Bankole: Don’t apply racial test in congressional race

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, says it is important that a qualified African-American replaces retired U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., who was forced out of office because of allegations of sexual misconduct.


Because Westland Mayor Bill Wild, the only Caucasian in a field of roughly 10 candidates seeking to succeed Conyers, could potentially clinch the Democratic nomination easily if the other candidates in the race split the votes. If that happens, a seat once held by a civil rights icon like Conyers would go to a non-Detroiter.

Kinloch, speaking on behalf of a group of community stakeholders, told me that is why the group recently endorsed Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones as its consensus candidate.

“You have a seat that was primarily held for decades by Congressman Conyers, a civil rights icon who fought hard for the issues that affected black people. It is very important that the next member of Congress is an African-American who comes from Detroit,” Kinloch said in an interview Tuesday. “Moreso when you look at the entire Michigan delegation to Congress, we have only two African-Americans before Conyers stepped down. Now we only have one and that is Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence.”

Kinloch makes an important point. The way congressional districts have been redrawn has made it difficult for blacks to get elected. That makes it all the more crucial to push for minority representation across the board.

But there is a problem with Kinloch’s theory. The 13th district includes 10 other bedroom communities outside Detroit. His wish may not be their vote.

The other issue with Kinloch and his group’s position is that skin color wasn’t a major factor when, in 2013, Mike Duggan became the first white mayor of Detroit in 40 years. Last year, a majority of Detroit’s African-American civic leadership, including Kinloch, proudly endorsed Duggan for a second term on the basis of what they believed he has done for the city, not how he looks.

Why should race now be the biggest issue for voters of the 13th congressional district? Why should it be a problem that Wild, the only white candidate, stands a chance of winning?

“Mike Duggan is not a stranger to Detroit. He has been involved in Detroit politics for at least the last 25 years,” Kinloch retorted.

When I asked Kinloch if Wild was a stranger to Detroit, he said, “Bill Wild is a friend of the 13th congressional district and the Democratic Party. All said, he is still learning and it will take him some time to be familiar with the issues in Detroit. I believe he has the capacity to learn. But at this juncture in our country, we need someone who can hit the ground running and keep the ball rolling, and that person is Brenda Jones,” Kinloch said.

Fair enough.

But the argument doesn’t hold water. Duggan governs a majority black city that is still majority poor. Even as Detroit Future City, Census Bureau and Urban Institute reports all call attention to a widening economic inequality pervasive in the city, some of those same civic leaders worried about Wild’s candidacy chose Duggan over his black opponents.

The focus should be on who among the candidates running for the coveted seat is most competent and qualified for the job, not the anointed black candidate. The hallmark of an effective candidate is not necessarily determined by race but rather his or her public service vision.

To suggest that Conyers’ successor must be black amounts to a racial double standard. A candidate’s leadership attributes, experience and commitment to public service should take precedence over how he or she looks and what his or her last name is.

It would also represent an affront to history to act as if a white politician may not be best able to serve the needs of a majority black district.

Detroit is no stranger to white elected officials who have demonstrated an educated understanding of the needs of this city and worked tirelessly to address its social and economic challenges.

Among them was the late Maryann Mahaffey, former president of the City Council. No one showed more guts and courage in the political class than she did. In an unrelenting crusade to give voice to poverty-stricken Detroiters, she became a champion for families and children who felt left behind. Determined to pull the cover off this hidden population in Detroit and call attention to their needs and challenges, Mahaffey was always shocking the conscience of city government and forcing officials to back their promises with actual resources for those most in need.

Mahaffey showed that it is not the color of your skin that matters in being a great public steward. Rather, it is the drive, commitment and willingness to put into practice the biblical principle of fighting for “the least of these.” That includes many Detroiters who are still waiting to be part of the city’s economic boom.

Attributes Mahaffey and others exhibited that set them apart are qualities the 13th congressional district should be looking for in its candidates — not skin color.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.