‘I’m Tired of Being the Help’

‘I’m Tired of Being the Help’June 24, 2020

June 24, 2020 | Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan

Dear Washington,

She must have given me the wrong address. At least, that’s what I figured.

In the weeks leading up to Sunday, June 14, I had been making plans with SHERRY GAY-DAGNOGO, a Democratic state representative who chairs the influential Detroit Caucus, to spend time with her for a story on Black voter enthusiasm. Black turnout had plunged in 2016 (particularly in places like Detroit), which allowed Donald Trump to win by microscopic margins (particularly in places like Michigan). Gay-Dagnogo’s district in northwest Detroit, I knew from studying precinct data and talking to her, contained many of the voters who had stayed home four years ago. When I asked about them, she would return to the same themes: poverty, hopelessness, anger, abandonment—and disillusionment with the Democratic Party. In several brainstorming sessions by phone, she seemed eager to connect me with some of those constituents. Our shared goal was to figure out whether those same feelings that doomed Hillary Clinton in 2016 might endanger Joe Biden in 2020.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the mass protests it sparked around the country, delayed our plans to get together. But the issues of police violence and longstanding racial inequities only made the question of Black voter enthusiasm more relevant—especially in a district like Gay-Dagnogo’s, which is 97 percent Black, largely impoverished and, as she made clear to me, is filled with people who distrust not only the police but many of America’s other core institutions as well. Finally, Gay-Dagnogo told me to meet her on a Sunday morning—I assumed, in her district. The address she texted me was just a number and street name—no city, no ZIP code. I clicked the map link, saw a typical projected arrival time in the city, and steered my muddy minivan eastbound toward Detroit.

Pulling onto Severn Road a short while later, it seemed obvious there had been some mistake. This sure didn’t look like Gay-Dagnogo’s district. Luxury cars arrayed themselves in front of handsome two-story brick homes. Lush green trees on tidy mulched islands shaded tightly manicured lawns and spotless concrete sidewalks. People—white people—walked dogs and rode bicycles and pushed strollers. I opened Google Maps and punched in the address. My suspicions were confirmed. This wasn’t Gay-Dagnogo’s district. This wasn’t even Detroit. This was Grosse Pointe Woods, a cozy little community that borders the east side of Detroit.

“Go ahead and go in. I’ll be a little while,” Gay-Dagnogo said over the phone, shooing away my bewilderment. “They’re expecting you.”

Walking up the driveway, I noticed a small crowd gathered in the backyard. They sat around circular tables draped in white linen and topped with vases of pink and yellow flowers. All eyes were fixed on a young woman, who was giving a speech about her campaign for local office. As I slowed, feeling their gaze drifting in my direction, the homeowner came over with an outstretched hand. “Brian Banks,” he announced. I recognized the name: a former state representative, Banks had resigned his House seat after a string of legal and ethical scandals. We talked for a moment. Then, after the young lady finished her remarks, Banks walked me over to where she had been standing. He introduced me to the backyard spectators, perhaps 40 people in all, and asked me to explain my reporting project. I stumbled through a few sentences as I studied the faces in front of me. None of this made sense. Most of my audience was Black—save for a few white men with their collared shirts tucked into khakis—but this wasn’t the target demographic I had imagined for this article. These were professional, affluent Black people. These were Black people who spent Sunday afternoons sipping Mimosas and playing spades. These were Black people who were going to vote.

Dazed, I headed for the brunch buffet—eggs, chicken wings, potatoes, shrimp and grits, a fine assortment of cookies and cocktails—then found a seat. It was all so thoroughly disorienting. Why had Gay-Dagnogo invited me here? What could I learn about the politics of poor Detroit from prosperous partygoers in Grosse Pointe Woods?

As it turned out, a lot.

What I learned over the next six hours was as captivating, and surprising, as any reporting assignment I had ever been on. While some of my initial observations were correct—this was the upper crust of Black Detroit, these were elites in business and government who planned to vote no matter what—my expectations of what I would hear from them were very wrong. These were not Black citizens removed from the fury, dispiritedness and contempt for the establishment that Gay-Dagnogo had described. If anything, they explained to me that afternoon, they felt this disillusionment all the more acutely; they knew institutional racism all the more intimately. They had given up on the system not for a lack of political power but because of their proximity to it.

