Rashida Tlaib is eager to talk about where she fits into American history – just not in the way one might expect.
Around her country, Ms. Tlaib is becoming known for going where no Muslim woman has before: into the U.S. Congress. While probably not alone blazing that trail, depending how other midterm elections turn out on Nov. 6, she is the first to have an assured seat in the House of Representatives because she’s unopposed after narrowly winning her Detroit district’s Democratic primary.
The 42-year-old lawyer and former state representative doesn’t shy away from that story, exactly, as we talk in a campaign office that is empty save for us and her teenage son. She knows it’s why she’s getting so much attention, and unconvincingly insists she’s not tired of discussing it.
But what really gets her going, and makes some members of her party uncomfortable, is the role she sees for herself in updating the civil-rights movement for the 21st century.
It’s an opportunity born of who she is, the moment we are living in and the place she will represent.
With the most concentrated African-American population of any large U.S. city, Detroit has long been a base for activism. For more than a half-century, it was represented in Washington by civil-rights icon John Conyers, before sexual-harassment allegations spurred his retirement last year at the age of 88.
Despite being a “survivor of a horrible [harassment] experience at one workplace,” Ms. Tlaib speaks somewhat reverentially about the man she will be replacing. “I’ll tell you, Congressman Conyers walks in a room,” she says, “his presence is still very strong because he represents such huge, rich history around empowering black America.” When he recently paused a speech to recognize her, she “got really emotional.”
But she also says that members of her city’s predominantly African-American political establishment are “nervous” about her, because she comes from outside it: She’s a Bernie Sanders-endorsed democratic socialist who intends to approach fighting injustice differently from the way they recently have.
It’s not that her ethnic or religious background gives her a much different perspective from other Detroit politicians about which of her constituents most need her in their corner. When it’s suggested to her that Muslims (a small share of her district’s voters) now face the most discrimination of any American minority, she disagrees.
“I think African-Americans face it more,” she says. “It’s not as public … but it’s more institutional, more ingrained into policy,” reflected in everything from police conduct to low home ownership to her city’s unusually high auto-insurance rates.
Where she parts company with other Detroit Democrats is that she says many have been too complacent about mounting inequality, if not complicit in it.
Less than a decade after being in economic collapse, Detroit has armies of new-economy employees flocking to restored skyscrapers, making it an oft-cited symbol of American resilience. But her district, Michigan’s 13th, stands as her country’s third poorest. “Poverty has actually increased,” she stresses, and most new jobs are for people who don’t live in the city. While the Ford Motor Co. gets tax breaks to move into Detroit’s abandoned train station, “half a mile from there, kids are going to school where they don’t have access to water.”
Nationally, she promises that the first bill she introduces in Congress will be the “Justice for All Civil Rights Act.” A response to courts’ watering down of the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, she says, it would end the requirement for plaintiffs to prove intentional discrimination. Instead, showing “the impact of the policy itself on the ground is actually discriminatory in practice” would suffice – a change she says would, for example, “transform our education system” by ending funding inequities.
Closer to the ground, what sets the Detroit-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants apart is an affinity for civil disobedience that most politicians eschew in office rather than fusing it with their legislative agenda. That includes a willingness to be arrested, most recently earlier this month in a minimum-wage protest.
Ms. Tlaib repeatedly invokes a pair of fights undertaken during her six years as a state legislator. One was a protracted battle with Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge and opponent of alternative border crossings that would send fewer trucks through residential neighbourhoods, which at one point involved participating in a blockade. In the other, she trespassed to obtain samples of petroleum coke piles along the Detroit River, to test toxicity after Michigan’s environmental agency dismissed concerns, which eventually resulted in the substance’s removal.
That approach now makes her a key player in a struggle for her party’s identity, between those who want to push it toward the activist left and those more concerned with winning over moderate voters.
She understands different political imperatives for Democratic candidates catering to middle-class white voters in suburbia. “I’m not expecting them to block trucks,” she says.
But she does hope to help instill “courage,” in pursuit of goals such as single-payer health care and opposition to what she sees as corporate greed benefiting few at the expense of many, which she argues will prove more credible with voters than cold calculation.
She sees kindred spirits in other women of colour – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Jahana Hayes in Connecticut, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts – who won Democratic primaries this year, mostly as progressive insurgents. “We weren’t the chosen candidates,” she says. “We weren’t supposed to win. I think that says a lot about the direction that the party is going.”
She also implies that, despite feeling part of a broader wave, the stakes facing her are uniquely high.
Detroit, to her eyes, has long been a hotbed for the sort of anti-establishment progressivism now being embraced by her party’s base in other cities and states. Her district’s highest turnout in memory, for this year’s primary, points to as increased level of local engagement. And as in the past, where better to take a political lead tackling inequality than somewhere it’s so pronounced?
But she’s not afraid to hark back to Detroit’s bloodiest hour – the 1967 riots – to warn what will happen there and perhaps beyond if the divide between “winners and losers” keeps growing.
“It’s how we ended up with the rebellion,” she says, in both a message to the political establishment and a demonstration of why the establishment finds her unsettling. “I don’t think people get it.”