vice-chairman of the Wayne County Commission.