By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.
In a 1991 article titled The Triumph of Tokenism: The Voting Rights Act and the Theory of Black Electoral Success, late legal scholar Lani Guinier, wrote about the need for Black political candidates to be “not just physically Black.” Instead, she called for authenticity in Black elected officials, stating that they are among the most prominent “role models,” and that authentic representatives provide a psychological uplift by affirming Black culture, humanity, and group solidarity. She also noted the public policy significance of authentic Black representatives, writing that “The election of Black representatives affirms that Blacks are participating citizens who take an active interest in policy decisions that affect their lives.”
Guinier’s observation has always been a relevant point of distinction, and reflects a similar viewpoint shared decades earlier by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his final testament to the state of affairs in the U.S., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In the book, King also wrote about the importance of Black political power, but like Guinier, cautioned against “physical Blackness” as a lone criteria for representation by stating: “A Black face that is mute in party councils is not political representation; the ability to be independent, assertive and respected when the final decisions are made is indispensable for an authentic expression of power.”
The political caveats issued by Guinier in the 90s and King in the 60s are still as relevant as ever in our current year 2022. As the nation is embarking on what is prepping to be a very consequential midterm election season this fall, Detroit is shaping up to be a crowded and contentious battle for congressional representation. Amidst a controversial redistricting which saw Detroit lose a congressional seat, the city’s legendary 13th District will be wide open with current representative Rashida Tlaib announcing a move to the newly drawn neighboring 12thDistrict.
With Detroit’s 13th District now open to the highest vote getter, many have already thrown their hat in the race, hoping to return the District to its lengthy history of Black representation due to the legacy of the late former Congressman John Conyers.
However, while Black representation is needed, particularly in a city like Detroit, which is a nearly 80% majority Black city, the largest of its kind in the nation, this representation must not just be “physically Black,” as Guinier poignantly explained. Rather, the successor to the 13th Congressional seat must be committed to collective ideals that will best move the needle forward for all Black people, starting with those at the bottom, who must not be overlooked to continually sink into the socioeconomic abyss created by unjust social policies.
And such quality, authentic Black representation is not only necessary, it is also realistic and historically accurate because it was the kind of political representation personified by the legendary Congressman Conyers. Deservedly so, Conyers is often lifted up as an example of exemplary public service, because he truly understood the needs of the people, and most importantly, was not afraid to advocate for the needs of Black people in the U.S. and around the world.
As a freshman congressman, he cosponsored what would become the groundbreaking Voting Rights Act of 1965, paving the way for African Americans to participate in the democratic process and formally ending severe segregationist and racist Jim Crow policies that held back Blacks from casting their votes for 100 years.
Conyers sponsored legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday a federal holiday, after 15 years of languishing in Congress. Today, the King holiday is a revered holiday around the country, often celebrated as a day of service to community. Conyers also tirelessly advocated for reparations by continually introducing H.R. 40, legislation that would study reparations for Black people, which he relentlessly pursued even until his final days in office. Conyers raised this issue in Congress for 30 years. A seemingly dead on arrival issue, it has now gained prominence since the brutal murder of George Floyd opened the world’s eyes to the evil of racism and white supremacy, and the longstanding need for reparative justice.
Not only did Conyers care about the Black diaspora in the United States, as a representative of the Blackest big city in the country Detroit, but he vigorously defended the rights of Blacks across the world. Conyers was a staunch anti-apartheid advocate who uplifted the need to recognize the rights and liberties of Black South Africans. He also strongly stood up for the rights of Black Haitians and their right to sovereignty and self-determination, rather than governing under the influence of foreign powers.
Conyers regularly lent his support to other intersectional causes as well, expressing inclusion and support for the rights of other people of color and marginal groups. Futhermore, Conyers notably cosponsored crucial legislation to support low income communities and strengthen the social safety net by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, maintaining the SNAP nutrition assistance program, and fully funding Head Start, Job Corps, and the WIC food programs.
Yet, it is Conyers’ unflinching advocacy for Black people that must be uplifted as a pillar of courage, because it has become taboo to be too pro-Black in political policies. This is in spite of the fact that Black people regularly vote for the Democrats in power who promise change and resources to Black communities during their campaigns, but then routinely drop any actions necessary to deliver on these promises. The worst part is that even Black democrats will fail to deliver on Black political needs in favor of staying in lock-step with the White liberal status quo.
This must NOT be the direction the new 13th Congressional representative will take into the future. Conyers cannot be replicated, and no one should aim to be exactly like him, less they lose their own identity. However, his political approach and courage to stand up for Black rights the same way others stand up for their communities, MUST be taken in to the halls of Congress by the new representative. Particularly since Detroit is still an overwhelmingly majority Black city, and is in so much need of dire resources in the midst of a false resurgence that has seen white wealth increase in unequal parallel to Black residents who occupy the vast majority of the city.
None of potential candidates thus far, some of whom are current or former elected representatives, have boldly spoken out against the many injustices taking place in current Detroit, most egregiously the over-taxation of upwards of $600 million. Even current Congresswoman Tlaib, who appeared at PuLSE event on overtaxation in February 2020, has failed to follow through on the matter despite promises she made to take the issue to Congress. None of the potential candidates have stood against other pressing civil rights issues in the city of Detroit, such as its police use of facial recognition technology, and the former police chief’s allowance of lying officers to remain on the police force.
Like King said in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, “Negro politicians can be as opportunistic as their White counterparts if there is not an informed and determined constituency demanding social reform.” If these potential representatives have failed to stand up to the political misgivings of a local mayor like Mike Duggan (described as a political hack by major law firm Jones Day), what are they really going to Congress to do? Are they going to Congress to further their own political ambitions rather than serve as fierce advocates for their constituents? How effective can they really be against the perceived leader of the free world in the president of the United States, and as the ultimate policymakers in the halls of the world’s foremost legislative body? These questions, while seemingly rhetorical, must be seriously and thoroughly inquired in order to preserve the check and balance between elected officials and those whom they seek to represent, to match their honesty to their deeds once in they get into office.
That’s why with this coming midterm election to determine this vital 13th Congressional District spot, we must heed to King’s words: “We shall have to do more than register and more than vote; we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with an enthusiasm that enables us to rally support for them based on confidence and trust. We will have to demand high standards and give consistent, loyal support to those who merit it. We will have to be a reliable constituency for those who prove themselves to be committed political warriors on our behalf.”
Whomever the newest representative will be must carry forth this mission, and we as a constituency must demand that they do no less.
Attorney Tina M. Patterson, a racial justice advocate and former federal government attorney for the Social Security Administration, is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s national anti-poverty think tank. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief and dean of the Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.