Donald Trump wasn’t the first Republican presidential hopeful to visit Detroit. Nor was he the first, fashioned like modern Tarzan, to swing in on a vine and lecture majority-black cities on how they suck at running things.
Over the past several years, Detroit has made its way from storied wasteland to bankrupt town to experimental paintball course for see-if-it-can-stick GOP economic-revival sermons and cracked black outreach.
Mitt Romney took a stab at it in 2012, failing to catch thunder before a football stadium of largely empty seats. That triggered a flat-lining succession of Obama era GOP White House wannabes making policy pilgrimages to Motown, full of anti-poverty messages and fundraising giggles.
Jeb Bush was less conspicuous with it, choosing a much smaller—but comically detached—Detroit Economic Club for his “recapture the prosperity” theme. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made a frequent-flier thing out of Detroit, bearing rhetorical gifts for rich and poor, black and white—or anyone eager enough to even bother going to a Rand Paul event. That did little to make up for his blundering December 2013 black outreach debut in the Motor City (you gotta watch the camera pan).
In a city where 82 percent of its population is African American, Paul managed to fill up a room full of white folks to talk about black issues. Maybe Paul didn’t know better. Or, maybe, it was just the usual case of scant GOP dollars gambled on useless black Republican flacks who open up empty “African American Engagement Offices” and tell white party elites what they want to hear about black “Democrat” demise.
Not to get outdone in his hometown, Ben Carson (the lone black one in the bunch) launched his bizarre, quixotic and briefly spectacular quest for presidential lore in Detroit. Few—if any—black Detroiters bothered with that, either, while Carson rambled the usual script on “political correctness,” “personal responsibility” and a thousand ways black folks fail at stuff.
There is something about black-heavy Detroit that has made it a central magnet for very white-dominated Republican causes. And so, no, as Trump remarked Monday, there was no “begin[ning] of a great national conversation about economic renewal for America.” Lots of Republicans, strangely enough, had beaten him to it. One of the more notable GOP primary debates was held—you guessed it—in gloomy Detroit, where Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), miscalculating and desperate as ever, lavished praise on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (“I give the governor credit … he took responsibility”), even as evidence of his malfeasant complicity in the Flint, Mich., water crisis piled up.
The surface narrative for Republicans is nose-thumbing at Democrats for ruining America’s great cities. True, Detroit was once among them. World class, in fact. “Every policy that has failed this city and so many others is a policy supported by Hillary Clinton,” Trump bullhorned the other day, running down a list of what Democrats did and didn’t do, a tale of what put Detroit—and other cities like it—on a path to an economic Hiroshima.
Narratives like that, however, while encrypted in the paper billionaire’s plainspoken “working man” vernacular, take hidden rifle shots at decades of black urban leadership that has struggled to find a political foothold in hostile territory. Certainly, those moments are never perfect: Detroit’s former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (a Democrat) didn’t help its case, of course. But blaming Kilpatrick or the black mayors before him is like blaming the nut-pulling squirrel for bringing the tree down when it was the lumberjack (and, oh yeah, climate change) sawing at it all along.
Here, Republican presidential hopefuls bear the gift of guilt-free absolution for wealthy and middle-class whites who abandoned Detroit in its hard times, particularly the times when it got too black-run for their comfort. The choice of the mostly white and male Detroit Economic Club lays that out pretty raw and bare. Republican after Republican has glossed over the critical "white flight" plot to Detroit’s story of urban decline, instead blaming unhinged “Democrat leadership” for sandblasting cities into decaying pencil nubs.
“Democrat leadership” is really code for black Democratic mayors, especially with the constant focus on cities like troubled Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, cities that were managed through decades of such. This dangerous scripting feeds into a false notion that black people can’t successfully run America’s cities. It leaves out the racially designed suffering that many cities (housing most of the nation’s black and brown populations) go through as urban vs. suburban vs. rural tensions rise along partisan and white-versus-everyone-else lines.
Old white money, entrenched municipal “old boys” clubs, and the frustrating tug-of-war over resources, infrastructure and revenue between majority-black cities and Republican-dominated state legislatures also factor heavily into that discussion. As in the case of crisis-wracked cities like Flint, we find numerous stories of black and mostly Democratic metropolitan enclaves coming up politically short while surrounded by walls of gerrymandered red and having their budget needs cut by Republican state legislatures and technocratic or bullishly conservative GOP governors.
Allowing Trump, Carson, Rubio, Paul and others to create dog-whistling fables of inherently inferior black political leadership is a narrow-minded business. For every Kilpatrick, there are more than several success stories of black urban leadership to pull from: whether it’s big-city mayors such as Michael Hancock in Denver and former Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia or the small-city mayors like Lester Taylor making tough decisions in East Orange, N.J., and Mayor Tony Yarber in Jackson, Miss., taking on surrounding suburban and rural power plays.
Race is the big missing puzzle piece in that story, as it always is. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.