A new leader has emerged in Detroit’s effort to prevent a state takeover of the city. The Detroit News reports that city Councilwoman JoAnn Watson “has become the public voice of Detroiters determined to hang on to self-rule.”

Some may recognize Watson as the councilwoman who called upon Barack Obama to bail out Detroit, saying, “Our people in an overwhelming way supported the re-election of this president and there ought to be a quid pro quo and you ought to exercise leadership on that.”

Watson wants to stop the state takeover, and her efforts come at a time of occasionally ominous rhetoric from some activists in Detroit.

“This is white-on-black crime,” Minister Malik Shabazz said during a public hearing. “This is white supremacy. Before you can take over our city, we will burn it.”

Matters of race permeate the city’s politics. In the 1950s, 75 percent of Detroiters were white. Whites are now roughly 8 percent of the population.

Recently, a Detroit columnist warned of the “potential for open civil unrest.” Even Mayor David Bing notices the specter of 60s-style rioting: “We don’t need to turn the clock back and go through that process all over again.”

Amidst these concerns, Councilwoman Watson’s official website presents her “plans to revitalize Detroit,” which include:

  • Promotion of fair trade policies to promote Detroit businesses, women-owned businesses and award contracts to Detroit’s majority residents.
  • Adoption of practices and policies to facilitate Detroiters as owners, not just consumers. Detroit’s population is 85 percent African American and business, contract awards and investments should reflect same.

Among Watson’s many accomplishments is that she “has been a frequent presenter during the Congressional Black Caucus Reparations Braintrust Sessions since 1990.”

Detroit has been beset by social problems and government corruption. Explanations for Detroit’s woes can often be predicted by one’s political leanings. Liberals usually blame deindustrialization and conservatives usually blame Democratic rule. However, one scholar offered reason to doubt those explanations.

Dr. John McWhorter, best-selling author of “Losing the Race,” now teaching at Columbia University, notes that many urban communities fell apart even where deindustrialization was not in full force. He explained:

[I]f factory jobs moving away was what did in black communities in the sixties, then we would expect that in a city where factory jobs did NOT move away, there would have been no hairpin turn into despair in inner cities starting in the sixties. Indianapolis is such a city – there was no major factory departure there, and yet the same things happened.

Instead of deindustrialization, McWhorter points to two sources of social problems in urban communities: “[T]he transformation of welfare policies into open-ended ones where there was no commitment to training people for work,” and “the new sociopolitical mood that stressed resisting the power structure rather than making the best of a bad hand.”

McWhorter is careful to point out that he is not a Republican or a conservative. Rather, he is concerned with what he sees as an “orthodoxy” surrounding issues of race, poverty, and urban problems.

As for blaming Detroit’s ills on Democratic rule, that theory doesn’t account for Democratic cities like Pittsburg, Portland, and Seattle, along with states like Vermont. Democratic governance in those areas has had a different effect. Granted, one may point to bad policy in those areas, but not the deep-rooted societal collapse and systemic government corruption found in Detroit. The explanation for Detroit’s collapse may lie beneath the political system, in the culture that creates the political system and every other aspect of life in the city.

Culture would explain, to a degree, the job loss in Detroit: Employers would naturally not wish to remain in a city besieged by violence. They would move to suburbs or safer cities instead. Culture would also explain the peculiar variety of Democratic leadership in Detroit: In his famous essay, “Defining Deviancy Down,” liberal Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted that some politicians have no incentive to solve social problems:

[A] growth in deviancy makes possible a transfer of resources, including prestige, to those who control the deviant population. This control would be jeopardized if any serious effort were made to reduce the deviancy in question. (1)

Africa town

Detroit’s city council has exercised control in controversial ways. One idea floated by the city council was to create a development fund exclusively for black entrepreneurs. The fund was to be used to create a place within the city named “Africa Town.” The intent was that Africa Town would be a version of the Chinatowns or Little Italy areas found in some cities, except that the government would sponsor it.

Hispanic, Asian, and Arab Detroiters were outraged by the proposal. In describing these groups’ opposition to Africa Town, the New York Times reported, “[t]hey wonder why African-Americans cannot duplicate the successes of other ethnic groups here.”

One Mexican shop owner complained that fellow Mexican business owners never got government money, yet they and their families managed to build businesses “with only our own sweat.”

That shop owner pointed out that Mexicans had been oppressed as well: “We Mexicans know about suffering. We lost half our country. We’ve been oppressed and invaded over centuries. It’s not something we celebrate, but you have to learn from negative experiences and move on.”


