In Detroit, racial rhetoric concealed corruption

Hughey Newsome Advisory Council, Project 21
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Living in the Detroit metro area most of the last decade, I have experienced many of the events leading to its bankruptcy.

Take, for example, the 2008 State of the City address by then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. With Detroit facing a perilous fiscal future and him facing ethics complaints, Kirkpatrick highlighted race. He sparked controversy by using the “n-word” while referencing an insult he received from some random person.

Kirkpatrick vowed to stand strong against this attack, and asked citizens to stand by him against a “lynch mob mentality.” He essentially used that slur to leverage racial tension, inciting and dividing the mostly-black city against mostly-white suburbs. After all, it was the people in the suburbs — many who either worked in Detroit or had economic ties to the city — who were frustrated with mounting city corruption and mismanagement.

The citizens of Detroit rallied behind their mayor. It was racial politics — pure and simple.

Five years later, Detroit is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, and Kilpatrick – who resigned six months after his controversial address — was convicted of a series of felonies that may put him in prison for the rest of his life.

Kilpatrick is not the one bad apple who destroyed Detroit. Using race to cover for failure is commonplace.

For example, the Motor City almost lost the prized North American International Auto Show after the once-illustrious Cobo Center convention hall was allowed to deteriorate. When influential merchants sought to force the city to cede control of the building, former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers — who later went to prison for taking a bribe — shouted that suburbanites (understood to mean whites) could not come and take the “jewels” of the black city. Councilwoman Barbara Rose-Collins stated: “European rulers have traditionally taken what they wanted from other people, be they white, be they black or be they brown. No one is taking anything.”

Fortunately, the Cobo Center’s renovation was later managed by a Regional Authority and the auto show remained in Detroit.

There are many similar examples of corruption and divisiveness involving city leadership where race is has often been used to rouse and incite but – most importantly – to distract from ineptness and unethical behavior.

Why is this dangerous?

Playing on peoples’ sensitivities and fears distracts attention from holding elected leaders accountable. Detroit’s political class understands this, and regularly delivers racial division rather than doing the hard work of attracting investment in the city.

Consider how Detroit fared during the recent automotive upswing. Despite the Obama and Bush presidencies spending roughly $100 billion to bail out the auto industry, Detroit’s downfall continued virtually unabated. Rather than wonder why the state’s largest municipality still suffers and what can be done to fix it, Councilwoman JoAnn Watson publicly wondered last December where Detroit’s “quid pro quo” was for delivering a lopsided margin for Obama’s reelection.

It’s not just Detroit where this game of racial division is played. This trick is played at the highest levels of government.

George Zimmerman was found not guilty the same week Detroit declared bankruptcy. In the former case, too many — and too many who are too powerful — cast Zimmerman as a bigot despite no evidence validating this claim.

In his surprise address to the press about the Zimmerman verdict on July 19, President Obama mentioned the real bias that black men face on a regular basis. But rather than channel this concern into a productive conversation, he sought to leverage the racial tension he created to criticize “stand your ground” laws (which played no actual role in Zimmerman’s defense) and promote gun control.

Obama’s question — “[I]f Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” — is particularly disheartening. On what evidence is this based? Does he not know that over 30 percent of Florida’s “stand your ground” claims are made by blacks and are 55 percent effective for blacks in court?

Obama’s words of division and distrust – to advance a political agenda — diminish an opportunity to address real biases principally driven by media and entertainment.

Too much time is spent complaining about and looking for the overt racism that has largely been banished from our society. Perversely, this effort to protect minorities from the bigot under the bed promotes the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that Obama’s predecessor sought to stamp out.

Americans must recognize attempts to manipulate past pain for political gain. How else will leaders focus on 21st century problems rather than self-serving agendas?

Hughey Newsome, a business consultant in the D.C. area, is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21.