Detroit residents to Dems: Don't overlook us like in 2016

Detroit — Racial justice has emerged as a major issue in the Democratic presidential contest as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris and other candidates prepare for an NAACP forum and a second prime-time debate both in Detroit this month.

Local officials and civil rights leaders say the predominately black city — which remains the poorest in the nation despite its downtown resurgence — is a logical venue for Democrats to confront historic inequalities and issues that matter to minorities who felt overlooked in 2016.

N. Charles Anderson, president of the Urban League of Detroit, speaks with civil rights icon Maribodine Busey Robinson on Thursday, March 26, 2015, during the Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan's 36th annual Salute to Distinguished Warriors Dinner at the Detroit Marriott Hotel in the Renaissance Center.

“I think if they come to Detroit, and they have a grand debate on the stage and they don’t talk about those things, they only do themselves a disservice,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, a local pastor who heads the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network.

Minority voters in such cities as Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia traditionally support Democrats, but many stayed home instead of voting for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton three years ago, Williams said.

“And when they didn’t turn out, Wisconsin went Trump, Michigan went Trump and Pennsylvania went Trump. So we really are the decision makers in the presidential election,” he said.

The candidates will face off July 30 and 31 at Detroit's Fox Theatre, which sits in the third-poorest congressional district in the country. At least 10 also will participate in a national NAACP forum in Detroit on Wednesday.

Predominantly black cities in Michigan, including Detroit, are hurt by declining black homeownership, inequity in education funding and poor air quality, said Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents the district. 

"Race needs to be at the forefront but also, more importantly, around fact that this is a new era for the civil rights movement," she said. 

"I truly do believe that we're in a new era of fighting back against discrimination because courts have increasingly made decisions against those values around equal access around discrimination and pushing back against structural racism."

Racial tensions resurfaced long before the Democratic primaries, said N. Charles Anderson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Detroit and Southeast Michigan.

He pointed to unrest prompted by police shootings in other parts of the country and a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

“Unfortunately, the person who is in the leadership of the country, who could do something to help mitigate these feelings, virtually comes to the fire with a can of gasoline,” Anderson said of Republican President Donald Trump.

Trump recently appeared to unify Democratic opposition when he implied in tweets that Tlaib — a U.S.-born citizen of Palestinian descent — and three other congresswomen of color should go back to their “broken and crime infested” countries. 

Biden backlash

Biden and Harris sparred last month during the party’s first debates in Miami, where the first-term U.S. senator from California challenged the veteran Delaware official over his comments about working with segregationist colleagues and past opposition to using federally mandated busing for school integration in the 1970s.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has also criticized Biden for touting “civility” in past working relationships with Southern segregationist Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.

Biden apologized for the segregationist comments in July 6 remarks in South Carolina, saying it was wrong to give the impression he was "praising those men" he had successfully opposed in the Senate. But he said he was not wrong to work within the system to improve it and defended his overall record. 

Days after slamming Biden for his busing position, Harris said she also did not support federally mandated busing. She later clarified that it's only necessary in cases where local governments actively are opposing student integration.

Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, said the group is calling for a moratorium on Detroit tax abatements following General Motors Co.'s announcement last week that it is idling Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly.

Harris herself was bused as part of a voluntary school integration program in Berkeley, California, in the late 1960s. 

Several local civil rights leaders are giving Biden the benefit of the doubt.

The former vice president has a “great record when it comes to civil rights” and has shown “a sensitivity to the issues that the African American community experiences and that people in poverty experience in general," Anderson said. 

Harris’ background as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, and her marriage to a white corporate attorney, could also rub some black voters the wrong way, he said.

“I’m not prepared to bury Mr. Biden or Ms. Harris for something they believed in 20 years ago or 30 years ago,” Anderson said. “People can change their position.”

The focus on civil rights is a good for Detroit as candidates head toward their second debate, said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th District Democratic Party.

But he called attacks on Biden “unfortunate,” arguing the veteran official has more often than not been on the right side of history.

“A lot of folks in this county have not moved, and that’s why we have Trump,” Kinloch said. “But Joe Biden has demonstrated time and time again that when black people needed him to rise to the occasion, he has.”

Other local leaders have not been as quick to forgive.

“You can’t have it both ways,” said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit. “You can’t say that was then, I’ve learned differently now.”

Gay-Dagnogo credited Harris for challenging Biden and said she is personally leaning toward Harris or U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in the primaries.

“This is a new day,” she said. “People are looking for sincerity, a willingness to stand up for issues that are impacting communities of color, and I think it was fair for (Harris) to open up that debate.”

Obama factor

Biden has led most polls of the Democratic primary field and was faring especially well with black voters entering the first debates.

That’s because he “served as a loyal and a trusted vice president under the first black American president, and he has shown himself to support issues that are important to black families,” Kinloch said.

“Kudos to Kamala Harris, but at the end of the day we have to look at all these candidates’ records in their entirety.”

Detroit businessman Dennis Archer Jr. — the son of former Mayor Dennis Archer — will hold a fundraiser for Biden on Wednesday night. The former vice president and current Mayor Mike Duggan, a long-time political ally, are both expected.

Former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, center, smiles as he receives his award  with Greg Clark, left, board chairman of the Urban League of Detroit, and N. Charles Anderson, president of the Urban League of Detroit.

