Did You Hear? Detroit’s New Mayor is White!

Detroit has a new Mayor.  The local, national and international press leads focused on the fact that Mike Duggan is the first white mayor of Detroit in 40 years.  I’m pondering the news-worthiness of this fact.

Duggan campaign

We celebrate “firsts”.  Most recently the nomination of Janet Yellen as the first woman to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  I’m thinking the title of the office is statutory so we can’t immediately change it to “Chairwoman”, “Chairperson” or the convention we used when I was a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors – merely “Chair”.  Upon her confirmation do we address her as “Madame Chairman” or “Madame Chairwoman”?  The former has a paradoxical sound to it. It was much easier with Nancy Pelosi. “Madame Speaker” is gender neutral.

But Detroit has had white mayors before.  Lots of them.  Seventy out of seventy five to be exact. That’s a whopping 93%.  In the historical context a white mayor is no big deal.  So what makes Mr. Duggan’s race significant today?  Is it really that shocking that a city whose population is 81.3% African American would give 55% of its votes to the white guy?  If so, it’s based on the troubling assumption that in the normal course of business black voters will only vote for black candidates.  That is simply racist nonsense.  Detroit’s voters have been both subtle and sophisticated in casting votes in the past.  I’m not the least bit surprised that appeals to race largely fell on deaf ears.  Mayor elect Duggan bristles at the topic.

“I resent it. I’ve resented it from the beginning,” Duggan said. “People in this city got past it almost a year ago, as people got to know me and we started to relate as individuals.”

I’m not suggesting we are living in an Obama induced post racial society.  One comment I heard on election night at the Duggan rally was “I never thought I’d live long enough to see a black President of the United States and a white Mayor of Detroit”.

The continuing significance of race was brought home in other news this week.  19 year old Renisha McBride died of a shotgun blast to the head in the largely white suburban community of Dearborn Heights.

Little has been publicly released about the circumstances of Renisha McBride’s death Saturday. The 19-year-old from Detroit died of a shotgun blast to the head outside the home in the 16800 block of Outer Drive near Warren Avenue. Dearborn Heights police said they have “identified the person who fired the shot and killed the woman.”

Her cellphone dead, her family said, she made her way to the house for help after the early morning accident.

“She probably wanted to ask him to make a call for her or if she could use the phone,” said McBride’s maternal aunt, Bernita Spinks.

The law gives us an absolute right to protect our homes.  But claiming self defense in the shooting of an unarmed teenage girl on one’s porch is absurd.

And yes, it’s significant that Renisha is black.

After the death of Trayvon Martin I read a number of stories about “the talk” that happens with teens in African American families.  Washington Post columnist  summarized it nicely.

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse

There was also being mindful that you are being watched in stores. Watched turned to followed as I got older. To this day, if a sales person is overly attentive to what I might be looking for I leave the store. Never to return. And then there was keeping a distance of deniability from white women when walking on the street. Lest you be accused of any number of offenses, from trying to snatch her purse to sexual assault.

In the early 1990s, I saw a T-shirt for sale on Canal Street in New York that neatly and bluntly summed up my frustration with this situation: “No white lady I don’t want your purse.”

Last fall I was pulled over while driving in a Detroit suburb with a young African American friend.  When the officer came to the window I took control of the conversation.  “I know my tail light is out.  I just noticed it and have an appointment to get it fixed tomorrow.  Here’s my license and proof of insurance, but I seem to have misplaced my vehicle registration”.  His response; “That’s okay, I can look it up on the computer”.  Then he went back to his scout car.  My friend was pissed.  “I could never get away with talking to a police officer like that and not having a registration”.

Even Oprah is not immune. 

Now we have to add “Don’t knock on the door of a white person at night if you need help.”

Still, we move forward on civil rights.  My friend Joe Posch had a nice Op Ed in the Detroit Free Press noting Mike’s victory night’s comments of inclusiveness.

At the end of his acceptance speech, mayor-elect Mike Duggan stated, “The way we are going to rebuild this city is to value every single person in our community. It will no longer matter if you are black, brown or white. It will no longer matter if you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim. It will not matter if you are gay or straight. We want all of your talents. You’re all going to be equally valued and welcomed, because only in that way will we rebuild the kind of Detroit everyone in this city deserves.”

It seems like a little thing, in 2013, to include the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in a statement of acceptance and unity, but politics and the power of the pulpit have kept gay people out of the discussion in Detroit for years.

And what’s up with the United States Senate?  They vote 64 – 32 to provide legal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation?

Quite a week.

Is it a new day in Detroit?  Naw. I’ve head that one too many times before.  But one significant item of Tuesday election is that Mike’s opponent’s use of the old circa 1974 playbook that pandered to “we/they” lost; and lost badly.

Now the real work begins for Mike Duggan and the rest of us.  Let’s all wish him well.