Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr
DETROIT—Here in the Motor City, locals are looking for Democratic candidates to prove one thing: Can you beat Donald Trump?
This is not a question germane to Detroit—indeed, Trump is wildly unpopular with black people nationally—but what makes this city particularly vital is that it is the biggest black city in America that, at one point, had one of the most vibrant black middle-class communities in the country. The decline of the car industry, coupled with statewide racism targeting its defiant black power leadership during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—namely the late Coleman A. Young—and population decreases have residents here worried that any kind of renewal that is currently underway does not include them.
And its black middle class, once booming, has been decimated because they’re leaving the city for the suburbs.
So for any presidential candidate wanting to win over this black city, they will need to convince residents that they can help Detroit regain its status as a middle-class haven.
“Detroit is a representation of black America,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, an organization dedicated to helping black women win elected office and host of a brunch in the city every Wednesday highlighting the power of the black female vote.
“It’s one of our cities that has a strong history of African-American culture,” Carr said. “So being in this city, on the stage here, in these racially toxic times, I think people are going to look to see how these candidates will present themselves at setting the tone for the nation around race relations.”
Trump won the state of Michigan in a close race with Clinton in 2016 (by less than a percentage point in fact), but only captured a little more than three percent of the vote in Detroit, compared to Clinton’s nearly 95 percent. This is a Democratic city in what is very much a swing state. But the candidate that can best speak to Detroit can very well win Michigan with the right message and ground game that turns out new voters and under-engaged ones.
Anika Goss, executive director of Detroit Future City, a nonprofit that focuses on economic development, told The Root that the foremost question on everyone’s mind here in Detroit is how the candidate would specifically address economic development and linking that to educational attainment.
Goss added that, of the Detroiters who are in poverty (current date has the rate at nearly 35 percent), the majority are black women who are head of households. It will be key for the candidates to tell black women how they will be able to improve their economic statuses.
“How do we position them for economic mobility and economic opportunity, how do we access jobs, how do we improve educational attainment, how do we make sure that African-American are positioned to be able to support all of their economic needs, including housing and childcare and transportation,” Goss said. “All of those issues are compounded for black women who are leading heads of households.”
Tonight’s debate line up, per NPR, will be spiritualist and author Marianne Williamson; Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney; and Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.)
The Root will be live-blogging the debate tonight, which will begin at 8 p.m. ET, from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where the organization Black Voters Matter will be holding a pre-debate forum with residents of Detroit, moderated by CNN commentator Angela Rye.