I would have preferred to be more deliberate about the next entry in my new Detroit series, but sometimes events just force one's hand.
In this week's (1/27/14) issue of the New Yorker, an article by Paige Williams entitled "Drop Dead, Detroit!" [behind firewall, sorry] has lit a firestorm of controversy about her subject, L. Brooks Patterson, who is the former Oakland County Prosecutor and current Oakland County Executive, and his trash talk about Detroit. Among the choicest--and most representative--quotes from Patterson:
When I [Williams] asked him how Detroit might fix its financial problems, he [Patterson] said, "I made a prediction a long time ago, and it's come to pass. I said, 'What we're gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and throw in the blankets and corn'."This quote is indeed something he said a long time ago, and something that was captured in print. Bill McGraw, a fine, long-time Detroit journalist who is now with Deadline Detroit, retrieved this bon mot by Patterson from Ze'ev Chafetz' 1990 book on Detroit, Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit. [I don't recommend Chafetz' book, which is largely a hatchet job.]
In 1989, when Chafets asked about the quality of life for Detroiters, "Patterson looked at me as I were simpleminded," Chafets wrote.For that matter, when Jack Lessenberry, a local Detroit pundit, profiled Patterson's last opponent for the Oakland County Executive's position in 2012, Lessenberry made a point of noting that he had come across that same statement from Patterson--in 1975.
"It's like the Indians on the reservation," he said. "Those who can will leave Detroit. Those who can't will get blankets and food from the government men in the city."
Not surprisingly, there has been a fair amount of mainstream media coverage of Patterson's latest. Please feel free to look for them; I've tried to cover a good sample below, but there are more than I can hope to include. Some of them, for example the Detroit Free Press editorial, aren't worth reading or linking. But YMMV.
According to a Patterson spokesman, Bill Mullan, whose statement was quoted by the Detroit Free Press and excerpted here:
“It is clear Paige Williams had an agenda when she interviewed county executive Patterson. She cast him in a false light in order to fit her preconceived and outdated notions about the region."It's notable, however, as Deadline Detroit observes, that Mullan does not claim that Patterson was misquoted.
Williams, an award-winning reporter who "teaches narrative nonfiction and edits the narrative journalism website Nieman Storyboard, at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism," per the New Yorker's Contributors page, appears to have no particular axe to grind, contrary to the assertion made by Patterson's spokesman. Nor, for that matter, does she appear to have any real experience with the city or region. But apparently Patterson was willing enough to speak as freely with her as he would be with one of his white constituents, and so his record and his attitudes are again up for review.
My own assessment of Williams' piece is that she likely did look for the juiciest quotes, but that she probably had plenty to choose from. Overall, her background on Patterson and on the county, generally speaking, is adequate for a quick story. She makes some odd statements, she glosses over Patterson's life-long association with racist programs, and she does not look below the surface of Oakland County's prosperity at all--but these are criticisms I could develop in the comments. She does look to some good sources for commentary, including Bill McGraw (whose contribution in Williams' profile was noted in an earlier Deadline Detroit article):
Patterson had a platform, and he used it to denigrate Detroit and Detroiters, and to give voice to people who have moved out of the city and resent what the city has become--even though their departures contributed to it. Instead of being a leader who says, "We're gonna work with Detroit," he's been perceived as an enemy of Detroit, because he's acted like an enemy. (emphasis in original)Rochelle Riley, a popular and insightful Detroit Free Press columnist, observes today in the second paragraph of her column about the brouhaha that Patterson's reputation is well-known:
L. Brooks Patterson has been spewing filth on and off for decades — inappropriate, sexist, hurtful and hateful, mostly about Detroit, ugly comments that a lesser man couldn’t get away with.Trouble is, as Riley is implying, Patterson has used racism as his stock-in-trade since the very beginning of his career, when he represented the anti-busing forces in Oakland County who succeeded in blocking cross-district busing, the only effective way to have integrated metro Detroit public schools. Opponents of school busing relied heavily on racist rhetoric, themes, and actions to block the integration of schools, with protests (including the burning of ten--fortunately empty--school buses) peaking in 1971; Patterson rode that notoriety to election the first time as Oakland County Prosecutor in 1972. Please visit this photo essay by the Detroit News published when Irene McCabe, the public leader of the anti-bussing forces, died in 1997. She and Patterson are pictured together in the 9th photo.
[Somewhat OT: This is an Oakland Press profile of the widow of the Pontiac superintendent of schools back in 1971, Esther Whitmer. In the widow Whitmer's recollection, integration in Pontiac could have succeeded if the opponents (including active KKK involvement) hadn't been as relentless. If the last name sounds familiar, it's because her granddaughter is Gretchen Whitmer, currently the Democratic Senate Leader in Michigan. A connection I didn't know--fascinating!]
Now, I know that there are Kossacks who aren't as opposed as I am to Patterson's long tenure, and who don't think, as I do, that he has long passed his sell-by date. Not by virtue of age, but of recidivism. He may have at times behaved in a more conciliatory manner, but this article makes his underlying attitudes very clear.
Having him serve as Oakland County's most prominent politician, when he is so unrepentant with his racist views, continues to feed long-standing mistrust in the region between the city and its suburbs. Patterson and those who hold attitudes like his have presented barriers to intra-region cooperation for decades. Under his watch, Eight Mile Road is supposed to be part of those fences holding the riff-raff inside. If now isn't a good time for his positions to be repudiated, I don't know what would be--or what such a refusal might bode for the prospects of SE Michigan as a whole.