Opinion: What I wish we could bury with Brooks

John Austin

It's ironic that just as our P.T. Barnum of a president, Donald Trump, pushes his racially charged anti-immigrant circus act to dangerous new heights, one of the pioneers and unrepentant masters of the art, L. Brooks Patterson, has left the ring.

A mourner pays her respects during the public visitation for the late Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

Patterson was just as determined to keep in place the structural and institutional racism that has burdened people of color for too long.

He rose to prominence like other local leaders of his time — Republican and Democrat alike (Boston Mayor Ray Flynn comes to mind) — on the wave of northern whites' backlash and determination to end the civil rights era push for integration.

Patterson was there at the creation, or shall we say more accurately the death knell, of the push to integrate northern industrial cities, when violent opposition to busing as a means to integrate school communities was blocked, including the Metro Detroit-based U.S. Supreme Court case that put the nail in the coffin.

Mourners pay their respects during the visitation for the late Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson at Woodside Bible Church in Troy.

Patterson’s act grew in sophistication over the years. He made elaborate shows of Oakland County's good government openness, efficiency and 21st-century thinking — leading trade missions and embracing Chinese in schools, and lending his very capable county government fiscal and management staff to help other, less well-run communities.

But whenever he appeared to take two steps forward on race, opening lines of collaboration and cooperation with former Detroit mayors Dennis Archer, Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing (after the death of his nemesis and foil Coleman Young), he'd take two steps back — as in his 2014 New Yorker comments about what a hellhole Detroit was.

Brooks was charming, clever and witty, a maestro of show-stopping schtick. One of the funniest routines I have ever seen occurred at the Mackinac Policy Conference over a decade ago. Every year the “Big Four” (the Detroit mayor and executives of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties) hold forth in front of the 2,000-plus executive and political crowd.

Three of the four were on stage waiting, including then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Where was Patterson? Then entered the tent … black-clad Patterson surrounded by his look alike security posse; earpieces chirping, phones glowing, whistles blowing — a nod and a knife to the “living large” Kilpatrick, before his fall.

But the tragedy is that the energy and acuity with which he could have spoofed and then smoothed our differences was spent making them grow larger. Even near the end, he could not bring himself to throw a spanner in the well-oiled gears of segregation and racism. 

Patterson had a chance to lead his out-county constituents toward a long-overdue regional transportation system that would bring Metro Detroit into the 21st century and deliver economic goods for black and white. But to the end he fanned fears of a black “invasion” of white enclaves by bus and train.

One irony is that the county he worked so long to “protect” is now a model (by Michigan standards) of a more prosperous, optimistic and racially and ethnically diverse community — even home to Troy, the most immigrant-rich community in Michigan. And a county that is becoming reliably blue or Democratic in local, state and federal elections.

I wish the almost joyful racism borne of political ambition was buried with Brooks Patterson. I am afraid the circus is still in town.

John Austin is the former president of the Michigan State Board of Education, and director of the Michigan Economic Center.