Detroit occupies a unique place in Black American history. The Michigan city was a critical stop on the Underground Railroad that took the enslaved to freedom. It was also the destination for generations of Black Southerners migrating North for greater opportunity, and the birthplace of the culture-defining sounds of Motown.
That’s why some Black residents of Detroit, which remains nearly 80% Black, are disappointed that the city is on the brink of lacking a Black representative in Congress for the first time in almost 70 years.
“It’s historic and it’s devastating,” said Mario Morrow, a Detroit-based Democratic political consultant.
The Motor City has had at least one Black representative in Washington, D.C., since it sent late Rep. Charles Diggs Jr. to Congress in 1954.
Some Black Detroiters are now concerned that their unique experience, shaped by generations of institutional racism, struggle, and hard-fought progress, will lack an authentic voice in the nation’s capital.
“Civil rights, human rights, and racial equality have been major planks for Black lawmakers representing Detroit,” said Jamon Jordan, the city of Detroit’s official historian. “They rose in the African American community in popularity based on their commitment to those kinds of issues.”
The proximate cause of Detroit’s impending dearth of Black representation was the defeat of Black candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries.
The state’s nonpartisan redistricting process split Detroit into two redrawn congressional districts: Michigan’s 13th, which contains most of the city, and Michigan’s 12th, which has part of Detroit’s west side.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), who is currently Detroit’s only Black representative in Congress, announced plans to retire rather than run for re-election in the new 12th District.
Instead, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American and progressive darling, ran in the 12th, most of which she already represented. Tlaib, a two-term incumbent, easily defeated her three challengers – all of them Black women – on Tuesday.
That left Michigan’s 13th, the state’s last district where a majority of the residents are Black, and the seat where Black Detroiters hung their highest hopes of a victory.
In the end, though, state Rep. Shri Thanedar, an Indian American multi-millionaire chemical testing entrepreneur who spent more than $8 million of his fortune on his congressional run, defeated eight Black candidates to secure the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.
There is still a very remote possibility that an unforeseen event, such as a write-in campaign, will result in Thanedar’s loss in the general election. Voters also have the opportunity to rally behind Black Republican nominee Martell Bivings, a business development specialist.
But given the 13th District’s strong Democratic leanings, observers believe that that is unlikely.
“As of right now, it looks very likely that there will not be an African American representing Detroit in the United States Congress,” Jordan said.
Morrow cautioned against over-interpreting the factors that led to Thanedar’s election, describing it as an outlier.
“Shri Thanedar was elected by default and I think he knows that,” Morrow said.
Indeed, the runner-up, state Sen. Adam Hollier, would likely have overcome Thanedar’s 5-percentage-point margin of victory if there had been one or two fewer candidates in the race. Hollier benefited from the support of a pro-Israel super PAC and other outside backers that jointly spent more than $6 million on his behalf.
But the free-for-all contest for the Democratic nomination in Michigan’s 13th speaks to the decline of a centralized political authority capable of rallying Black Democrats behind a single candidate.
The absence of a convening figure or institution was also apparent during 2018′s primary to replace Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Conyers, a now-deceased civil rights hero and progressive titan who had represented Detroit since 1965, resigned in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Then, as now, the sheer number of Black contenders diluted the Black vote and paved the way for another candidate – Tlaib – to triumph. That outcome disappointed some Detroiters who had hoped to replace Conyers with another Black lawmaker.
“There hasn’t been a well-oiled machine in Detroit since Coleman Young,” said Morrow, referring to Detroit’s first Black mayor, who served from 1974 to 1994. “He would have called a meeting in the basement with everybody and said, ‘This is how we’re going to do this. You’re either going to roll with it or you’re not going to roll at all.’”
Morrow added: “We still are looking for leadership – true Black leadership in the city.”
There are many potential reasons why the political machine over which Young presided declined in influence in the 21st century. The city’s bankruptcy in 2013, the roughly concurrent election of white former Republican Mayor Mike Duggan, and the subsequent rise of the Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive movement all exposed Black Detroiters to alternative routes to political power, Jordan posited.
At the same time, the Republican Party had begun working harder to recruit Black candidates in more conservative parts of Michigan. In a twist that would have been hard to predict just a few years ago, the two Black candidates most likely to represent Michigan in Congress this cycle are GOP House nominees John Gibbs in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District in the Grand Rapids area, and John James in Michigan’s 10th, just north of Detroit.
In the near term, Thanedar, who ran as a champion of racial justice, has extended an olive branch to those Black Detroiters who did not support him. Among other promises, he has pledged to fight for reparations for Black Americans, a cause he also championed in Michigan’s state legislature.
But Thanedar, who moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor to run for the state legislature in the 2020 election, must contend with the suspicion that he lacks a sincere commitment to the values he professes.
In an unsuccessful 2018 bid for governor, Thanedar endured scrutiny for the neglect that dogs and other domestic animals suffered after a testing facility he owned went bankrupt in 2010. During that campaign, Thanedar also took time to attend a theatrical play about his own life that a supporter adapted from his autobiography.
“He is going to definitely have to have a coming-to-Jesus meeting with the Black leadership of the 13th Congressional District, primarily in Detroit. And he is going to have to prove himself on bringing home the bacon and building bridges,” Morrow said. “And if he doesn’t, they’re coming after him in two years, and there will not be eight other people running against him. It will be a targeted, well-organized campaign.”
Morrow is skeptical of Thanedar and his campaign promises.
“The jury’s still out on Mr. Thanedar,” he said. “I want him to prove me wrong. Because I don’t think he’s going to deliver.”