Race Matters By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Race Matters

By Shea Howell

October 9, 2012

After months of rumors, Mike Duggin entered the race to become Mayor of the City of Detroit. His campaign raises troubling questions.

First, even supportive folks like Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press acknowledge that Mr. Duggin is a “carpetbagger” and fits “the dictionary definition of the opportunistic outsider.” He has barely lived in the city six months and wants to be mayor.

Duggin’s claim to run is that he can turn the city around. He argues that his experience as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center has given him the experience needed to get Detroit out from under state financial oversight. According to a recent interview, he says he will cooperate with unions, protect the police force, and back off of Bing efforts to privatize health and human services. He is critical of Bing’s handling of the lighting department, light rail, and Belle Isle, preferring to keep control in the city.

Further, he says that while parts of downtown are developing, neighborhoods are suffering. He told the Free Press “You’re seeing businesses and young people moving in at a rate that I haven’t seen in the 30 years that I’ve been working in the city. On the other hand, you go into the neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods aren’t seeing any of the benefits of that. And that’s what we’ve got to do: We’ve got to extend those successes into the neighborhoods.”

Much of Mr. Duggin’s criticism of Mayor Bing will find a welcome reception among Detroiters. He is positioning himself as the turn around guy. He says, “I was born in this city. I went to high school in this city. I’ve worked in this city for 30 years. I think I have roots with almost every organization in this city. But if what you’re doing is you’re voting for a mayor who’s lived in the city the longest, that isn’t necessarily going to get you to the person who can execute a financial turnaround.”

So far, Duggin has dodged the issue of race. If he were elected he would be the first white man to hold the office of Mayor since Roman Gribbs in 1974. Duggin says that when he talks about the issues that matter to people, race is irrelevant. He says, “What I’m focused on is we need to get the violence down, get the streetlights on, and get people moving into abandoned homes, not just knocking them down. That’s what I find everyone wants to talk about. And what I find is when you talk about those issues, issues like race melt away.”

And that is precisely the most worrisome thing about Duggin. He seems oblivious to the racial dimensions of his bid. He lacks any reflection on the social and political implications of a middle aged white male making a bid to be the leader of a majority African American city at a time when forces that look a lot like him are threatening the very existence of Detroit.

Race never “melts away.”

Detroit has a long history of supporting principled politicians, regardless of their ethnicity. For years an older white woman, Maryanne Mahaffey, garnered more votes than the elected mayor. People voted for her not only because of her positions, but because she spoke forthrightly about race, class, sexual identity, and a vision of an inclusive city. She constantly used her public office to educate people about social differences and why they mattered. She helped folks move toward a deeper appreciation of one another and our experiences.

To pretend that concern for crime and lighting overshadow the critical need for us to reconcile social difference does us all a disservice. It is not the kind of vision we need from those who claim leadership.