How Detroit may have lost Black representation in Congress for the first time in nearly 70 years

OPINION: Redistricting played a role but the failure of the Black establishment to build a deeper bench of future political leaders was also a factor.

In this June 20, 2018, file photo, Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar gestures during a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanedar won Michigan's 13th Congressional Democratic primary on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, topping a field of nine candidates in a district that covers most of Detroit and potentially leaving the city next term without Black representation in Congress for the first time since the early 1950s. (Michael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP, POOL, File)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It’s hard to believe that Detroit, America’s Blackest city, will likely not have Black representation in Congress for the first time since 1955, and more specifically, in the newly redrawn 13th Congressional District, the seat that was held by former U.S. Rep. John Conyers for over 40 years.

I say “will likely” because there will be a Black Republican named Martell Bivings running in the 13th, but he is unlikely to win in such a heavily Democratic district. It will be interesting to see if the Republican National Congressional Committee gives him some resources to be competitive. As for the Democrats, their nominee is State Rep. Shri Thanedar, an Indian immigrant and entrepreneur who won in a large primary field with 28.3 percent of the vote that had eight other candidates, all of them African-American. The cold hard truth is that the Democratic field of Black candidates diluted the Black vote, making it much easier for another candidate to win the primary. 

How did a historically Black city like Detroit end up here? It’s complicated and simple all at the same time. Failure to build a political bench as Congressman Conyers was aging well into his 80s. Failure to be strategic and coalesce around a consensus candidate in the 2022 Democratic primary. Failure to take the impact of redistricting seriously. And although State Rep. Thanedar spent millions of his own fortune in the primary, Black leaders in Detroit failed to see that he would have a clear path to the nomination with eight Black candidates splitting the Black vote. Some local Detroit business leaders and elected officials I spoke with agree. 

“This primary outcome is very bad for the Black community,” said Demetrius Carrington, editor of Beautiful Machine magazine, which is based in Detroit. “We are going backward. I am sure State Rep. Thanedar is a nice guy, but Detroit is a Black city, overwhelmingly so, and we need a Black representative in Congress who understands firsthand what life is like for Black Detroit residents.” 

Rep. Thanedar rejects the thinking that he’s running for a “Black seat”—but he does acknowledge that he will have a lot to learn about the majority of his Black constituents. In an interview with Bridge Michigan on Sunday, he said: 

“It’s very important that the representative understands—and I will never claim I understand the experience of being an African American person and the historic discrimination (they face). I had a tough life, but nothing compared to what many people in the African American community. I would not say it’s not important. It is important. It’s a factor. It certainly is helpful to have that background, that knowledge, that legacy. I want to do my best to learn that, and that’s why I’m open to talking with anybody…This is all about the service. It’s all about communicating. It’s all about transparency. That’s who I am. I’m open to the community. I’m not too proud to feel that I know everything. I don’t have all the answers and this is not something that I can do alone.”

Rep. Thanedar had as his primary campaign slogan, “I am dedicated to racial, social and economic equity and justice for all.” People in the community, like Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett, see his slogan as overly broad and not focused on the complex issues of the Black community. “The sad fact is that neither Michigan 12th nor 13th will have Black representation in Congress. We will no longer have a seat at the table, we’re being pushed back into the kitchen” Mayor Garrett said.

Both Carrington and Mayor Garrett, who was also an unsuccessful 2022 primary candidate for Congress in Michigan’s 12th District (Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who currently represents the 13th District, is running to represent the newly created 12th District) are in agreement that an overwhelmingly Black city needs a Black voice in Congress.

“The immigrant experience in America is an important one for sure, but the immigrant experience is not the same as growing up Black every day in Detroit and identifying with all the unique issues and challenges of being Black in the industrial Midwest. Issues like poverty, prescription drugs, how do I pay my bills and put food on the table with such high unemployment? Things like that uniquely hit the Black community hard.” 

But the real question is how could this happen? Based on the people I spoke with, some Black leaders in the 13th tried to get some of the candidates to withdraw, with no success. It’s a generational shift. The old guard, if you will, is aging out. The old way of doing politics, with the bosses in the room cutting deals and selecting candidates, has apparently shifted. It’s a lot of complex and layered factors that the Black leadership in Detroit clearly missed. But here’s the thing—whatever it is, Black political leaders and Black activists in the Motor City didn’t step up to the plate and build a bench. They miscalculated the impact of redistricting and they didn’t build a new generation of Black leadership that could win a primary and the general election to Congress for years to come. This is a hard lesson to learn, but hopefully, in 2024, Black Detroiters won’t make the same mistake again.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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