Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

July 8, 2012

Detroit elections dredge up racial issues

U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke always regarded himself as both black and Asian. He was born into and grew up in solidly black neighborhoods on Detroit's tough east side.

He has spoken out for African-American concerns in the state Legislature and, for the last two years, in Congress, where he has represented one of the nation's blackest and poorest districts.

But now he is being targeted by a smear campaign alleging not that he has done anything wrong "¦ but that he isn't really black.

Clarke is in a tough Democratic primary battle in Michigan's oddly sprawling new 14th district, where he has been thrown into a race against fellow congressman Gary Peters, Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence and several minor candidates.

Last week, one of those, the scandal-plagued former State Rep. Mary Waters, said she was the "only black Detroiter" in the race, after someone began sending the media copies of the 1976 death certificate of Thelma Clarke, the 55-year-old congressman's mother. The document says she was white.

Reportedly, there also have been robocalls in black neighborhoods, telling voters Clarke is not really African-American. When I asked the congressman about this, his voice grew husky with emotion. "She was black. But she was light-skinned, and, yes, she wanted to pass for white," he told me. "She did that because she thought that would give me, her only son, a better chance in life."

There is some evidence this may be true. Thelma was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was born in Florida, and the death certificate indicates her parents had common African-American first names.

Hansen Clarke was very close to his mother, especially after his father, who was born in Pakistan, died when he was 8. When black radio talk shows began buzzing with gossip last week, the congressman, who was a teenager when his mother died, lost his cool. He announced that he wouldn't take part in any more multi-candidate debates before the Aug. 7 primary.

He was skipping them, a spokesman said, because of the "use of certain racist rhetoric and race-baiting by certain candidates" in the primary race. The seat is so Democratic that whoever wins in August is virtually certain to be elected.

The battle has been a tough one for Clarke from the start. Slightly more of the population lives in the suburbs than in Detroit. And while the district has a narrow black majority, the other incumbent, Gary Peters, has more money, and also represented many of the suburban voters in the state senate.

Additionally, Lawrence is expected to pull black votes that might otherwise have gone to Clarke.

But while all of the other candidates deny being behind the whispering campaign, and only Mary Waters seems interested in trying to exploit it, it is clear that a familiar, ugly phenomenon is happening here: Black-on-Black racism.

Throughout history, of course, some of the nastiest tactics in American politics have involved race. Candidates seen as being too sympathetic to blacks were once referred to, in whispers or otherwise, by a two-word term ending in "lover." Nastiest of all were slurs implying that a particular candidate had African-American ancestry. President Warren Harding, for example, was the target of one such bizarre smear campaign.

Race-baiting of that kind went out of fashion in national politics years before America elected Barack Obama, though echoes of it can still be seen in the ravings of the "birthers," who insist, against all evidence, that the President was really born in Africa, and so can't possibly be the nation's legitimate leader.

But black racism — black politicians accusing other blacks of being insufficiently black — is relatively new. When the moderate Dennis Archer ran for mayor of Detroit in the 1990s, his opponents circulated flyers showing a tiny Archer squeaking out of a white man's shirt pocket. He won anyway. But when Freman Hendrix, his chief of staff, took on the clearly corrupt Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2005, his enemies made much of the fact that his mother had been an Austrian war bride who had married his father after World War II.

Even though the Hendrix family lived their entire life in the black community, the candidate was sneered at as "not black enough," and lost a close election to a man who would end up in prison.

Clarke was upbeat about the election itself last week. "You know, they've tried this stuff before. The people know better. They know what I stand for and that I am on their side." That remains to be seen. The fact that there are two strong black candidates and one white one in a closely divided area may play a bigger factor than anyone's ancestry.

Times are also changing; even some African-American pundits seem to believe longtime Wayne County political fixer Mike Duggan, who is white, could be the next elected mayor of Detroit.

Desiree Cooper, an African-American lawyer and civic activist, thinks all this is absurd.

"Hansen has been representing Detroit for umpteen years — how is it that he's suddenly not black enough? The district needs competent, honest and dedicated representation, not a candidate whose only qualification is his or her race."

Next month, it may be clear whether voters feel the same way.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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