A new wave of political representation has arrived in Detroit with the election of U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, a millionaire businessman who immigrated to the United States from India as a child. It’s the first time in nearly 70 years that Detroit has elected a non-Black candidate to represent the city in Congress.
“American Black Journal” has teamed up with BridgeDetroit to examine the changes in Detroit’s Black political power in Congress, and what impact the loss of African American representation may have on the city’s nearly 80% Black population.
Host Stephen Henderson leads a conversation with BridgeDetroit Executive Director and Editor Catherine Kelly about a BridgeDetroit and WDET-produced podcast series that takes a close look at Detroit’s Black political power and features interviews with some of the Congressional candidates, including elected U.S. Representatives Shri Thanedar and Rashida Tlaib.
Plus, they talk about how the newly-elected lawmakers will represent Black interests in the city and what the future looks like for the city’s Black political representation.
Stephen Henderson, Host, American Black Journal: I was aware the idea for this podcast came from after Shri Thanedar was represented to elected to represent Detroit in Congress. We decided that we needed to look at the idea of Black representation, where it is and where it may be going.
Catherine Kelly, Executive Director & Editor, BridgeDetroit: Yeah. I mean, not only was it new, I mean, it was really an imperative. You know, I think about that time, you know, it was the late sixties, early seventies when you had rebellions across the country and there was a real focus on Black economic power, Black political power. I think you really saw that in the development of Detroit. I think you still see those politics and the vision and the ideal.
But I mean, I think that’s absolutely a part of our childhood and growing up. I, you know, I remember going to community meetings and political events and conventions, and the focus was always pretty singular and very focused around maintaining Mayor Coleman Young’s legacy, his political organization, the all that he was putting in place to make sure Detroit would be a Black city where Black people could benefit from it.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. So, one of the things that comes up in a lot of the interviews that we did with people who were running for the 13th Congressional District seat and with Warren Evans, who tried to bring people together around a consensus candidate is the way that Coleman Young approached this issue. Right. The authority I guess that he had now to be able to say, look, what’s important is that we all get a voice in who’s elected.
And the way to do that is work together. And I’m going to you know, I’m going to boss up on the people I need to boss up on but that’s the way we maintain this. They all said that that doesn’t work anymore in Detroit and that, you know, you don’t have a figure who could do that. But you also don’t have people who are willing to set aside their own ambitions necessarily for the idea of the community.
Catherine Kelly: I think it’s kind of a sign of the times. I mean what is Blackness now? I think during those years, the experience of Black people was more similar. I think you can have a diversity of experiences now that you didn’t have then.You have Black people who grew up in the suburbs and moved back to the city. You have a more income diversity. So I think the interests and the focus of Blackness has also changed. If there ever was like one monolithic thing. But I do think one thing that united certain objectives was more of a shared experience than what you have now.
If you look at what has happened around redistricting and the loss of Black representation, even on a statewide level, what does Blackness mean nowadays? What are Black interests? You know, it was something that came up in my conversation with Adam Hollier about his run. You know, are there interests that Black candidates now represent? And if so, what are they? With, as, you know, you have more Black people living in the suburbs.
There was a time, you know, we’ve talked about it, the two of us, like there was a time when if you traveled anywhere and someone who wasn’t Black said they were from Detroit, you were like, no way, Where are you really from? And they’d always tell you some suburb and you were like, no. Because it was that definitive and clear.
Stephen Henderson: If you think about the things that someone like Shri Thanedar, who is an immigrant to this country, somebody who did grow up under really extreme poverty conditions and now will represent Detroit in Washington. If you think of the things that he might have trouble getting his mind around. If you think about the things that he might struggle to really represent how Detroiters feel and what they might need, what comes to mind?
Catherine Kelly: I think some of this will be… Will kind of unfold, and I don’t mean to punt on that, but, you know, I think as a legislator, there’s less room for nuance than I think more executives seats. You know, it’s just kind of the function of what it is. But, and especially in a national context. But I do think locally, you know, there really is going to be this there’s going to be more of an opportunity to examine where do Black interests if there are any, separate from Democratic policies and interests.
If you look at the agenda, that the Democrats have laid out in Lansing right now, there’s some you know, there are some bright spots, but it’s very much a Democratic agenda. And how will it affect Black people, especially in Detroit? If you look at, you know, the last election and what happened, how Detroit voters moved on prop three, more than 83%, I believe, of voters voted to support a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
I think that really illustrates how there are certain interests and certain beliefs in a majority Black city that are different. You know, sometimes that partizan bickering doesn’t even work here. There’s a bigger set, I believe, of issues and concerns. And it’ll be interesting, you know, what moments will the Democrats take up things that actually impact Detroit? You know, in the past, there’s been such a stall around instituting legislation that could help the city. I mean, one of the big things that I think Detroit needs to focus on is its revenue stream.
You know, as income taxes have fallen off and people are increasingly working from home. A lot of these policies that Detroiters have criticized through the years. investing in casinos, investing in bringing big corporations downtown, you know, what has it really done for city residents? What is it doing? And, you know, this is a real moment to kind of test where Democrats and race kind of fall because there’s just this it’s time to shift, you know, give Detroit the ability to tax on how we’re building our economy, which is on entertainment, which is on casinos and sharing economy and restaurants.
Stephen Henderson: One huge distinction with Shri Thanedar I think is that sense of history, that sense of memory. And that’s not his fault, right? I mean, you know no one chooses where they’re born. But for those of us who are from here… I have a close friend who always says that you’re you become a real Detroiter when the city takes something precious from you.
Catherine Kelly: Wow.
Stephen Henderson: Which is a really dark way to think about it. But I think there’s something really true about that. And I worry, I worry about someone like Shri Thanedar, who I think is very well-intentioned and is not cynical about what he’s doing. I don’t think he can surmount that hurdle.
Catherine Kelly: And if you also think about, you know, the visionary legislation that some of these Black representatives moved, you know you have Representative Conyers, Congressman Conyers, who went in and created the legislation about studying reparations. Will the kind of impetus, the vision, the innate belief, and desire to move that kind of agenda or set that kind of agenda, will that come from our Brown representatives?
They do a lot of they fall they fall on the guess right side of a lot of these issues. You know, they’re for funding schools. They’re for, you know, a lot of very baseline things that help a lot of people. But there are always some really specific things that I think that I do deeply believe that Black people need and deserve.
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Watch American Black Journal on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on Detroit Public TV, WTVS-Channel 56.