Bankole: Why there's no diversity on Michigan's high court

Bankole Thompson
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The absence of a black justice on the Michigan Supreme Court for the first time in three decades come January shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. 

Ironically, the only remaining black justice leaving the high court is Kurtis Wilder, a conservative who lost the election. One would expect that Democrats who garner the most black votes would ensure that there are no shortage of blacks on the court. 

But if you’ve been reading the tea leaves, it was only a matter of time before we arrive at this low point in history. 

This is yet another embarrassing exposure of the lack of serious commitment to inclusion by the Michigan Democratic Party and the seeming lackadaisical efforts of the black civic leadership in Detroit that’s supposed to be the conscience of the party. 

State of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kurtis Wilder listens to oral arguments  in court in Lansing on November 19.  He did not collect enough votes to continue for another term.

It is a shameful conundrum that predates the leadership of party chair Brandon Dillon (even though there is no excuse for no black candidate this year) but one that some black civic leaders were comfortable not raising enough hell about until it now hit them in the face.

Think about it. There are no shortages of eminently qualified African American judges to run for top judicial posts on a statewide Democratic slate. Take a cursory look at our local district courts in southeast Michigan. 

Black legal groups such as the Wolverine Bar Association in Detroit, the Straker Bar Association in Oakland County and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan have plenty of members who could be vetted to run for any position on the state’s high court.

But instead what Democrats gave us this year was an all-white slate, which received wide condemnation. I had a candid conversation with Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer about this issue on my 910 AM radio show weeks after the party endorsed a non-black slate. 

Whitmer agreed with the public sentiment and the compromise for Democrats dropping the ball it appears was the selection of Garlin Gilchrist II, as the first African American lieutenant-governor. That isn’t nearly enough to compensate for decades of inaction.

The larger issue here lies with the black gatekeepers the party turns to for advice during elections. They have either outlived their usefulness or simply need to hit the exit door. 

Much like the blue wave that registered Democratic victories around the country this year, there ought to be a black wave inside the party to drive out so-called status-quo black experts. To some extent they have registered nothing significant for African American advancement in the party.

Unless a new generation of black advocates hold the party’s feet to the fire and force it to live out the true meaning of the “big tent”, those currently in charge won’t do it. 

The push for meaningful diversity and inclusion is more than just securing dinner tickets to occupy prime seating at the next big gala fundraiser or to Whitmer’s inauguration ball at Cobo Hall. It is more than being offered a speaking slot at the party’s annual legacy dinner. 

This is about who gets to write the rules for equality in political office because black lives matter.

Recently, I received a call from a high-ranking African American party official confirming my misgivings about the party’s commitment to racial equality. This individual knows the deficiencies of the party and has been there for a long time. 

What I took away from the message left on my cell is that the party needs to do something radical but not impossible: create a pool of potential black candidates for various elected offices. Honestly, Dillon shouldn’t wait on anyone’s permission to do this.

This inclusion battle would have been won in the heydays of octogenarians like federal judge Damon Keith and Bishop PA Brooks as well as the late Mayor Coleman A. Young. All three Detroit icons commanded the kind of respect and attention that would have forced the party to do no less for blacks. 

What exists now is a splintering civic leadership. There is no cohesive and firm voice speaking out for the collective. That’s why it’s even hard to find one or two civic leaders who would openly challenge the uneven economic recovery.

Meanwhile Detroit’s splintering civic community and the party should look to New York for leadership. The Democratic takeover in the empire state led to Letitia James becoming the first black attorney general and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African American, selected as the first female Senate majority leader of the state Senate in Albany. Carl E. Heastie, who three years ago was named the first African American speaker of the New York Assembly still remains in that role.

Will Michigan ever get there?

Don’t hold your breath.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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


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