By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.
During a symbolic march in Detroit Thursday afternoon, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, and a host of others joined in a unity march, as the world has continually gathered to protest police brutality against blacks in America, spurred by the gruesome murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The global protesters, encompassing all 50 states and 18 different countries, have justifiably joined in a unified message that structural racism against blacks must end once and for all, beginning with holding the officers in Floyd’s murder accountable by securing convictions. In fact, The PuLSE Institute just published reaction from the UK by our UK columnist Joan Blaney, who detailed how blacks in the United Kingdom face similar instances of police brutality.
Such far-reaching solidarity necessarily requires bold action in the form of immediate policy changes enacted by elected officials, particularly at the state and local levels, to ensure consequences against police misconduct and guarantee the safety, dignity, and respect of black life in America.
Given the gravity of the situation and the thrust of what this budding movement represents, the hollow unity march in which Governor Whitmer participated can be viewed simply as political opportunism at its finest. Whitmer has repeatedly broken her campaign promises to black communities throughout Michigan, yet she marched in Detroit to give the appearance of solidarity with the black struggle.
During the march, Whitmer stated “Elections matter. We cannot be defeated. We must move forward together. When we do that, we cannot be defeated.” With this traditional statement about elections and placebo of unity with no depth of understanding as to why we are divided, Whitmer appeared to be mining for votes and clinging for political support in Detroit, the largest black city in the nation and the base of the Michigan Democratic Party.
Eradicating racism is a tremendous task that has never sincerely been tackled in this nation’s history, and more significantly, it is a strictly nonpartisan issue. While Republicans have fanned the flames of racism led by President Donald Trump, Democrats have failed to be the vanguards of diversity and inclusion they claim to be when they are mining for votes in the black community during election season. Democrats do not own the fight against racism. In contrast, racism has long been implicitly baked into major democratic policies, clearly demonstrated by harmful legislation against blacks such as the 1994 crime bill under Democratic President Bill Clinton, written by Democrat and then U.S. Senator Joe Biden, who now sits upon the apex of Democratic national politics as its presumptive nominee for president of the United States.
Whitmer and Duggan, both prominent Biden supporters who hosted the presidential candidate in Detroit hours before the coronavirus was announced in Michigan, share in Biden’s patterns of white liberal elitism that depend upon, but frequently betray, its promises to black voters. Furthermore, like many elected officials in Democratic strongholds across the country that are often the site for racial unrest and police brutality cases, Whitmer and Duggan have failed to address the injustices against blacks in their own jurisdictions.
Here in Detroit, a recent audit revealed a pervasive racist culture in the Detroit Police Department’s 6th precinct, and Mayor Duggan has yet to publicly deliver concrete policy changes to eradicate that culture. This is far from an isolated incident in the department. A Detroit police corporal convicted for beating a naked mentally ill black woman in a hospital not only remained on the force, but was recently up for a promotion. Additionally, Mayor Duggan supported the police department’s use of facial recognition technology, a controversial policing tool that has well-known inherent bias against dark skinned people. If Mayor Duggan sincerely detested systemic racism as he has professed lately, he never would have implemented such racially biased technology in the 80% majority black city he is tasked with serving, let alone allow a racist culture or convicted officer to remain in the department. These blatant contradictions betray the legacy of George Floyd and expose Duggan’s political insincerity during that feel-good unity march in front of the cameras.
When it comes to Governor Whitmer, she has left a trail of dishonesty on campaign promises she failed to deliver for black communities in Michigan. Notoriously, her education policies for black schoolchildren have been reprehensible. Despite placing education as a cornerstone of her campaign, as governor, Whitmer attempted to shut down Benton Harbor High School, the only educational institution in the predominantly poor, black city of Benton Harbor. In Detroit, Whitmer betrayed her campaign promise to the majority black school district that instead of upholding her belief that every child had a right to literacy, she actively fought against Detroit schoolchildren seeking a constitutional right to literacy in a federal lawsuit against the State.
