"Don't let them talk about y'all's boy!"
—Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, 2005
Mama Kilpatrick, I'm talking about your boy. In his new book, Sellout, The Politics of Racial Betrayal (Pantheon Books, 2008), author Randall Kennedy examines how and why various African-American figures have been labeled as such. Kennedy, an African-American Harvard law professor who has been called a sellout by some, urges a more thoughtful, discriminating use of the label. Merely having views contrary to conventional black positions does not make one a sellout. "A sellout," he says, "is someone who betrays something to which she is said to owe allegiance." In a racial context, a sellout "is a disparaging term that refers to blacks who knowingly or with gross negligence act against the interest of blacks as a whole."
That said, and with all due reflection, I declare that Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is a sellout. "Y'all's boy," as his mother tagged him when coming to his aid in a tight re-election contest, has sold y'all out.
Last week's revelation of text messages exchanged between Kilpatrick and his chief of staff Christine Beatty bore that out. The texts revealed that long-standing allegations of a romantic relationship between Kilpatrick and Beatty are true and that they lied about it under oath.
The revelations are the most stinging blow for Kilpatrick, the charismatic hip-hop mayor who knows how to skillfully manipulate image to inspire his following, but they are not in themselves the reason I call him a sellout. Bear with me.
Since early in his administration, rumors of bad behavior have percolated around Kilpatrick. Another book, Deconstructing Tyrone (Cleis Press, 2006) by Natalie Hopkinson and Natalie Y. Moore, which explores black masculinity in the hip-hop generation, devotes its entire first chapter to Kilpatrick and his woes. Moore, who formerly worked at The Detroit News, covered City Council during Kilpatrick's first administration and became familiar with the ongoing soap opera. The authors, who by and large defended Kilpatrick, wrote that he "is a symbol of both the coming generation of black leadership and the city of Detroit itself: postmodern, postindustrial, so black it's postblack."
It's a clever bit of writing that bespeaks Kilpatrick's charisma. Moore, who developed a professionally adversarial though personally friendly relationship with the mayor, wrote that, "Kilpatrick is so affable that it's hard to walk away from him without a tingling feeling."
Given what we know now about the smooth-talking mayor, I wonder exactly what parts he was trying to tingle. The Natalies objectively allowed the mayor's own words to carry much of the argument. Regarding the rumored wild party with strippers said to have taken place at Manoogian Mansion, they quoted Kilpatrick saying: "If I was 60 years old, if I came from the 'country club community,' if I came out of an established private firm or something like that, none of these would get the lift that they have. ... I guess it's believable that a 32-year-old black man with an earring would have parties like that. It's so unfortunate. I'm here to fight that stigma."
In other words, y'all are getting down on me just because I'm young and black. It is this exact point that shows why Kilpatrick is a sellout. Kilpatrick has played the racism card again and again to protect himself. He's used code to do it, but every black Detroiter knows the code. After he was found responsible in the whistleblower suit last August, he said: "I think my reputation rests with the city of Detroit. Being that there was only one [Detroit juror], I guess I will have to talk to her."
There he goes again; from Detroit means you're black and sympathetic, not from Detroit means you're white and adversarial. In his 2005 re-election campaign he played Hendrix as the brother the white business interests of the suburbs were behind, while he, Kilpatrick, was blacker than thou. He fanned the fire of city-suburb enmity to solidify his base.
All of this so he could sell us out.
And as the truth came out last week, where was the larger-than-life mayor? Did he stand tall to face the music? Did he admit to his wrongdoing. No, he went into hiding and again made excuses that did not address the issue. He released a statement saying the charges were five and six years old and that he and his wife had worked things out. Yet it was just last August that he sat in court and lied about it. It was September when he pointed the accusatory finger of racism.
In the end, it's not his affair with Beatty. That's between him and his wife. It's wasn't even the lies about his affair — although lying under oath in a court of law may turn out to be the legal linchpin that brings him down. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said last week that her office will conduct an investigation into that aspect. It isn't even the $9 million in legal fees and payouts to wrongfully terminated police officers. Although in a cash-strapped city that has closed police and fire stations, laid off police officers, cut the city work force and initiated a trash fee, the money would have come in handy.
Where Kilpatrick sold us out was in his constant crying of racism as an excuse for his own foibles. If he were white, he implied, no one would be after him. All the while he sat in City Hall texting messages with his lover when he should have been attending to the city's business. Every false claim of racism undermines the next African-American with a just claim. Every false claim of racism turns a knife in the wounds of those who have been destroyed by racism. Every false claim of racism sets Detroiters back when business-decision makers don't know if they can trust the man in Manoogian.
Every false claim of racism belies the pain of Africans who were captured and enslaved, those who endured the lash as they labored as chattel, those who didn't get an even break, were denied the vote, who marched and got beaten, who sacrificed some little pleasure so their children could someday be somebody, who saw a young man with so much promise who might lead our city to dignity and plenty.
He was just putting on a show as he knowingly and with gross negligence acted against our interests as a whole.
That's why Kwame Kilpatrick, by even a stringent definition, is a sellout.
If Kilpatrick were either convicted or recalled from office (I can't imagine that his inflated ego would allow him to quit), then City Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. would run city government until an election could be held. I don't know what kind of mayor Cockrel would be. I do know that he has mostly conducted himself in a low-key businesslike manner. He seems to get it that he is a public servant — though surely warts will appear once the spotlight shines on him. He at least deserves kudos for not ranting, raving and making a spectacle of himself during this Kilpatrick malaise. That's smart politics, if nothing else.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org