Speaking in support of the proposal, a black Baptist minister, Rev. C.T. Vivian, claimed that the fund would help remove “psychological barriers” to business success. The city council initially approved Africa Town. However, after tremendous public controversy, legal concerns, and multicultural tensions, the Africa Town proposal was ultimately shelved.

Coming home with some bacon

Since 1962, every Detroit mayor has been a male Democrat. Since 1974, Coleman Young’s election, each mayor has been a black male. Few, if any, mainstream figures question the lack of diversity in that arena.

During his tenure, Young boasted that, in Detroit, “blacks exercised more political power than blacks anywhere in the United States.”

Watson has fond memories of Young’s tenure. “After the election of Jimmy Carter, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young, he went to Washington, D.C. He came home with some bacon,” said Watson. “That’s what you do.”

Experts note that the story of government corruption arises, in places, throughout American history. University of Chicago sociology professor Terry N. Clark suggests that to understand Detroit’s government corruption, “I would try to specify some distinct types of mechanisms that define different types of corruption, or processes that legitimate or de-legitimate it.”

Through history and across racial and ethnic groups, such mechanisms have included “honor, clientelism, the old boys network, black pride, the Irish anti-establishment tradition in Chicago, the distrust of the Man,” Clark observed.

These various mechanisms could be encouraging or sustaining corruption today, as they did in the past. However, the stakes in Detroit are historic: If the city were to declare bankruptcy, it would be the largest municipal bankruptcy America has ever seen.

The hip hop mayor

Just as bankruptcy and state takeover begin to loom, Detroit’s struggles with past corruption have come back into view with the conviction of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

In 2001, Kilpatrick was elected mayor at just 31 years of age. He was dubbed the
“Hip-Hop Mayor” by comedian Chris Rock, because of his 1½ carat diamond earrings, and “flashy clothes.” His taxpayer-sponsored luxury Lincoln Navigator SUV added to that image. Before scandals emerged, Kilpatrick was “viewed by many as a future star in the Democratic Party,” according to the New York Times. Kilpatrick resigned in 2008 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and perjury. Those charges arose from an affair with his chief of staff, which he attempted to lie about.

On Monday, a jury decided that Kilpatrick also “ran a criminal enterprise – complete with extortion, bribes and kickbacks” as mayor. He was convicted of 24 charges, including racketeering and extortion, and faces 20 years in jail. Kilpatrick steered city contracts towards cronies, and used a non-profit “Civic Fund,” meant for youth projects and voter education, as his own private account.

During the trial, witnesses learned of Kilpatrick’s penchant for custom-made suits, jewelry, and luxury vacations, in the face of his city’s financial woes.

A radical Republican experiment

The Detroit Free Press sums up the current situation in Detroit: “[T]he state has decided Detroit does not have a credible plan to fix itself.”

The governor announced just this week Kevyn Orr, a partner in the Cleveland-based law and restructuring Jones Day firm, as Detroit’s emergency manager. He previously worked with automaker Chrysler LLC during its successful restructuring.

The governor made the appointment because the city had a tremendous deficit, the police and fire departments were underfunded, and public safety, lighting, and other services were suffering. Those problems, in turn, are caused by a seismic demographic shift in Detroit:
Since 2000, the city lost one quarter of its population, leading to a decline in tax revenue.

An emergency manager would have considerable power to alter or reject city budget plans, reorganize government agencies, sell off assets, lower or even eliminate elected officials’ pay, renegotiate labor contracts, and lay off workers. Left-leaning television personality Rachel Maddow calls the emergency manager “the most radical Republican experiment in governing in the 21st century.”

Many in Detroit adamantly oppose the emergency manager plan.

“It don’t take a genius to know what this is all about,” said restaurant manager Karen Lewis, who is black. “They want our money and our land. No one cares about us. And we’re the ones who stuck around. Not the white folks.”

Given the city’s debt and potential bankruptcy, it is unclear what Detroit “money” Lewis was referring to.

In 2005, Detroit brought in a financial consultant named John Boyle to diagnose the city’s troubled finances. After looking, it become clear to him that the situation was even worse than thought. He warned the Detroit city council in 2005 that they needed to take “drastic steps,” and recommended bankruptcy.

“I thought all hell would break loose – I thought the flag would finally be raised,” he said. His warning reportedly drew little notice. Watson was on that city council.

In a haunting remark, Boyle recently said, “Detroit is a microcosm of what’s going on in America, except America can still print money and borrow.”

John T. Bennett (MA, University of Chicago, Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences ’07; JD, Emory University School of Law ’12) is a veteran and writer whose work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, WND, Townhall.com, the American Thinker, Accuracy in Media, and FrontPage Magazine, among others.

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