Archer Jr. said he looks forward to connecting Biden with “Detroiters concerned about the future of our country” and giving him a platform to “share firsthand what his vision for our country is and how that plays a role in his vision for urban American, inner cities and the city of Detroit.”

Bri Johnson, a 24-year-old mechanical engineer from Detroit, said she had only heard brief news stories about Biden and his comments about working with segregationists.

"I want to like him because he was vice president, and I loved Obama, but the segregation thing I wasn't a fan of. That's all I really know about him," Johnson said. 

Jerry Spencer, 65, a retired city worker in Detroit, noted that Biden's work with segregationists dates to nearly 40 years ago.

Jerry Spencer, 65, of Detroit:

"I'm not really that concerned about that," he said. "You know, I'm pretty sure he's grown a bit. He didn't say nothing overtly racist, to me it's just he worked with people that were overtly racist."

But he said he feels Biden is "too old" and would like a new, younger perspective.

Biden enjoys some institutional support in the black community, but not many voters have made up their minds, Williams said.

“This is not Biden’s first little racial go-around,” he said. “This is the same Joe Biden who (in 2007) called Obama ‘clean,’ as in the sense that he wasn’t like the ghetto gangster, young black guy.”

Ground zero

At least nine presidential candidates are expected to discuss race and equality during a Wednesday candidate forum hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit, which could serve as a prelude to the second presidential debate.

The candidates include Biden, Harris, Warren, Booker, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, as well as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

In some ways, Michigan is “ground zero” for issues facing black communities, said Williams, noting high concentrations of poverty in Detroit, the water crisis in Flint and education woes in cities such as Benton Harbor.

Detroit's median annual household income grew 5.9% in 2017 to $30,344, but it remained the country’s poorest big city, according to U.S. Census survey estimates. Incomes were still below what residents earned before the Great Recession —$33,019 adjusted for inflation in July 2007. 

The city’s poverty rate held steady at 34.5%, dwarfing the national average of 13.4% and the state average of 14.2%. The poverty rate for children in Detroit remained at about 48% in 2017.

Even though most residents are working, they hold low-end jobs without health care coverage and "no pathway out of poverty wages," Tlaib said.

"These racial inequalities that you see around hiring practices, around education, around pay — all of that I think should be very much to be at the forefront of the debates."

However, she said it matters more how candidates voted in the past than how they perform at debates. 

"If they didn't have courage in their current role to uplift American families and put them first before corporations, then what makes them think that they'll do it when they're president of the United States?" Tlaib said.

Blacks account for roughly 79% of Detroit's population, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Democratic presidential candidates debating at Detroit's Fox Theatre likely will want to discuss issues of importance to disadvantaged urban residents.

Detroit remains a Democratic stronghold, but African Americans have increasingly felt marginalized in recent years because issues important to them have been “pushed aside for the main purpose of getting a Democrat elected,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

Roughly 48% of registered Detroit voters cast ballots in 2016, down from 51% in 2012 and 53% in 2008, when Obama was elected.

Williams challenged presidential candidates to visit struggling neighborhoods while they are in Detroit, not just pop into bustling downtown restaurants for photo ops.

“Getting in Detroit means come to our churches, come into our community centers, meet our community leaders,” he said.

Anderson hopes to hear candidates discuss urban policy, education and health care during the Detroit debates.

While he’s skeptical the crowded debate stage — 20 candidates over two nights — will be a venue for significant depth, he said it's a chance for candidates to reach out to voters left behind by Clinton's campaign in 2016.

“I think she took for granted the African American vote and took for granted that Michigan was in her bucket," Anderson said.

"Trump worked Michigan hard, and she did not.”

Other candidates have their own racial baggage, including Buttigieg, whose Indiana city is reeling in the wake of a white officer fatally shooting a black man with his body camera turned off. Struggling to attract black voters, Buttigieg recently announced a plan to combat systemic racial inequality, which was named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Harris has surged in national polls following her performance in the first debate, but some black voters might resent her because of her prosecutor background, Williams said.

Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian ancestry, was a district attorney in San Francisco and served as California's attorney general. 

“Our children, particularly young black males, have gotten a very raw deal from prosecutors across the nation,” Williams said. “So prosecutors have never really been our best friend.”

Earlier this year, several candidates warmed up to the idea of reparations for African Americans facing lingering effects from the country's legacy of slavery. 

Warren has pushed to start a "national, full-blown conversation about reparations," but most candidates have not directly called for them.

Only one candidate, spiritual author Marianne Williamson, has discussed hard numbers: $200 billion to $500 billion to be disbursed over 20 years, overseen by a council of black leaders.

Booker, who sponsored a bill to study reparations, gave emotional testimony last month before a House committee about feeling "a sense of anger" about lingering inequalities that "is indeed a form of new Jim Crow." 

"We as a nation have not yet truly acknowledged and grappled with racism and white supremacy that has tainted this country's founding and continues to persist," Booker said.

Black leaders in Detroit say they are buoyed by the increasingly open and transparent conversations about race and equality among the Democratic primary field.

“It’s so great that those discussions are going to culminate right here in the city of Detroit,” Kinloch said. “And hopefully, they culminate in an audience that is reflective of Detroit.”