Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

April 8, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Beyond race issue

"On Election Day, I became the g--damn mayor of Detroit. I knew "¦ that this had only happened because the white people didn't want the damn thing anymore. They were getting the hell out, more than happy to turn over their troubles to some black sucker like me."

-- Coleman A. Young

If you want to understand why so many Detroit politicians refuse to face economic reality, and refused to negotiate some kind of reasonable compromise to avoid a state takeover, don't start by studying what's happening now.

Start by reading "Hard Stuff," the autobiography of the city's first black mayor, Coleman Young, who was elected in 1973, and stayed in office for two full decades, as the city slowly declined.

Much of the mayor's retelling of his years in office is the sort of self-serving stuff any politician might write. But what clearly rings truest is the mayor's account of his early life, in which he was subjected to racism of a sort almost unimaginable today.

During his career in office, few figures were more polarizing than Coleman Young, who died in 1997. By and large, blacks adored him. But many whites, especially those in the Detroit area, saw him as the embodiment of everything they hated.

They blamed him for the decline of the city they had mostly fled. There is little doubt that the former mayor was bitter over the racist treatment he had received, all his life. He could also be spiteful.

But he and the city continued to experience uncalled-for bigotry even after Young was elected. The new mayor made a speech calling for "all dope pushers, all muggers to leave Detroit. I don't give a damn if they are black or white."

"I thought that was pretty innocent," he told this columnist years later. "I was telling the bad guys to get out of Dodge no matter what color they were. But some (people) said I was telling whites to leave the city." They did leave, by the hundreds of thousands.

L. Brooks Patterson, now the executive of Oakland County, Michigan's most prosperous, was county prosecutor back then. He had begun his career with a demagogic campaign against cross-district busing — and later, Detroit provided a convenient target.

Less than two years after Detroit's first black mayor was elected, Patterson told a newspaper that perhaps Detroit should be treated like an Indian reservation, fenced off and the inhabitants given blankets and food. Detroiters didn't forget those comments.

Things like that helped foster a "them-against-us" mentality, and a determination to go it alone and not accept help from anyone.

That doesn't mean Coleman Young and his successors didn't exploit this feeling and run their own demagogic campaigns.

They did. Black politicians ran for office and got elected by bashing racist whites in the suburbs, just as Brooks Patterson and his imitators ran against the threatening image of black Detroit.

This sometimes led Detroiters to elect leaders who were incompetent, criminal, or both. The city suffered, more people of all colors left, and the tax base declined. Services deteriorated.

The whites left. The black upper class left. Then the black middle class followed them to the suburbs. Left in Detroit was a largely impoverished, unskilled group of very poor people.

But Detroit's politicians — ironically much like the white corporate executives running General Motors — refused to acknowledge that things had changed. Refused to make the tough and unpopular financial decisions they needed to make.

For decades, the leaders of both enterprises refused to recognize reality, tighten their belts and fire their underperforming friends. The result was that both the Motor City and General Motors ended up on the rocks. There is one difference, however, that those outside the city might want to keep in mind.

Auto executives did not spend their lives being sneered at, discriminated against, and socially shunned because they were auto executives. Black Detroiters were, for many decades.

That helps explain why Detroit City Council members Brenda Jones, Kwame Kenyatta and JoAnn Watson refused, until the last, to discuss any kind of power-sharing agreement, saying even to raise the topic was "disrespectful." That doesn't mean their behavior wasn't counterproductive, self-destructive and irrational; it was.

However, what it does mean is that in the city's dealings with the state, virtually everything is colored to some extent by race.

Getting beyond that is essential, if Detroit and Michigan are ever again to thrive. But things may get worse before they get better, especially if Detroiters perceive their power is being taken away.

The problem of getting beyond race may, when all is said and done, make solving the city's financial crisis look easy.

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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