by Eric Riley
Lately there has been a trend in the most popular (i.e., corporate) media outlets in Detroit (WXYZ, Fox2, and the Free Press) in their astounding lack of investigation or substantive criticism of white male figures in power. For many the first white male power figure with media backing that comes to mind is Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans and – according to any of the news outlets I’ve mentioned – the undisputed savior of the Motor City. However for my purposes I want to talk about Detroit’s first white mayor since 1974, Mike Duggan. Popular media in America has always had a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, and heteronormative tone, and the lack of critical pieces or coverage of Detroit’s newest Mayor is the best example of how white supremacy shapes the media's narratives.
The popular narrative of Detroit’s late 20th century fall goes something like this:
Detroit was under pressure from a slowly dying auto industry, suburban sprawl, intense urban decay, and violent unrest in the city’s black core during the 1960’s and into the early 70’s. After the white majority of the population left, the city was driven into the ground by incompetent, race baiting, black democrats, whose liberal policies were responsible for the city’s declining state.
This narrative fails to give a complete sense of the racist policies and institutions that actually led to the city’s “decline.” The latter portion describing inept and corrupt black politicians is a narrative that Detroit’s journalists have clung to since the fiery administration of Coleman A. Young – the city’s first black Mayor and an outspoken proponent of the radical left and target of racial animus in Metro-Detroit’s suburbs. During his tenure as Mayor the local and national media were on constant vigil, investigating every deal and development during his twenty-year term. But these in-depth inquiries did end when Young’s term as mayor came to a close; the media continued to closely follow the actions of Mayors Dennis Archer and Kwame Kilpatrick – both black. Each mayor was a substantial political player coming in at crucial times in the city’s history, and the media was there to make sure these politicians were true to their commitments and ensure that their policies and actions were in the best interest of the city. But this scrutiny of black politicians was also loaded with antiblack sentiments and racially charged language that often pointed to corruption and backroom deals as the major function of Detroit’s mayors. While this may have been true of Kwame Kilpatrick, the media often heavily relied on the narrative of corrupt race baiting and more importantly black politicians destroying the city.
This all changed in November 2013 when Detroit elected its first white Mayor. Since his time in office, the media has praised this Mayor as someone doing what needs to be done to get the city back on track. I am not arguing that white supremacy alone is why the media has given Duggan a free pass – but in my opinion, it is the most important factor. Another significant factor in the media’s avoidance of any negative coverage of the Mayor is the short time in which he has been in power. The Emergency Manager put in place by the state essentially rendered Mayor Duggan (and the citizens of Detroit) powerless for the first months of his term (early 2014), which led the media to gloss over this period. Soon after this, however, you saw Duggan’s plan for massive blight removal, working with Governor Snyder to get state funding, securing HUD funds for transportation, and his public statement that he wanted his term to be judged on growing the city’s population. The media exclusively ran with the positive aspects of the Mayor’s administration, highlighting his new ideas and ability to more easily appeal to the white suburbs and corporate developers as key to breaking up the bureaucratic inefficiency of local government. Even if all of the policies and actions taken by the Mayor were good, the media never turned a critical eye towards any of the administration's actions to pose alternatives or even express healthy skepticism.
This lack of media scrutiny has real consequences as the city continues to face a myriad issues. Our media needs to interrogate how our leaders are responding and do it with the same thoroughness they practiced during the reign of black Mayors. The anti-black and white supremacist corporate media has remained oblivious to the Mayor’s handling of the water crisis that is continuing to leave thousands of Detroiters without water; the growing number of black businesses who are protesting as they are driven out of the Downtown and Midtown areas they’ve operated in for decades; the growing concerns over private security taking over large swaths of Downtown, Corktown, Midtown, and Southwest; the gentrification taking place throughout the city; the mysterious replacement of a member of the city’s Historic District Commission during a deal for multi-million dollar development; the tens of thousands of Detroiters who were evicted because of tax foreclosure this summer; and most recently the Land Swap deal in Southwest that put more land back in the hands of Matty Moroun, another white male power figure plotting in the city. The media has failed to look at how Duggan has responded to these events, and when they do cover the Mayor, he is always painted in a positive light.
From the moment Duggan took office local and national outlets have viewed the Mayor positively, and I argue that this is in large part due to the color of his skin. This Mayor has been allowed to essentially ignore the aforementioned problems without the media commenting on a lack of leadership or incompetent policies (e.g. water assistance program). There are inherent power relations in the racist system that is our society, and when a white Mayor comes into office where black politicians have been mostly cast in negative light, in part because of their actions but mostly because of anti-black white supremacist sentiments, white supremacy and antiblackness dictate more positive media and public perception of a white leader as opposed to a black one.
Ultimately, I am not asking the media to break away from its white supremacists ways or think about how coverage of recent events would be different if a black mayor was in office. I simply wish to bring to the forefront the white supremacy in our media and how that feeds into the idea that our new white Mayor is better and doing a better job simply because of his whiteness. It is time for our media and journalists to uphold their responsibility to ask the important questions and be critical of those in power – keeping interests of the citizens who elected these politicians in the forefront by holding those politicians accountable for their promises and actions.