Color-coded politics

Mar 23, 2005 at 12:00 am

Call it beating a dead horse, if you want. But if that was the case, I’d end a hot, lifelong affair with my hometown, declare Detroit doomed in fact, not colloquially dead, and go look for a better place to live.

There are such places, you know, plenty of them, a point not lost on the tens of thousands of young adults who’ve been streaming out of Detroit and Michigan in recent times to find more promising places to put down roots and chase success.

Pick any of an array of reasons, some of them intractable, others less difficult, and some dispiriting in their stubborn refusal to go away, like nowhere else in the country.

Race is the worst. And if any one thing has more grimly transcendent potential to doom Detroit than the rest, this is it.

To illustrate my point, I give you Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Detroit mayoral candidate and Councilwoman Sharon McPhail — something old, something “new,” both perfectly representative of metro Detroit’s addiction to ugly racial politics.

Patterson, a troubled but congenial and charismatic man, wears the mantle of Great White Boogeyman in large part because of his political beginnings. In 1971, he was the lawyer and mouthpiece for NAG — the National Action Group — formed by a shrill housewife named Irene McCabe to fight court-ordered cross-district busing as a means to desegregate Pontiac schools.

Of course, race wasn’t the issue. McCabe herself said she’d gone to school with “colored kids,” but busing black kids in from Detroit would destroy the “traditional neighborhood school.” The fact that Michigan Ku Klux Klansmen used dynamite that summer to destroy 10 Pontiac school buses and damage three others was brushed aside as the unwanted help of a bunch of “radicals.” McCabe, who died late last year, went so far as to say the incident never happened. “It was all a lie,” she said. “There was no bombing. That was an exaggeration.”

And Patterson, nearly 35 years later, continues to wear a jacket spattered by the racial mud of NAG, its cause and the violence they spawned. He’s never been forgotten nor forgiven by those who remember the Pontiac case. And today, as the longtime political head of one of the richest counties in the country, he’s made his belief very clear that Oakland County is not affected by anything going on south of Eight Mile, doesn’t need Detroit and isn’t interested in helping to bring it back from its current state of near-ruin and chaos.

McPhail, on the other hand, is a more recent arrival on the metro political scene. She, too, is an attorney, smart, capable of immense charm, attractive, and once was given Mayor Coleman A. Young’s Seal of Approval.

Though older than Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, she too appeared to offer the promise of an end to divisive racial politics, a departure from the deeply entrenched black-white hatreds of old-school Detroit, the whisper of a fresh start powered by youth, in many cases those too young to drag the baggage of the bad ol’ days.

But if it wasn’t clear before, her participation in the recent and now notorious “Sambo Awards” crystallized her vision for the city. The “awards” were presented in absentia to local leaders who were declared to be too cozy with the white man, who weren’t black enough, who “voted white” when they should have “voted black.” She’s since tried in vain to blow it off as a harmless lark, as being all in good “fun.”

Think about that concept, about voting white or voting black. Then tell me that Detroit’s going to drain the racial cesspool that’s in it and around it in time to save itself. I’d really like to hear it, and believe it.

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