As a Black man, I am ashamed of John James

Monday, September 21, 2020 - 1:56pm

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Something seemed off.

On an unseasonably cold Thursday evening in Freeland, Mich., the American Carnage” president stood side-by-side with the so-called American Dream” Senate hopeful. The crowd broke out into a chant, yelling “we love you,” at the bi-racial duo. President Donald Trump ceded the floor as, miles from a Black Lives Matter protest, a former victim of police violence praised law enforcement. In the automotive capital of the world, the businessman lauded the president’s trade war that hurt the manufacturing sector. In a former hub of the underground railroad, the great-grandson of a slave celebrated the president who called his ancestral homeland a shithole.

On the campaign trail, John James, a Republican candidate for Senate, likes to tell the story of his family going in four generations from slave to sharecropper to truck driver to potential senator. However, James’s retelling of this story omits some key details: While his father did work as a truck driver, he also founded a multi-billion-dollar company. While James likes to claim he hit a triple, the reality is that he was born on third base. 

James was raised in the upscale Detroit community of Palmer Woods. He attended an overwhelmingly white Catholic high school, Brother Rice, in the posh northern suburb of Birmingham. At Brother Rice, James learned the values of a warrior — their official mascot — despite the school’s logo resembling a rejected first draft of Chief Wahoo. Naturally, these values led James to become an actual warrior, graduating from the military academy at West Point in 2004 and serving as a combat pilot for eight years, including multiple tours in Iraq. After obtaining his MBA from University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, he was hired at his father’s company, the James Group International, and became the director of operations.

JGI has a complicated business model which cannot be easily summarized in a sentence or two, but crucially, they rely heavily on the automotive industry. In 2012 — with the industry revitalized by the Obama administration’s bailout — business was booming. James leveraged the company’s success to obtain media plaudits, earning a place on Detroit Business Journal’s 30 in their 30s — producing an incredible picture — and The Michigan Chronicle’s 40 under 40, but he was not content to rest on his laurels. Instead, once he was promoted to the unclear position of “president” while his brother, Lorron, leapfrogged him to become CEO, James waded into the political arena, challenging popular incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in 2018.

If John James wasn’t qualified to lead his family company, he isn’t qualified to lead Michigan.

During the campaign, James became a darling of the right wing, dubbed by party leaders as a rising star due to his unicorn status as a Black Republican. In the primary, a perfectly timed Trump endorsement carried him over the line, beating Sandy Pensler by 9.4%. However, in the November general election, Michigan voters brought the rising star down to earth, delivering James a swift kick in the rear and reelecting Stabenow by a 6.5% margin.

For most politicians, this would be the end of the story, but John James’ ingratiation with the president boosted him to the top of the list of candidates to run against Michigan’s other Democratic senator, Gary Peters, D-Mich., in 2020.

James announced his second bid for public office on Fox and Friends on June 6, 2019 — the anniversary of D-Day — by highlighting his military service and railing against “career politicians.” In the early days, the campaign looked the same as before — with many appearances on Fox News and other conservative outlets in a craven attempt to raise money. However, about a year later, when George Floyd was tragically murdered in Minneapolis, Minn., James saw blood in the water. As a Black man, James was uniquely positioned to talk to several audiences, and he threaded the needle like a true politician, releasing a Twitter video days after the incident where he said, in part: “Ending injustice in this country is not a political talking point, it’s a matter of survival for me and my boys … That said … normal officers are heroes. They put their lives on the line every single day for us, even when provoked by rioters like last night.”

While this statement sounds nice, in the last part of the quote, he refers to the peaceful protests in Detroit on May 31 as “riots,” which is simply an egregious mischaracterization of the facts.

It’s waffling, double-talking, misleading statements like this that have earned James praise from the media on both sides of the aisle, and that is fundamentally wrong. The man talks out of both sides of his mouth on race, knowing that he can manipulate mass media into giving him positive coverage. Meanwhile, his paid advertisements in the Metro Detroit area include almost no mention of his conservative policies, while many of his ads in Upper and Western Michigan feature almost no mention of his race. However, since we are at a time when white journalists aren’t in the position to oppose a Black man on race — especially now —  James’s strategy has been largely successful, peeling off some Black support from Peters while bolstering his support among rural whites. Many journalists may be scared to call out James’s lifetime of privilege, his lack of clear policy goals and his disturbing record on race, but I am not.

John James is a fraud.

Growing up, as a Black man from the northern suburbs, I would scoff at the idea that someone like me could ever have success on a national stage. When I first saw James, I smiled for a second, proud to see someone who looked like me with a background like mine attaining a momentous achievement as the first Black major-party nominee for Michigan Senate in my lifetime. However, once I did more research on the man, the grand illusion of the 36-year-old combat veteran was shattered along with my hopes that he was above the party line. 

Sadly, James succumbed to the bright lights of Fox News, revealing himself to be an inauthentic politician whose praise of the racist, sexist, transphobic orangutan with a bad dye job in the White House offends my sensibilities as a human being, an American citizen and a Black man. I cannot justify voting for James, especially when the man’s hypocrisy is so blatant. That is something that everyone, Republican, Democratic and Independent can understand.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu.


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