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A New Politics of Diversity in Detroit?

A New Politics of Diversity in Detroit?

By Kim Clowes, assisted by Hayg Oshagan(New Michigan Media)

On Saturday, July 22nd, 1967, Detroit found itself in the middle of an oppressive heat wave.  In popular culture, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ topped the R&B charts and ‘The Dirty Dozen’ was #1 at the box office.  That year, the Motor City produced the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac GTO and the Detroit Tigers trailed the Minnesota Twins for the American League pennant in the mid-summer stretch.  Early in the morning on Sunday, July 23rd, a police raid on an unlicensed bar, a so-called ‘Blind Pig’ in the city’s predominantly African-American west end, sparked a 5 day wave of arson, looting and civil unrest across Detroit.  The violence and chaos left 43 dead, 1100 injured and more than 2000 buildings destroyed.  Some call it a riot.  Many think of it as a rebellion or an insurrection, a reaction to systemic injustices in Detroit society that had existed beneath the surface for decades.

In the 1960’s, the nature of power in Detroit seemed to be slowly changing. Representing the old guard was Mayor Louis Mariani, who was elected in 1957, and whose regressive approach to race relations reflected the conservatism of white voters. Thomas Sugrue, in his indispensible book on Detroit history ‘The Origins of the Urban Crisis’, describes Mayor Mariani as a leading representative of “crabgrass politics”, the political expression of racial tensions among whites who were uncomfortable with the growing liberalism of the urban North. In what many considered a sign of change, incumbent Mayor Mariani lost the 1961 Detroit Mayoral election to Jerome Cavanaugh, a young, white and idealistic acolyte of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Cavanaugh won the 1961 election by 40,000 votes, a landslide victory that was due, in part, to support from an emerging coalition of African-Americans and progressive whites. This election was the first major manifestation of Black political power in the city.

The new Mayor made important structural and symbolic changes to city government, appointing a reformer to the position of chief of police and initiating affirmative action programs for city agencies.  Mayor Cavanaugh also welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. to Detroit and marched with him down Woodward Avenue in June, 1962, in the 100,000-strong March for Freedom.  Meanwhile, more than 300 incidents of serious civil disturbance occurred in The United States between 1964 and July of 1967, with city after city being put to the torch.  For a time, the Mayor’s reforms kept a lid on simmering resentment, but structural constraints that had taken root over decades were not easy to dismantle. And in 1967, the veneer of progressive change that had veiled issues of class and race beneath the surface of Detroit society, burst open. Cavanaugh’s two terms in office, from 1962 to 1970, were the beginnings of a tumultuous, and frequently treacherous, political transition to black power for the city, which culminated in the election of Coleman Young in 1974 as the first Black Mayor of Detroit.

With overwhelming support among Black voters, Young’s 1973 election signalled the broadening of political power in a city that was almost fifty percent Black. After his victory at the ballot box, Mayor Young diversified city government, and integrated the police department. A new Black political elite started to rise to administrative leadership, and began to dismantle the political machinery of old. But the changes came at a cost.

Young’s 20 years in office saw the exodus of more than half a million citizens and the radical transformation of a city that was 58% white at the beginning of his term to, 40 years later, the most overwhelmingly majority Black city in the nation.  Today, more than 80% of Detroit’s 700,000 residents are African-American. The political character of the city has been reshaped by this demographic shift.  Since the end of the Coleman Young era, Detroit has seen 20 years of often-chaotic leadership in the mayor’s office and City Council, and the loss of another 200,000 citizens.  Although there were times of resurgence, the decline generally continued until the State appointment of an Emergency Manager to run the city, and eventual declaration of bankruptcy. Then, in the midst of Emergency Management and municipal bankruptcy, the city elected Mike Duggan as the first white mayor of Detroit in 40 years. As the city has emerged from bankruptcy, the new Mayor has faced a myriad of challenges that were a cause or consequence of the economic collapse of Detroit. Through it all, Mayor Duggan has promoted the ethnic diversity of the city as an important asset in economic revitalization. Detroit has a substantial Latino population, but also sizeable Arab and Asian populations. Is this a new era of greater equity in the region’s politics with a white Mayor and diverse representation in city and state government, or is it a continuation of the same forces that have always shaped this region?

Stephanie Chang has represented Detroit’s 6th district in Lansing since January 2015.  She is the first Asian-American woman in the State Legislature and a co-founder of the Asian/Pacific-American Legislative Caucus.  The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Chang boasts a strong record of participation in community-centered activism, including work as the state director for NextGen Climate Michigan and as a former assistant to iconic local activist Grace Lee Boggs.  In her approach to politics, she emphasises engagement at a local level, tying together political representation and grassroots participation.  Hesitant at first to seek office, Chang cites the influence of former district representative Rashida Tlaib in helping her make the decision to go into state politics. An observation from Tlaib stuck with Chang- “Being a legislator is like (community) organizing, but you’re organizing in the legislature.  I tried to take that approach in both building bridges and building coalitions and in working as much as I can with other lawmakers, but also in connecting some of the work I’m doing around policy with what we’re doing here in the district.”