We are four-and-a-half months from the election, Washington. So much can change in a single day, in a single news cycle, in a single tweet from the president of the United States. None of what I will relay to you in this letter should be considered predictive. But make no mistake: If what I heard Sunday in southeast Michigan is at all representative of the Black community across America, Democrats should be disturbed and afraid. Not because they risk losing an election, but because they risk losing the loyalty of an entire class of voters.

“Here’s the thing about Black people,” TONYA GRIFFITH said between sips of rose-colored liquid from a clear plastic cup. “We are real passive politically—until they give us a reason not to be. And trust me, we’re not feeling real passive right now.”

Three weeks ago, Griffith said, that wasn’t the case. Black voters she knows were coasting on autopilot during this election year. There was no feeling of intensity. And then came the killing of George Floyd. “That lit a fire under our ass like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Griffith said.

But how long will that fire burn? Griffith is skeptical. A 55-year-old clinical therapist, she was born and raised in Detroit. She had to work hard to make it—but she knows plenty of folks who didn’t make it. She was drilled by her parents on basic civic obligations—but she knows plenty of folks who weren’t. Griffith will vote this November. But she isn’t excited about it. And truth be told, she doesn’t know anyone who is.

“I bet our numbers come up, because nobody liked Hillary Clinton, but I don’t think they come up much. And I know they don’t get back to those record numbers from Obama,” Griffith said of Black voter turnout. “We look at Joe Biden and see more of the same. It’s about the era he came up. It’s about his identity—he’s a rich, old white man. What are his credentials to us, other than Obama picking him? It’s nice that he worked with Obama. But let’s keep it real: That was a political calculation. Obama thought he needed a white man to get elected, just like Biden thinks he needs a Black woman to get elected. We can see through that.”

These sentiments resurfaced in almost every conversation I had. First, that Biden choosing a woman of color might actually irritate, not appease, Black voters. Second, that the inferno of June would flicker by summer’s end and fade entirely by November. And third, that Biden does little to inspire a wary Black electorate that views him as the status quo personified. It was thoroughly convincing. Here were high-information voters, giving their personal opinions while also analyzing the feeling of their community, all making the same points in separate conversations.

“We’re all Democrats, but we’re all Black Democrats. So, we can see things for what they are,” explained URSURA MOORE, a 53-year-old real estate agent. “Some people thought just because we had a Black president, he was going to make things better for Black people—he was going to free Black prisoners, wipe out Black debt. That was just ignorance. But the disappointment some of us felt with Obama—more so with the Democratic Party—that was real. And it hasn’t gone away. So, people start to wonder whether the outcome even matters. They wonder whether they should bother voting at all.”

She stopped herself. “I’m going to vote. But Trump’s getting back in office either way.”

This was another recurring theme of my conversations: a fatalism about defeating Trump this fall. Not a single person I spoke with at the cookout told me they believed Biden would win.

“There’s no excitement for Biden,” Moore said. “Trump can get his people riled up. Biden can’t. That’s why there’s all this talk of putting a Black woman on the ticket. But that’s not going to help him win.”

Sitting in a chair nearby, ERIC BENJAMIN snickered. “He’s just the lesser of two evils.”

Moore nodded. “He is. But even if we don’t like our candidate, even if we don’t think he can win, we still have to vote. It would be disrespectful to those who came before us not to.”

“No doubt,” Benjamin, a 46-year-old AT&T employee, agreed. “I’m obligated. My people didn’t always have the right to vote. So, I fulfill my obligation. But do I have any belief in any of these politicians? In the system? In the government? Hell no.”

I asked Benjamin what difference he sees between the two parties and their standard-bearers.

“Biden’s a politician, same as the rest of them, same as Trump. But at least with Trump you know where he stands,” he said. “If we were sitting here, me and you, and you’re pretending we’re friends, but then behind my back, you act like you don’t even know me, that’s the worst. I’d much rather you just tell me to my face that we’re not friends. That’s Trump. I respect that. The Democrats always be acting like we’re friends.”

He added, “I’ll vote for Biden. But it won’t matter. It’s never gonna matter who the president is. The cops are still gonna pull me over in my Cadillac and ask me, ‘How did you afford this car?’”

Sitting next to Benjamin, a woman wore a shirt that read: “Black Girl Magic.” Her name was BRANDI NEAL. Like everyone else I spoke with, Neal was struggling to summon any enthusiasm about the upcoming election. She doesn’t draw any moral equivalence between Biden and Trump; to the contrary, she finds the president’s brand of politics uniquely “hateful.” But Neal, 37, who works as a self-described “fixer” at Detroit City Hall, long ago came to believe that national elections have no real consequence for her community.

