Black Detroit officials outraged at 'Sambo Awards'

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Detroit Police Chief James Craig took issue with the award. "I can tell you: I don’t care if it’s coming from the mouth of a white man or a black man — racist is racist, and I’m going to call it out when I see it," he said.

Detroit — Two black public officials say they’re outraged after they were given “Sambo Awards” last week at a dinner honoring former Detroit mayor Coleman Young.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director Gary Brown and police chief James Craig were given the top two “Sambo Awards” at a dinner Thursday hosted by the “Call 'Em Out Coalition” and its president, African-American activist Agnes Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, who attracted national media attention in 2007 when she was arrested and fined for throwing grapes at Detroit school board members, insists the annual awards are meant to shed light on policies that harm the city’s black community.

Brown and Craig say the awards are racially offensive.

When Hitchcock was told Brown and Craig were insulted by the award, she said: “This was a celebration of Mayor Coleman Young’s life. He came into office when (police) were killing black men all over the city of Detroit. Today (Craig) lords over a police department that’s only 55 percent black and dropping, so he deserves that award.”

Hitchcock said of Brown: “I’ve lost count of how many times the water rate has increased in Detroit. Gary Brown could use some more awards.”

Brown, who received a “Sambo Award” in 2013 when he was on the City Council, said he and others on the list “don’t deserve to be dragged through the mud like that. If these were white nationalists saying this, we’d be outraged — well, I am outraged no matter who said it. And, worse, I have to explain this to my grandkids.”

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director Gary Brown.

Craig said the awards undermine efforts to heal a racial divide in the 6th Precinct after former officers Gary Steele and Michael Garrison were fired for their alleged roles in a racially insensitive Snapchat video. 

“Even Steele and Garrison didn’t call black people ‘Sambos,’” he said. “As someone who has faced discrimination from other black people because of my light complexion, I can tell you: I don’t care if it’s coming from the mouth of a white man or a black man — racist is racist, and I’m going to call it out when I see it.”  

The slur “Sambo” stems from the 1899 book “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” which contained drawings of black characters with exaggerated features. 

Hitchcock’s “Sambo Awards” sparked controversy in 2005, when mayoral candidate Sharon McPhail came under fire for participating in the ceremony. That year’s awards went to Dave Bing, who at the time was a businessman who would later be elected mayor, and McPhail’s opponent, then-incumbent mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Radio host and activist Sam Riddle, who emceed Thursday’s dinner at the International Institute on Kirby in the Cultural Center, said the awards are deliberately provocative.

“The name is the manifestation of the desperation of the majority of Detroit,” said Riddle, political director of the Michigan National Action Network and radio show host on 910 AM (WFDF). “They keep running this (bull----) about how Detroit is on the way back, when over 60 percent of Detroit children live in abject poverty."

“Why don’t (Brown and Craig) get upset about that?" Riddle said.

Detroit's childhood poverty rate was 48.2 percent in 2017, according to U.S. Census statistics released in September 2018. 

"(Craig) should get upset that he has a police department that doesn’t reflect the demographics of the community,” Riddle said. “Unapologetically, I was proud to emcee the Sambo Awards, to give light to the rampant racism and inequality in Detroit.”

Hitchcock said Craig isn’t doing enough to recruit more black officers.

“There’s more he can do to get black people on the police department,” she said. “He can recruit, set up a school for cadets, summer programs for young people.”

Craig said there are several programs in place aimed at recruiting more minority candidates, “but you can’t force people to want to be the police. (The lack of minorities joining police departments) is nationwide; it’s not just a Detroit issue.

“Have any of these people ever come to me and suggested ways we can improve? Have they ever done anything to help recruit black officers? The answer is no,” Craig said. “Instead, they come out with this offensive, racist garbage. It’s not OK for anyone to call me a Sambo.”
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