The recent conviction of Kwame Kilpatrick, former mayor of Detroit, Mich., on 24 counts of racketeering and extortion evoked conflicting emotions in our communities over the mass incarceration of black males and the betrayal of the black electorate.
Kilpatrick chose crime over duty and will soon join approximately one million black males in the American penal system, which, has enlarged itself sevenfold in 30 years to 2.1 million disenfranchised citizens through racialized, aggressive law enforcement policies aimed at vilifying black and Hispanic boys and men.
Douglas O. Blackmon’s 2009 book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II and Michelle Alexander’s 2010 work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness remind us that the mass incarceration of black males is no accident; rather, it is a social control technique, purposefully formulated in America’s racial subculture.
Alexander says the penal system creates a racial caste system of disenfranchised, unemployable, socially impotent males who can be legally discriminated against. That is why we loathe black men going to jail.
However, greed, not race, led to Kilpatrick’s political demise. Loyal black voters sent a 31-year-old Kwame Kilpatrick to the Detroit mayor’s seat. He had optimism and opportunity on his side but faced the daunting task of resuscitating a dying city weakened by a decrepit public education system, globalization and shifting corporate loyalties that sent American manufacturing jobs overseas.
American workers were traded for non-unionized foreign labor. He faced high unemployed with an under-prepared population that lacked the skills to transition into the new service and technology-based economy. The tax base was decimated.
Despite these disadvantages, Kwame Kilpatrick owed blacks his effort, intellect, ingenuity, charisma and political clout. He should have worked on the city’s problems.
The same intelligence he used to create a network of bribery should have been used to rebuild political and business coalitions and restore Detroit. Again, he chose crime over duty.
Kilpatrick joins an ignominious list of black male politicians – Marion Berry, William Jefferson, Jesse Jackson Jr., Ray Nagin – who have shown contempt for the black electorate.
Armed with the power of Detroit’s highest office, Kilpatrick operated a mob-styled racketeering and extortion scheme to shake down would-be city contractors, using his own father and friends as the muscle. Out of hubris (pride), he lowered himself to criminal enterprise, sexual infidelity and official misconduct.
The similarities between Kilpatrick’s fall and that of Louisiana Congressmen William Jefferson are amazing.
Both used family members as front men for bribes. Both sold out faithful black constituencies. Both were convicted, in part, under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Both desecrated our civil rights legacy. Both traded promising careers for prison numbers. Both emboldened our critics who say we cannot lead. This is a familiar pattern of behavior against the black electorate.
Kilpatrick hardly seemed repentant after the verdict. I have yet to hear an apology or contrition. His legacy will be that he dealt the death blow to his city. Kwame killed Detroit.
Basketball great Dave Bing, Detroit’s present mayor, is fighting the state of Michigan’s takeover of the city, a national embarrassment.
So, what should black folks do next?
First, we must choose candidates who care more for people than their pockets.
Second, we must demand integrity from politicians and tolerate no deviations.
Third, we should monitor voting records and rid ourselves of scoundrels.
Fourth, we must hold politicians accountable when they violate our trust and not blame the “system.”
Finally, we have elected unethical charlatans and thieves.
In America, black people live, work and struggle in a racially charged climate. Failures are costly to us. They have far-reaching repercussions.
We are pained at Kwame Kilpatrick’s pending imprisonment but more pained by his betrayal of black voters.
*Jeffrey Dean Swain is vice-president of the International Black Doctorates Association Inc., an administrator/instructor of law at Florida Memorial University, author and minister. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College and holds juris doctor and Ph.D. degrees.