“If you’re not at a certain economic level, your vote for president is almost meaningless. It doesn’t affect your daily life,” Neal said. “Is it discouraging to see what this president says and does every day? Yes. But I’m much more worried about what’s happening in Detroit, what’s happening in Harper Woods.”

Harper Woods, which borders Grosse Pointe Woods, is another small satellite city east of Detroit. That’s where Neal lives. Just a few days ago, she told me, a 38-year-old Black woman named Priscilla Slater died in police custody after being arrested for a nonviolent crime. There were, at this point, still more questions than answers, and local activists were boiling over with frustration at another senseless death—this one far removed from the national news.

As Neal explained the situation, Eric Benjamin looked up from shuffling a deck of cards. “I didn’t hear about none of this.”

Neal pounded the table with her open palm. “That’s because all we hear about is Trump, Trump, Trump every damn day!”

ANDRE MOORE and JOHNNY THOMAS are buddies.

The two men, both imposing in size and quick with a grin, are in their late forties. Both are from Detroit. Both live now in Grosse Pointe Woods. When I found them seated next to each another, playing a game of Spades with two women, they were deep in a conversation about Floyd’s killing at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.

“The only reason this time was different was because George Floyd passively let them take his life. He didn’t resist. He didn’t even try to push up off the pavement,” Thomas told the table. “Usually, when your air is leaving you, you at least try to push up off the pavement. But he just took it. He passively let them take his life. People wanted a reason to justify what happened. But he didn’t give them no justification. That’s why this one is different.”

“No shit,” Moore said, fanning out his hand of cards. “I’ve been in a chokehold. I’ve had a knee on my neck. Your instinct is always to try and move. He didn’t move at all.”

I asked Johnny Thomas what he does for a living. “I’m retired,” he said, looking straight ahead. Then he glanced around the table. “I was a commander with the Detroit Police Department.”

A long silence. Finally, one of the players, a middle-aged woman to his right, blurted out: “He was the one putting a knee on our necks.”

The table erupted with laughter and finger-pointing and good-natured ribbing. The fourth player, another middle-aged woman seated across from Thomas, raised her voice above the din. “Nuh-uh. Nuh-uh. He never chose between Black and blue.”

It was Thomas’ wife. He looked at me. “Had to be both,” he shrugged. “My dad was DPD. He had to give me ‘the talk.’ Despite being a cop, he had to warn me about cops. And I’ve had to do the same thing for my sons.” He leaned back in his chair. “America has to admit there’s a problem, man. The things that happen in these poor Black communities with policing—it’s oppression. Straight-up oppression. And the difference today is that people can finally see it for themselves. I mean, we all make mistakes. But the penalty for those mistakes isn’t death.”

I asked Thomas for his thoughts on politics. “The whole Republican agenda is just codespeak for racism. It lacks knowledge. These Republicans go around talking ‘law and order’ without having conversations about how Black people end up in these circumstances in the first place,” he said. “Now, the Democratic Party takes us for granted. But it has always taken us for granted. So, it is what it is. But I’ll be for whoever is against Trump. Am I excited about Joe Biden? Is he going to make my life better? No. But I need to send a message that Trump is unacceptable.”

Andre Moore leaned over toward me. “But don’t get it twisted,” he murmured. “Trump is gonna win.”

I looked around the table. Every single head was nodding in agreement.

I asked Moore how he identifies politically. “A survivor,” he responded.

His friends began to tease him. He knew what I was asking—which party did he align with? Moore cocked an eyebrow. “It don’t matter. And y’all know it don’t matter. Democrat or Republican, we’re still in the same position. No matter whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat sitting in that White House, we stay chasing that so-called American dream. But we can’t reach it, because things aren’t even. They never have been. They never will be.”

I asked Moore—who works with his wife, Ursura, in real estate—whether he plans to vote. He rolled his eyes.

“I’ll vote for my mother-in-law. I won’t do it for me,” Andre Moore said. “I believe in voting for the city leaders; that makes a difference. But for president? My vote doesn’t matter—it’s all decided by the big money. And like I said, nothing ever changes no matter who wins anyway. Obama. Trump. Biden. Nothing ever changes.”

I asked him if he voted in 2016.

“I was in prison in 2016.”