Representative Chang also carries on a political tradition of diversity in the 6th district: Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, was the first Muslim-American woman elected to the state legislature in 2008 from the district.  And prior to Tlaib’s tenure, the district was represented by Steve Tobocman, a Jewish-American, from 2002-2008.  When asked what it is about the 6th District that supports such diversity in its political representation, Chang believes that “What it comes down to is that people just really want someone who they can trust and someone who shares their values. (That) has happened to be people who don’t necessarily reflect the demographics of the district.”  According to recent statistics, the ethnic make up of the 6th is approximately 40% Hispanic, 30% White and 25% African-American.  The district is represented at the Detroit City Council by councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López.

On the importance of community outreach, she adds that “One thing that’s really important is that we have a neighbourhood service center, a district office.  Most legislators actually don’t have a district office, but it’s something that Steve Tobocman started and (Tlaib) continued and that I continue because we felt that it’s really important to have physical space for people who may not necessarily get what they need over the phone, or have limited access to the Internet.”    What services does Chang’s office provide? “We partner with the accounting society to do free tax prep.  We have a big tax foreclosure prevention effort.  We have a ‘Become A Citizen’ day where we partner with the International Institute and help people with their citizenship application.  We did an ‘expungement’ fair, for people to expunge their criminal record.”  She adds that “One current issue that we are also working on in partnership with some community organizations is around ensuring that English language-learning parents of schoolchildren get the access that they need.  We’re trying to address some bilingual, clerical staff cuts at some of the DPS schools. We’re hoping that those clerical staff will be re-hired.  We’ve made that request of the Emergency Manager and those efforts are going to continue.  In my view, it’s a civil rights lawsuit waiting to happen and I think that the district is aware of that and needs to take some action.”

Steve Tobocman, the director of Global Detroit and the former State Representative for Detroit 6th District
Steve Tobocman, the director of Global Detroit and the former State Representative for Detroit 6th District

Steve Tobocman is the director of Global Detroit, an NGO with a focus on mobilizing the potential economic benefits that new immigrants bring to the city. Tobocman was the state representative for southwest Detroit (now the 6th District) from 2002 to 2008.  How does a state representative exercise power?  “The interesting thing about being a state representative is that you have as much or as little power as you utilize and create for yourself.  There’s a minimum threshold of power in that you get to control one of 110 votes in the Statehouse, and then there’s the kind of power that a really effective representative exercises.  There’s a myriad of ways to exercise that power: through persuasion, the media, effectively using your office budget and being an agent for change and social progress.”

In his time in Lansing, Tobocman believes that “I sought to maximize the power of the office by leveraging opportunity and investing in the community.” Asked to contrast the power, and limits of power, of a city councillor with that of a state representative, Tobocman notes that “Most issues which concern constituents are local to their neighbourhood and are more often governed by the local statutes and ordinances” including issues of community policing and neighbourhood blight.  He goes on to say that “One thing that I think we were extraordinarily effective at, somewhere where I think I’ve created a platform that my successors Rashida Tlaib and Stephanie Chang can work with, is that we should not be bound by those limits.  The reality is that as state legislators, we worked really hard to become partners with the Detroit Police Department so that we could get the kind of security services that constituents care about.  We worked really hard with City of Detroit staff to target demolitions in a way that made a difference to our constituents.  (There are limits) to what we’re voting on, but you can leverage your power in a myriad of effective ways.  That’s what I’m most proud of as a state legislator.”

With the election of the city’s first white mayor in 40 years, does he see a shift to more diversity in political representation?  Is the nature of who holds the power in Detroit changing?  “I think that issues of race are significant and profound.  Conditions in Detroit’s low-income communities, in their neighbourhoods, are as big a challenge today as at any point in Detroit’s history.  From a regional perspective, it’s hard to accept the poverty and the lack of opportunity in Detroit neighborhoods and not recognize race as a confounding, if not primary, factor in making those things happen.”  Tobocman adds that he’s not sure if Duggan’s election suggests that there have been profound changes in the racial dynamics in the city or in the region: “I think that there has been a long history of minority voters supporting majority candidates at much higher rates than majority voters support minority candidates. So I think that while you will see racist voting patterns across the board, they’re much more prevalent in the majority than in the minority.  Minorities have been far more accepting of majority representatives from time immemorial.”

More than ethnicity, the issue that Duggan’s election raises for Tobocman is that “Traditionally, (he’s) not been a resident of the city of Detroit.  (His election) shows that Detroiters were really focused on wanting to have elected leadership that they had faith could do the job and so were willing to look beyond (race or residency issues).”  He concludes with this observation: “The interesting thing about (the last) 40 years of leadership in the mayor’s office is that Coleman Young won elections when the population (of the city) was not predominantly African-American and he was elected with (the support of) a number of white voters voting for an African-American mayor in the wake of the 1967 insurrection.  I think it’s important not to over simplify complex relationships related to race and voting.  Not all political outcomes have been determined by racial dynamics.”

The final tally on whether we are seeing the start of a new era of power and politics in Detroit remains to be seen. If Mayor Duggan’s election and the 6th District are any indication, the future points to greater diversity in representation and less race-bound politics in general. Southeast Michigan, however, remains one of the most segregated in the nation, a dynamic that is sustained by forces well beyond the Mayor’s or the 6th District control or influence.

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