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.