A Year After L. Brooks Patterson’s Death, Oakland County Gradually Moves Out of His Shadow

The Oakland County of yesteryear is burdened by racism, but under the tutelage of a new executive, the county is determined to move into a more inclusive future.

Oakland County

I had a journalism professor in undergrad who was the first Black woman to sit on the editorial board of The Oakland Press. She told this story to our news reporting class about having moved to Rochester Hills and being stopped by police while jogging in her own neighborhood. One of her then-new neighbors made the call.

This anecdote shocked our class, which was mostly made up of white women – quite a few from Oakland County. I was the only Black student in the class. My professor and I shared one of those eye-catching looks. You know the ones where the only Black people in the room can make eye contact and say a thousand words. We knew this wasn’t a surprise.

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This incident was more than 20 years ago, long after Black residents took up space in Southfield and Oak Park and also started buying in the further-flung – and still very lily-white – suburbs like West Bloomfield, Birmingham and Rochester Hills. Oakland County then was known for one thing and one thing only: being the gold standard. 

It was one of the richest counties in the nation. And with proximity to wealth came better schools and safer neighborhoods in many of those suburbs. Black folks wanted in. Sometimes we’d have to make sacrifices to get in, and that meant putting ourselves at risk of having the cops called on us.

Not that Black folks weren’t already in Oakland County, though. As much as the county presented itself as the anti-Detroit, there was a lot of Detroit-style struggle in Pontiac and Royal Oak Township that always got left out of proposals and pitches to corporations. Black inequity became an oversight.

Fast forward to 2020, and inequities among Black Oakland County residents, no matter what their household income is, are on full display – and not just within metro Detroit. In the last six months, race-related incidents have had the world’s eyes on Oakland County.

COVID-19 led to conversations around its disproportionate impact on Black residents in Metro Detroit. A white woman was filmed on video pulling a gun on a Black mother and daughter. And then there’s “Grace,” the Black teen girl sent to Oakland County jail for not doing her homework.

It’s all put Oakland County – which also captures headlines as a political battleground now, something that wasn’t happening 20 years ago – in the position of having to confront an identity crisis that all Black people here knew about, but now has to publicly wrestle with. 

Is this a gold-standard county with big business, or is this a place of Black struggle and pain? How does Oakland County retain its allure for families and businesses, but do it in a way that doesn’t signal that only white people are entitled to it? And how does it move out of the shadow of former executive L. Brooks Patterson, who’s been dead for a year but still casts a long shadow over the county? 

I sat down with Dave Coulter, who just completed his first year as county executive and is up for re-election in November. Coulter acknowledges that Oakland County still operates under Patterson’s influence, sometimes to the county’s detriment. Only four counties in Michigan have county executives; three of them – Wayne, Oakland and Macomb – border each other. The fourth is Bay County. 

All of the state’s other counties have a county administrator or similar positions, which are relatively innocuous, rubber-stamping roles. If Oakland County is to move forward, Coulter has to put himself out there and set the tone. County executive appointments aren’t meant to be star-making roles. But Coulter says he has to build himself a platform the same way Patterson did in order to move the county forward.

“I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a white man who shouldn’t be creating the Black agenda in a vacuum,” Coulter says, noting that he’s appointed a chief diversity officer who reports directly to him. At the beginning of his term, he did a listening tour to gauge where each city and township was at.

He noticed nuances within Oakland County’s Black communities. Blacks in Pontiac, he says, do not have the exact shared experience as Blacks in Southfield despite living in the same county. 

But one thing was true across the board: Many Black residents didn’t feel the county was open and accessible with Patterson at the helm. “Just being able to have these difficult conversations should be the minimum bar that’s set,” he says.

Coulter publicly condemned the Lake Orion incident, the one where the white woman pulled a gun on a Black mother and daughter, and relates it to a similar scenario where a white Rochester man pointed a gun at a lost Black child trying to find his way to school, an incident that happened while Patterson was alive and in office. “But I don’t recall the previous administration speaking out against that,” he says.

“The perception of Oakland County was that it was the white, suburban, business-focused successful county, and while there’s truth to that, it’s important for me to help folks understand we have a very complicated history around this issue and that it’s a very diverse county,” he says. “It’s more diverse than people understand, because their voices weren’t lifted up and at the table in the past.”

For Coulter, that means behind-the-scenes moves like extending contracts and other opportunities to do business with the county to women and POC-owned firms, something he learned was an issue under Patterson, and more public-facing moves like appointing the first Black deputy county executive, which he did weeks into his tenure.

Prior to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Coulter says some of Oakland County’s more conservative leaders were questioning the county executive’s push for diversity. “There were more conservative voices in the country that thought I was wasting money on a (chief diversity officer) position that wasn’t necessary, that (I) was just a liberal politician with an agenda. I don’t hear that anymore. Nobody since George Floyd has dared to say this position isn’t important in Oakland County,” he says.

To even speak out against hiring that position is where Patterson’s legacy still lingers within the county. Outside, Patterson’s drop dead, Detroit! mentality is still very much omnipresent. It’s no secret that Black residents who come to Oakland County are wary of police presence on certain major thoroughfares – think Square Lake Road, Telegraph Road north of Southfield, or I-75 through Troy and many points north – and what that means for their chances of being pulled over.

“Ferndale has and had that perception, where driving while Black is an issue,” Coulter says, reflecting on his time as mayor of the inner-ring burb. The first step, he says, was to acknowledge it was an issue before his administration put police reforms into place to try to attempt to ease tension between the force and Black civilians. Ferndale was Oakland County’s first city to purchase body cameras for officers.

With “Grace” still fresh on the minds of people across the nation, the county still has a long way to go in improving its perception among Black residents. Coulter himself acknowledges this, but points to the county commission board – he was a commissioner prior to becoming executive –becoming a mostly Democratic board in the last decade after years of Republican rule. “You would not equate that with your father’s Oakland County,” he says. “The Oakland County that they remember is not the Oakland County of today.”

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