To hoodwink blacks, Whitmer branded herself as a transformational candidate during the blue wave of 2018 that she sailed to victory. She even chose Garlin Gilchrist II as her running mate, making him the first black lieutenant governor of Michigan. However, as with many typical white liberals, this historical marker has only served the purpose of shielding Whitmer from claims of liberal racism and bait and switch politics, painting her in a favorable, but illusory light as a champion of diversity. In reality, Gilchrist, who is relishing the spotlight reminding every interviewer that he is the first black lieutenant governor, has not pushed her into delivering for black communities, but has instead allowed her to get away with anti-black policies that have been particularly toxic to black children as demonstrated in Detroit and Benton Harbor. His deafening silence has been acquiescence to the glaring contradictions of Whitmer’s promises to black Michiganders, and a warning that placing a black person in a position of power or influence is meaningless unless that black person is acting to empower black people.
In an audacious display of political fallacy amidst newfound national attention during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Whitmer penned a New York Times op-ed describing the murder of George Floyd and the coronavirus as civil rights issues. She boldly asked why the federal government was undermining her fight against them, the latest in a tit-for-tat attempt to place political accountability at the doorsteps of President Donald Trump.
Given her own failure to be accountable on the promises she made to black voters in Michigan, her column in the New York Times read as nothing more than naked exploitation of George Floyd’s death for political gain. Her failed promises to blacks and reluctance to roll out major reforms for the Michigan State Police, which is deeply notorious for its lack of diversity, helps to fuel the kind of culture that has sparked nationwide protest against police brutality.
Not only has Whitmer failed to deliver to black communities, she has taken a position that contradicts the spirit and principle that informed the bedrock civil rights issue of education for black children. The 1954 US Supreme Court Brown v Board Education decision was an impetus of the civil rights movement. Brown was a landmark victory for equal education for black children. For example, her failure to act with expediency voided a landmark right to literacy ruling for Detroit kids that was initially decided by a three judge panel of the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that is now hanging in a cloud of uncertainty with an upcoming rehearing by the full court. When it comes to civil rights, actions, not words, prevail, which reveal that Whitmer is no ally to the issues that sit at the heart of black equality.
Politicians, like Whitmer, who pay lip service to civil rights but never utilize the full authority of their office to back policy changes in support are not an anomaly in history.
During the funeral of the nation’s greatest civil rights and anti-poverty champion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a teenaged Manning Marable, with the blessing of his parents, flew to Atlanta to cover the event for his local newspaper. Marable, the late prominent Columbia University consequential black scholar, described the perceived hypocrisy of politicians who attended King’s service with questionable sincerity.
“I could hear bitter complaints and expressions of disgust from those in the crowd that the ‘politicians’ who had done nothing to advance the struggle that King had lived and died for were now exploiting his assassination and funeral for their own partisan advantage,” Marable wrote in “The Great Wells of Democracy,” which should be required reading for the Whitmer administration.
When Detroiters look at Governor Whitmer and Mayor Duggan, they should see them as politicians who are willing to use the murder of George Floyd as a public relations charade disguised as a unity march, to pacify voters and expect no demands to use their power to enact policies to end police brutality.
Governor Whitmer can use the power of her office, the highest executive office in the state, to end police brutality. So can Mayor Duggan as the chief executive of Michigan’s largest city and the largest black city in the nation. Black people should be aware of politicians who use crises such as the death of George Floyd to reposition themselves. Judging from the failures to deliver justice for their respective black communities and eradicate known existing racism under their watch, it appears that the elected officials who were present at the unity march were simply there for the attention the march drew, and not to urge action from those they were marching with like Whitmer and Duggan.
The urgency of these times is undeniable, and the failure to act to implement change is simply not an option. The future is here, and it is predicated upon everything we do now. We cannot continue to allow the pile of political broken promises to grow and expect it to end by standing with politicians, like Whitmer and Duggan, as they throw more on top, with no respect or regard for the sanctity of black life. Rather than stand with them, we must demand from them. The structural racism that murdered George Floyd will not end until we do.
Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent anti-poverty think tank. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.