Ken Coleman: Reactions to reported Kilpatrick prison release highlight nation’s racial divide

May 26, 2020 6:10 am

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (C) appears in Wayne County Circuit Court for his sentencing October 28, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

As I watched my Twitter feed while news broke Friday suggesting former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s release from federal prison was imminent, it reminded me of the moment when the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict was announced on Oct. 3, 1995 — almost 25 years ago. 

When it came to the race of those reacting to both Kwame and O.J., the vibe was as different as 1990s television gems “Friends,” set in a lily-white version of New York’s West Village, and “Martin” set in Detroit, the Blackest big city in America. Most whites appeared to be disappointed, if not disgusted; most Black folks seemed euphoric and elated like it was Christmas Day.

I was working in the office of Brenda M. Scott, a member of the Detroit City Council, when the O.J. news broke. After the verdict was announced on live television, a white office administrative assistant shouted in disapproval, “Oh my God!” Meanwhile, Kay Everett, an African American City Council member, popped a bottle of bubbly.

On June 17, 1994, O.J. Simpson, the celebrated former National Football League running back and Hollywood actor was formally charged with murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The case was dubbed by celebrity media as “The Trial of the Century.” An all-star team of lawyers helped to score Simpson a not guilty verdict.

O.J. Simpson | Wikimedia Commons

On March 11, 2013, Kilpatrick, a former state House minority leader, was convicted on 24 counts in a public corruption trial, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering. He was sentenced to 28 years in the slammer. But this piece isn’t about my take on Kilpatrick’s crimes; nor is it about the length of his sentence. Fascinating topics to but sure; however, that isn’t my point today. Rather, I’m most concerned about the growing divide in our country when it comes to race. It seems to permeate everything around us.

Simply put, race relations haven’t gotten better in America over the last quarter-century. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Whether the issue is law enforcement, the criminal justice system, immigration, sports or religion, increasingly one’s point of view depends on whether you are white or a person of color. 

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: That’s a generalization.  

Well, don’t take my word for it. Check out some survey data.

Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on the subject. Called “Race in America 2019,” it suggested that Americans have a troubling view when it comes to our country’s racial progress. The national survey of 6,637 adults was conducted online in both English and Spanish. More than half said that President Donald Trump has made race relations worse during his time in the White House.

About six in 10 Americans (58%) said that race relations in the United States are bad, and of those, few see them improving. Some 56% think that Trump has made race relations worse; and only 15% said that he has improved race relations. Another 13% said that he has tried but failed to make progress on the issue. In addition, about two-thirds said it has become more common for people to express racist points of view since Trump became president in January 2017.

Pew Research survey on race relations

A significant majority of Americans (65%) – including majorities across racial and ethnic groups – said it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president. A smaller but substantial share (45%) said hate speech has become more acceptable.

Furthermore, Blacks are especially gloomy about our country’s racial progress. Consider this: More than eight in 10 African-American adults said the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in America today, including 59% who said it affects it a great deal. Similarly, about eight in 10 Blacks (78%) said that the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving African-American people equal rights with whites, and fully half say it’s unlikely that the country will eventually achieve racial equality.

People of color are more likely to see advantages in being white Americans see disadvantages for Blacks and Latinos in our country. A majority of all surveyed (56%) said being Black hurts people’s ability to get ahead at least a little, and 51% said the same about being Latino. In contrast, 59% reported being white helps people’s ability to get ahead. Views about the impact of being Asian or Native American are more mixed.

Asian Americans, according to survey results, are more likely than any other group to say they have been subject to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity. In turn, more whites than African Americans, Latinos or Asians believed people have assumed they were prejudiced or racist; 45% of whites have had this experience.

Here’s what I know: I live in a state where the Ku Klux Klan has operated for decades. The KKK carried out multiple cross burnings in downtown Detroit during the 1920s and even ran a slate of candidates for local office during that period.

In 1921, the Detroit Free Press in a front page story published the following on Sept. 17 called “Hooded Order ‘Thrives’ Here.”

“The hooded hordes of the Ku Klux Klan, now under congressional attack, have invaded Detroit and are making no effort to conceal the fact,” the story said. “Members are solicited in the following advertisement appearing in a Detroit weekly newspaper: ‘One hundred percent Americans are wanted. None other need apply. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Address P.O. Box 602, Detroit, Mich.’”

A half-century later, one of its members, Robert Miles of Livingston County, a one-time Michigan KKK grand dragon, was convicted on May 21, 1973, along with others in the 1971 conspiring to firebomb school buses that were set to transport Black children to Pontiac schools that were majority white. 

I live in a state where Blacks in recent weeks have endured the display of confederate flags at the state Capitol, both by protestors and state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) who wore a mask  that had an old Dixie design on it.

In fact, Michigan experienced a sharp rise anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in 2019. The issue of hate incidents and speech was so important that state Attorney General Dana Nessel opened the Hate Crimes Unit within the office’s criminal division to investigate and prosecute hate crimes on the rise in Michigan.

Look, I neither have a crystal ball into what next quarter-century will bring, nor do I have solutions to eliminate America’s growing racial divide. But one thing is for sure: It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. People are locked in. And it may not get better at all.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.