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When identity politics get silly


After last week’s Democratic Party “endorsement convention,” there is a distinct probability that three of their candidates for the top four statewide offices will be white women.  Strong, accomplished, politically sophisticated women.

But much of the reaction to that has shown that misogyny is not dead, and that some people are fixated on quotas that have too often given us candidates who were symbolic tokens.

The endorsement convention designated Jocelyn Benson as the candidate for secretary of state and Dana Nessel as the choice for attorney general. Most observers expect former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer to win the nomination for governor in the August 7 primary, despite spirited challenges from Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed.

If that happens, I’d guess Whitmer will pick a male running mate, quite likely an African-American one. But what if she didn’t?

Well, first of all, every Democratic ticket until 1982 was all male, and until 1970, all white male. I don’t think former U.S. District Attorney Barbara McQuade has any interest in running, but who could object if someone with her stellar record were nominated for lieutenant governor?  

That’s highly unlikely, but the more serious worry is that African-American voters will not vote if there isn’t a black person on the ticket. Steve Hood, a longtime political consultant, has a column in the respected online magazine Bridge saying that the present ticket is a recipe for disaster for Michigan Democrats.

He believes black voters will refuse to show up if there isn’t a black nominee for one of the major offices and takes a misogynistic slap at the women running as “clones of Hillary Clinton.”

Well, Steve, you should know better.  By and large, African-Americans are far more sophisticated than you give them credit for. When Governor Rick Snyder had the state take over control of Detroit five years ago, there were all sorts of dire predictions of riots or at least civil unrest. Nothing of the kind happened.  

We just had a mayoral election in Detroit in which the vast majority of black voters chose the white candidate, a guy who grew up in Livonia, over the son and namesake of Coleman Young.  The loser, by the way, tried to make the campaign about race.

The voters didn’t buy it.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Democrats don’t need to work harder to make sure they are giving African-Americans something to vote for.

But what those complaining about this ticket conveniently ignore is that what Democrats have too often been doing is the worst sort of tokenism.

Twenty years ago, they picked Mary Lou Parks as their nominee for secretary of state. She essentially refused to campaign, didn’t seem focused, and lost every county in the state.

Four years ago, Democrats shoehorned Godfrey Dillard, who really wanted to run for attorney general, on the ballot for secretary of state and then gave him little support.

The list goes on. Surely we need more vibrant black candidates for statewide offices. But this is no longer 1970; America has twice elected a black President, and while diversity is essential, tokenism is insulting. Martin Luther King hoped that by now we’d be judging people not by the color of their skins, but by their competence and the content of their characters.

To which I say, Amen.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.     

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