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Is a flier distributed in Southfield racism, or dirty politics?

Aug 27, 2015

Earlier this year I talked about Southfield, which I think is one of the more intriguing communities in Michigan.

Southfield, which has between 70,000 and 75,000 people, basically was born, like so many other places, with the great suburban sprawl that began in the early 1950s, with the coming of the freeways and the malls.

Today Southfield, which borders Detroit, is mostly black, but a good 20% to 25% of its citizens are still white, many of them Jewish. And Southfield has remained that rare thing – a large, mostly black suburb that is still solidly middle class.

The Census Bureau estimates the population, which fell by about 10% in the first decade of this century, is growing again. Southfield’s longtime mayor, Brenda Lawrence, was given high marks for keeping the city diverse and safe. Last year, she was elected to Congress, and there’s a race to succeed her between Sylvia Jordan, an African-American woman who is the city council president, and Ken Siver, a former teacher, councilman, and longtime resident.

This race hasn’t been about race – until now. Last week, a racist flyer was left on lawns and stuffed into mailboxes. It was headlined, “Let’s Get the Blacks Out of Southfield in November,” and listed and pictured the white candidates for various city offices.

It included a painting of a Klansman pointing a gun at a black child, and Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie, with a caption that said, “Zimmerman was right. We will stop thugs like this.”

This shocking development has been covered in the black press nationwide. I saw an article in Georgia about it. There was even a story in the Manchester Guardian.

Yet there’s something very strange about this. If you really were a white racist, you wouldn’t do anything like this, not if you had an IQ greater than that of a salamander. There are far more black voters than white.

And these fliers were apparently distributed in mainly black neighborhoods.

That’s what one of Southfield’s most respected women told me.

Pat Haynie is a retired education official who has lived in Southfield for nearly 30 years. She is an African-American woman who heads the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Task Force.

Monday night she stood up at a city council meeting and said, “I would caution our community and the media not to jump to the conclusion that this was generated by a racist white individual or organization.”

“It may very well be that this was a despicable dirty political trick designed to incite people of color to go the polls and vote the exact opposite … this kind of race baiting must not be tolerated,” she said.

Both mayoral candidates have denounced the flier.

Nobody admits to knowing anything about it, but there have been reports of cultural clashes in Southfield: Tensions between established, middle-class black residents and newcomers fleeing Detroit.

Joseph Thomas, Southfield’s first black police chief, now-retired, told an Atlanta newspaper that, "My six-figure blacks are very concerned about multiple-family, economically depressed people moving into rental homes and apartments, bringing in their bad behaviors.”

The biggest concern is keeping Southfield a place where everyone feels comfortable living and shopping. It will be very interesting to see what happens over the next year.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's 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.