Bankole: The cost of Duggan's racial trepidation in the Trump era

Bankole Thompson

You’d think the leader of America’s largest black city would command headlines right now by boldly condemning the poisonous racist climate spewing from the White House, the Detroit police department’s racial troubles and the inherently racially biased facial recognition technology.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan greets the crowds at the Motown Museum.

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has shown himself to either be apathetic or uninterested in publicly pinpointing the racial dark spots that affect his city. So his glaring silence in the wake of President Donald Trump’s racist tweets against four Democratic congresswomen of color including Rashida Tlaib, who represents Duggan’s own city, is shocking.

It is remarkably disgraceful to have a mayor who shows neither any inkling of cultural intelligence (the ability to understand the spirit and experiences of people who are different from your own background) nor a willingness to join the sweeping push against racism — especially given how other white mayors have been tackling racial problems head on. 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example does not hesitate to push back against dog-whistle politics and racism, including some of Trump’s attacks. In the wake of Eric Garner’s death, the black man who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold, de Blasio visited the family and conducted a high-profile press conference to forcefully respond to a grand jury declination to indict the officer involved.

Like a father, de Blasio spoke to New Yorkers and pleaded with the city to work diligently to eradicate racism despite the grand jury decision that enraged many. By contrast, when 15-year-old black boy Damon Grimes' future was painfully cut short in a state police encounter for driving an ATV on Detroit’s east side, his death didn’t merit a full court press conference from Duggan.

I continue to be disappointed in Duggan’s lack of leadership on racial issues and those who enable him by offering no criticism of his damaging silence. Just because the mayor can dangle a handful of black appointees on paper and parade a batch of black civic leaders happy to tap dance at all cost does not absolve him from the obligation to speak out on critical matters related to race as the leader of a haven of black culture. 

Those who seem to shelter or foster the mayor’s comfortable disregard of Trump’s tweets and the racial problems in Detroit stand under indictment by the warning of 20th century political philosopher Frantz Fanon that each generation must fulfill or betray their mission. With these enabling tactics, those blacks in Duggan’s circle who are silent betray their mission to stand against racism that has hindered Detroit's growth. 

The mayor has yet to publicly address the grave racial concerns of facial recognition technology his police chief, James Craig, is pushing. Expect Duggan to have a racial epiphany at next week’s NAACP national convention in Detroit. The mayor would perhaps repeat what he did at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition MLK celebration hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in January at Cobo Center. At the celebration where we both were featured speakers, the mayor spoke about poverty and race before quickly retreating back to his customary silence on these issues from City Hall.

I hope the NAACP convention is more than a feel-good event for the material successes of the Duggan administration, and a party to escape the miseries affecting black people in Detroit and around the country. The convention should not be a tourist showcase of the city through the eyes of Duggan. It should deconstruct the challenges facing Detroiters who are caught in the manacles of abject poverty, and can hardly breathe through the stench of inequality.

W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP and the first black to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, would have a lot to say about Duggan’s trepidation on race and racism. Du Bois would also be rolling in his grave if the NAACP meeting, taking place at a time when America is still grappling with the problem of the color line, and on the verge of plunging into a Third Reconstruction, refuses to address the ignored racial challenges facing Detroit.

When the true history of Duggan’s reign is written, it should include a chapter that explains how the first white mayor in 40 years steered away from navigating the troubling racial waters of his time.