For what?

“Felony weapons charge,” he said. “They don’t want me to carry a gun around, but in that city, you need one.”

Sandwiched on a lawn chair between Andre Moore and Johnny Thomas, I tried to envision an alternate universe—a white ex-cop, laughing and drinking and playing cards with his buddy, a Black ex-felon. It was hard to imagine. A little while later, after the card game broke up, I shared that observation with Andre and Ursura Moore. They looked at each other and burst out giggling. “It gets better,” she said. “You remember those two ladies they were playing with? They’re both judges.”

Andre smiled. “A cop, a convict, and two judges,” he nodded.

Just then, a young woman fainted—a victim of the mid-afternoon heat—and crumpled to the ground. Moore and Benjamin sprung from their chairs and ran to her. A step behind them, Ursura Moore yelled, “Somebody call 9-1-1!” Andre spun around toward his wife: “No! Do not call 9-1-1.” No one so much as reached for a phone.

A few minutes later, after the young lady was hydrated and resting comfortably, the Moores sat back down across from me. “I wish we could call on the police. But it don’t work like that for us,” Andre said. “Not here. Not anywhere.”

Grosse Pointe, they explained, had traditionally been an exclusive enclave of the wealthy white upper-class. Only after the Great Recession of 2008 was there an opportunity for Black families to move in. Taking advantage of the foreclosure market, they migrated from the rugged east side of Detroit to idyllic neighborhoods that were just miles away but might as well have existed on another planet.

The transition was difficult, Andre Moore explained. After he closed the purchase of his new house on Severn Road, he swung by to examine the building’s exterior before heading to the hardware store for supplies. A white neighbor called the cops. Because his license didn’t yet match the new address, Moore couldn’t convince the officers that this was, in fact, his home. It was a tense and humiliating standoff. Moore said most of his white neighbors have been welcoming—including, he noted with a smile, the ones he suspects called the police in the first place. But the struggles continue in other ways. Not long ago, despite living in the neighborhood for years, Moore’s son was stopped by the police while walking home from a football game and asked what he was doing in the neighborhood. It is these experiences, he said, and so many others, that make his community fearful of the very institution that is supposed to serve and protect them.

“Look around,” he told me, turning in his chair. “There’s music playing. Food on the barbeque. Three or four different groups having conversations. People making sure everyone’s fed, everyone’s having a good time. People playing games. You see, we’re just like everyone else. So why do they treat us different? Why are they scared of us?”

He thought for a moment. “Sometimes, I’ll hear my white friends talk about moments when they feared for their lives. But do they know what it’s like to fear their lives, for their entire lives?”

By six o’clock the sun had dipped below the light-gray rooftops on Severn Road. Most of the party had cleared out. The handful of polite white folks in attendance had long since vanished. With the tables taken down and the garbage bins filled up, six of the remaining guests settled around a rectangular glass table on a small brick patio.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo had left me alone for much of the afternoon. She brought me an occasional glass of honey-flavored whiskey over ice—a favorite drink of her sister, who recently died of Covid-19—but never once interrupted. I was getting an education, the kind of education I never would have received talking with your average low-propensity voter in the city, and Gay-Dagnogo, a former teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, looked pleased to see her pupil soaking it all in. But now, with a handful of her close friends gathered on the patio, she wanted to make sure nothing was left unsaid.

She began by surveying her friends at the table about issues of the day—census completion statistics, absentee ballot applications. Then she turned to the issue of a vice-presidential selection, noting that Biden had pledged to pick a woman as his running mate. After rattling off some names, she asked everyone, “What about Amy Klobuchar?”

“You mean Amy Cooper?” cracked TENISHA YANCEY.

The table shook with laughter. Cooper, a well-to-do white woman, had gained infamy weeks earlier for calling the cops on a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park, alleging—falsely— that he had threatened her life even though he’d only asked that she put her dog on a leash. Video of the incident, which was viewed tens of millions of times, captured the worst stereotypes of white America and its expectation that law enforcement would take its side to the detriment of Black people.

Yancey, a state representative whose district covers parts of Detroit and Gross Pointe Woods, waved her hands to silence the commotion. “Nah, nah. Nothing against Amy Klobuchar. I’m just sayin’—that’s the mentality of the liberal white woman.”

“I’m not even going there with Amy Cooper,” said Brandi Neal, the city of Detroit employee. “I’m gonna do like Michelle: Take the high road.”

