These are turbulent times in our nation. A spotlight has been shone on the pervasive presence of racial inequities in many areas of society. In the midst of crisis, there are opportunities for important substantive change.
The Race Relations Council of Southwest Michigan, formed in 1998 by a multiracial group of area residents, is committed to the elimination of racial inequities in education, criminal justice, employment, housing and health care. At the council’s most recent monthly meeting, conducted online because of the pandemic, we focused on two immediate areas of concern – education and criminal justice.
Council members heard from Dr. Andrae Townsel, the new superintendent of Benton Harbor Area Schools. Dr. Townsel is a dynamic educator with a great deal of experience working in troubled school districts. He is realistic about the challenges facing the Benton Harbor schools, but also enthusiastic about the potential for positive change. He is determined to put in place people, policies, and procedures that will allow the district to reach its fullest potential. Dr. Townsel emphasizes the importance of building a culture of positive achievement for students and the necessity to form positive alliances between administrators, teachers and parents.
Council members were impressed by his knowledgeable and energetic presentation and expressed our strong commitment to supporting him in achieving his objectives. We urge the Southwest Michigan community to rally around Dr. Townsel and the teachers, students and parents of the Benton Harbor Area Schools. We have an opportunity to address the inequities between schools in Benton Harbor and those in the surrounding communities. We must make sure that all our children receive the quality education they deserve.
In addition to addressing inequities in education, the Race Relations Council is strongly committed to addressing glaring inequities in the criminal justice system. Recent national events have shone a disturbing spotlight on the actions of police and prosecutors. Particular attention has been generated by the brutal slayings of three African-American men – Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and one African-American woman – Breonna Taylor. Three of these slayings were committed by police officers and one was committed by vigilantes who decided to make a “citizen’s arrest” of a black man who was simply out for a run. Videotapes of these slayings are horrifying and enraging.
Thousands of individuals, black and white, young and old, have taken to the streets in protest in many parts of the country. In our local area there have been several large, peaceful marches, one of which included more than 1,000 participants. Protesters are determined to bring about changes to a system that is clearly not working. Going forward, protests need to lead to specific changes to the structure of policing and to our justice system in general. The Race Relations Council is strongly committed to doing all we can to bring about these changes. We encourage all residents of Southwest Michigan to join us in our efforts.
Racial inequity and oppression have gone on much too long. The time for real and lasting change is now.
Dr. Larry Feldman Board Chair, Race Relations Council Lakeside
Dr. Gladys Peeples-Burks Scholarship Committee Chair, Race Relations Council Stevensville