Detroit’s City Hall is named in honor of one of the town’s most famous political figures, the late Mayor Coleman Young.
It’s one of many signs of Young’s lasting influence as the first black mayor of the majority African American city.
And it’s a legacy on display along the campaign trail, where Young’s son, Coleman Young II, is vying for the mayor’s seat against first-term incumbent Mike Duggan.
Young argues the election is, in essence, about race.
At a recent candidate forum on the Wayne State University campus, Coleman Young II was working a crowd of potential voters, noting that here, in the Midtown area, things are going well.
But head towards Detroit’s thriving downtown business district, Young says, and if you are black, you are not particularly welcomed.
“It’s an overall plan on purpose, just gentrify this city,” Young says. “You can call it ethnic cleansing, you can call it urban renewal, you can call it Negro removal, is what I call it. But that’s basically what’s going on in this city.”
“I think this is the last hurrah. If we don’t have leadership that’s gonna do (the) right (thing) now, I think that you’re gonna have poor people, poor black folks, pushed out of this town.” – Detroit Mayoral Candidate Coleman Young II
Young argues that Detroit’s current trajectory is reversing the progress black residents have made in the city.
In fact, Young says, Detroit is at a tipping point, with the city’s vibrant downtown development advancing while its impoverished neighborhoods, where most residents live, continue to decay.
Young says, “I think this is the last hurrah. If we don’t have leadership that’s gonna do (the) right (thing) now, I think that you’re gonna have poor people, poor black folks, pushed out of this town. I don’t think that we’re gonna ever get this city back for African Americans. Right now we are the poorest city in American and we are the most violent city in America. That’s not happenstance (that) those two things exist.”
Young, an African American, stops short of saying the city is becoming what some call “two” Detroits — one affluent, the other poverty-ridden — because incumbent Duggan is the first white mayor in decades to lead the mostly black population.
But Young stops just short of saying that.
“I think we just need a mayor that cares. Now listen, obviously I’m an African American man and I want to be mayor. So I’m not going to torpedo myself here. I want those two things to be one and the same. I just think we need a mayor that cares and we don’t have that.”
A Mayor Who Gives a Damn
Young charges that Duggan is turning a blind eye to the actual circumstances Detroiters face daily.
“Look, the mayor even said that the two Detroits don’t exist, that it’s fictitious, it’s not real. I mean these people are delusional. They are totally out of touch and disconnected (from) the reality of the pain and the suffering…people are going through. You have people making decisions (like) ‘Am I gonna pay my light bill or am I gonna pay my auto insurance?’“
Restoring the lighting along Detroit’s streets is something Duggan touts as a core achievement of his first term as mayor.
But in a quiet side room at the Wayne State candidate forum, long-time Detroiter Louis Novak says he agrees with Young that when he sees the city lit up, certain areas seem to glow brighter than others.
“There’s certainly a lot of lights around the Fox district,” Novak says. “We’ve been hearing for decades through various mayoral administrations how whatever was gonna happen downtown was going to move up Woodward (and) trickle down to the neighborhoods. But that just doesn’t seem to be happening. So a brand new stadium and a train to nowhere doesn’t really seem to fit the bill.”
“I think that these things are hurting people on a real level and we could do better. And we should be doing better. And if we just had leadership that gave a damn we would be doing better.” – Detroit Mayoral Candidate Coleman Young II
That train, the new QLine light rail system, took years to build and runs only through downtown and Midtown Detroit.
At the candidate forum, Young says the QLine is of little use to most Detroiters who need transportation beyond busses to get from their neighborhoods to work or shop.
“I think that these things are hurting people on a real level and we could do better. And we should be doing better. And if we just had leadership that gave a damn we would be doing better.
“(Duggan’s) not trying to start a city earned income tax credit. That’s what we’re trying to do. He’s not trying to start an Office of Opportunity to coordinate poverty-fighting programs. That’s what I want to do,” Young says.
A Mayoral Election in Black and White
Yet racial issues are never far from the campaign of Coleman Young II.
“I also want to bring back something called Africantown. Monetizing black history, all the things that black people have accomplished and achieved in Detroit. (We should) take advantage of that. New Orleans monetized their music culture. There is no reason why we can’t monetize our history, or we can’t monetize Motown, or we can’t monetize what we’ve done as black folks,” Young says.
It’s a topic Young accuses Duggan of purposely sidestepping.
“We have a mayor who believes the best time to talk about race is never and the best place is nowhere. And he’s having policies that are detrimentally impacting African Americans on a wide scale,” he says.
Young, on the other hand, consistently brings up issues of what he calls racial injustice, both on the stump and on the floor of the state legislature.
“We have a mayor who believes the best time to talk about race is never and the best place is nowhere.” — Detroit Mayoral Candidate Coleman Young II
Only weeks ago, during a session in the state Senate, Young made an impassioned defense of athlete’s right to protest during the national anthem, then tied it to the recent death of Detroit teenager Demond Grimes, who lost control of an ATV after being tasered by a state police officer.
“My question to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” the Democratic state Senator said from behind a podium. “As a black man, when can I protest? When can I speak out? And just basically say a simple affirmation that black lives matter, that our lives have value. I have seen young men such as Demond Grimes in my city who was killed for riding an ATV. And for what? A civil infraction? You killed him! You murdered him! We are angry! We are incensed!”
Young punctuated each comment by pounding his fist on the podium.
But his fervor has not seemed to translate into increased political donations.
Young’s campaign is extremely low on cash compared to the massive war chest compiled by Duggan.
So, in one of his first campaign advertisements, Young used his scant resources to target two traditionally hot button issues for Detroiters.
And, again, the campaign frames Young’s argument in terms of race.
In the ad an announcer declares, “Kwame Kilpatrick went to prison for rigging city contracts. So what’s the difference between him and Mike Duggan, who admitted to rigging city contracts? Why does Duggan get a pass while Kwame Kilpatrick goes to jail for 28 years? It’s as simple as black and white.”
The Color of Money
To be clear, Duggan has not admitted to “rigging” any contracts.
And Detroit voters like Uber driver John Anthony say the issues affecting the city are not just black and white, they are green, as in the color of money many residents in the city lack.
Cruising along a stretch of Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, Anthony says he knows the legacy left by Young’s famous mayoral father.
But Anthony, who is black, says the fact that he and Young share the same racial heritage is not enough for the state Senator to earn his vote.
“So you (get) in because the majority of the population is African American and you’re African American,” Anthony says. “What is that gonna bring African Americans and everyone else? What substantial issues are you gonna resolve as a result?”
Anthony glances at the new arena and other developments lining Woodward, and says he’d rather hear about Young’s track record as a public official.
Especially, Anthony says, whether Young has been successful at delivering the kind of job opportunities the city sorely needs.
“People talk about things going on downtown and nothing in the neighborhood and what not. But it has to start somewhere.”
Anthony says Duggan seems to be slowly pushing investment into the neighborhoods, even as the Uber driver acknowledges Young’s contention that many Detroiters feel left out of the city’s renaissance.
It will not really become apparent which issues are truly resonating with Detroiters, Anthony says, until voters head to the polls on November 7th.
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