“Michelle! Now that’s who Biden should pick,” Yancey shouted, referring to the former first lady, with whom all these women were on a first-name basis. “If he puts Michelle on the ticket, everybody turns out.”

This much the table agreed on. But there was no such unanimity on Biden’s actual shortlist. In fact, the harshest criticisms were reserved for the person widely viewed as the frontrunner, California Senator Kamala Harris.

“She’s fake. She’s phony. She’s not one of us. She built a political career by over-prosecuting Black kids,” Neal said.

Yancey agreed: “You know, back when I was a prosecutor, my bosses would always say, ‘We’re not social workers.’ But as Black women, we should have some of that social worker sensibility. Kamala wasn’t like that.”

Interestingly, the consensus favorite at this table of Black women wasn’t a Black woman. It wasn’t a woman at all. It was Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator. The ladies all believe Biden made a mistake by ruling out a man for the job. “Now look, it shouldn’t be two white men,” Gay-Dagnogo clarified. “But don’t patronize us, thinking you’ll get our votes just because you pick a woman, or a woman of color.”

What about Biden himself? The former vice president captured the Democratic nomination in large part due to his dominance among Black voters, winning more than two-thirds of them in most states. Then again, some Democrats believe this had more to do with the weaknesses of the primary field—which featured only white candidates by the time the campaign reached South Carolina—and less to do with Biden’s perceived strength. So, I asked the women whether he connects with their community.

“Well,” Gay-Dagnogo said, “Some people are endeared to him because—”

Everyone, as if choregraphed, grumbled in unison: “Obama.”

Gay-Dagnogo laughed. “But that’s among our seniors. If you talk to younger people, they’re not going to automatically look past his history just because he was Obama’s VP. And the party had better realize that. He had better realize that. You know, that stuff on ‘The Breakfast Club,’ suggesting we’ve got to vote for him because we’re Black—young people do not respond to that.”

“Exactly,” Yancey said. “It’s not a question of them voting for Trump. It’s a question of them not voting at all.”

“Young people think Biden is a fraud. They think the system that produced him is a fraud, the establishment of our party is a fraud,” Gay-Dagnogo replied.

“That’s why they better start being inclusive,” Yancey said. “And I’ve said this on Biden conference calls. But so far, it’s more of the same. They’re always dismissive.”

“That’s because they always know best!” Gay-Dagnogo said, her voice rising. “Don’t bring some 27-year-old white kid from Oregon, with skinny jeans and an iPad, into my fucking neighborhood in Detroit and tell me how to get out the vote!”

The table howled.

Gay-Dagnogo had a head of steam now. “We’re always the fucking help! And I’m tired of being the help!” she cried. “Don’t wait until it’s an election year, until you’re in trouble, to come to us and ask for help saving your asses. They always say it will be different after the next election. But it never is. And we’re sick of it. And it’s why—”

Neal completed the sentence: “That’s why Trump’s gonna win again.”

The table fell hushed. I asked if anyone disagreed with that prediction. Not a single person did.

“It brings me no joy,” Gay-Dagnogo announced, lifting her fingers to her temples. “We recognize the danger of Trump. But we also recognize the failures of our own party. We have suffered in power and suffered out of power. We know that no matter who wins, we suffer. Neither of these parties give a damn. I’m 53. I’ve been invested in politics since my teens. I’ve knocked doors, mailed letters, played the game. I’ve done everything they asked. And none of it worked. I can’t get a single apprenticeship lined up for a constituent of mine. Think about that! Even as a well-connected legislator, I can’t hook up a single apprenticeship for a qualified applicant. Why? Because all of it was a lie. This social contract they promised us was never real.”

“No, ma’am,” Neal said.

“That’s our reality,” Gay-Dagnogo continued. “We can beg our friends and families to vote, but they’re going to keep on believing that it’s all for nothing, that they’re going to suffer either way.”

Neal clasped her hands as if praying. “And you know what? We’re secure in our suffering. Always have been. No election is going to change that.”

That Sunday afternoon at the cookout was something I’ll never forget, Washington. One thing seemed obvious as I drove away from Severn Road: No matter who wins the White House this fall, Americans—not Democrats, not Republicans, but Americans—have a lot of listening to do.

I’ll be sure to write again soon. If you’ve got places you think I should visit, people you think I should meet, drop me a line: L2W@politico.com. Until then, please keep safe and look out for one another.

Tim

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