We Got Racism. Right Here in River City.

If you live in Michigan, you’ve probably read this story, which passed quickly from the local weekly to the nearest daily and public radio station, downstate to the Detroit News and Dateline Detroit—then off to the Washington Post and NBC.

Short synopsis: Old white Road Commission member in Leelanau County (Tom Eckerle, 75) makes egregiously racist remark, using the N-word, at a public meeting. When exposed, and contacted by other news outlets, he compounds the ugliness by using the word repeatedly and making eye-rollingly racist comments about Black Lives Matter and Detroit. County erupts in disgust, mostly, with some people defending him. A recall petition is initiated. The other Road Commission members send him a signed letter asking for his resignation. Even the Republican legislator serving the county asks him to resign, after a lengthy conversation to hear what he really thinks. After 48 hours of repeated insistence he will not resign—Tom Eckerle finally does.

And now, of course, if we are smart and principled, the real work begins. And by ‘real work’ I don’t mean all of that under-the-rug sweeping.

I live in Leelanau County. And I can attest that people make racist remarks here all the time. What made this instance unique was not what Mr. Eckerle said (although his blatant use of the N-word was appalling). It was the fact that it was reported, on the front page of the Leelanau Enterprise, as news. If the reporter (who was tuning into the meeting via phone) had just let his crapola go by (and by all accounts, this guy is full of crapola), the only people who would have been offended would be the other Road Commissioners and the two or three people listening in, waiting to discuss road business.

It is worth mentioning that Eckerle’s anti-BLM outburst was triggered by someone asking him to wear a mask. Think that through.

Leelanau County is the ‘little finger’ of the Michigan mitten. It is a peninsula, surrounded by the beautiful waters of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and it is spectacularly beautiful country. We have both a National Park (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and an Indian reservation, home of the Grand Traverse Band. While the county is outlined by many multi-million dollar waterfront homes, and thriving resort towns, there are also pockets of desperate poverty, an affordable housing crisis and a complete lack of available, reasonably priced broadband for rural consumers.

There are only about 22,000 people in Leelanau County, and 94% of them are white. Of the remaining 6%, nearly all are Native American–or Hispanic, most of whom landed here first as migrant fruit pickers (and yes, ICE has recently made arrests here). Historically, the land has been dominated by farmers—especially fruit farmers. When the cherry and apple trees blossom out—hilltop orchards, overlooking lakes– in May, there is no more beautiful place on earth. And now, there are 26 wineries and upscale dining.

Politically, the county has been deep red for more than a century, but the influx of retirees from downstate has been moving some of the resort towns in a bluish direction. The county voted for Obama in 2008 (not in 2012), but there remains a die-hard core group of generational residents who are deeply suspicious of things like unemployment insurance, early childhood education, recycling and fancy-pants internet. Not to mention a Black President.

Many of these folks hold public office. Sometimes, for decades, in family groups. Republican candidates, even if they are known cranks (as Tom Eckerle appears to be), get elected. I once attended a Township Board meeting, to promote a resolution to stop Enbridge Corporation from using a crumbling 65-year old oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac. After we did our pitch, one of the Board members was clearly shocked at what would happen if the pipeline ruptured, and said so—she had not heard about Line 5. The Township Supervisor turned to her (and to her sister, who also sits on the Board) and said, out loud, ‘We’re voting NO, Shirley.’ And they all did.

Just politics in Leelanau County.

After the Eckerle affair, the local Facebook page, where people post beautiful photos of sunsets over lakes (we have lots of inland lakes) and sell their outgrown ski equipment, was alight with comments, running about three-to-one in favor of forcing a resignation.

There was a lot of pearl-clutching, worries about people thinking everyone in Leelanau County was like this–the local economy depends on tourism–and demands that the Governor yank Eckerle. Governor Whitmer said (correctly, in my opinion) that, dreadful as his comments were, it was the voters in Leelanau County who needed to recall him.  

There were also way too many comments about his remarks being ‘just a word—one that Black people use all the time’ and cryptic statements about ‘Detroiters’ looting and bringing COVID up here. To paradise. White person paradise.

And that’s the thing—it doesn’t matter how many righteous editorial statements are made about silence being compliance.  It is now possible to make overtly racist remarks in public; the abhorrent beast of bigotry has been loosed, and it will take more than an election to reign it in. We are hardly the only place in the nation where white supremacists now feel free to speak their minds.

There’s a final irony, as well. While the European farmers came, in the mid-1800s to ‘settle’ the Leelanau peninsula and establish Christian ‘missions,’ there were already people here, who had lived here for centuries before that: Native American tribes, who used the peninsula for fishing and gathering. After decades where the white folks platted and sold the land, and crafted shaky treaties, the tribal folks were eventually moved out of the most desirable properties, and concentrated into one area.

Racism has always been a factor here.  White supremacy has always been a factor here.

The Glen Arbor Sun, another local paper, has been running a series of articles as their response to the Black Lives Matter movement, identifying multiple threads of prejudice against people of color: the Anishinaabe, Mexican-Americans who came initially as migrant farmworkers, and African-Americans.

We have so much work to do.

“Hatred, which has destroyed so much, never failed to destroy the one who hated, and this was an immutable law…..I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.”   (James Baldwin)

3 Comments

  1. To the readers of this blog:

    Unfortunately, the overt racism unleashed by Tom Eckerle has been made worse.

    The County Commission, which has 3 Democrats and 4 Republicans, decided to write an ‘anti-racist’ resolution.They ran into trouble. The 3 Commissioners mentioned in the article below are Republicans.

    LEELANAU ENTERPRISE
    Racism resolution talks go sideways
    by Eric Carlson

    The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners this week struggled to craft language it will use in a proposed “anti-racism” resolution it may adopt next week, with some commissioners suggesting the resolution should include an acknowledgement of a high incidence of abortion among African-Americans.

    The proposed resolution was drafted in reaction to the political and worldwide media firestorm that resulted after the Leelanau Enterprise reported racist comments made at a public meeting last week by an elected member of the county Road Commission. Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle submitted his letter of resignation Monday.

    At the county board’s regular monthly executive meeting Tuesday morning, two commissioners suggested that a draft anti-racism resolution they were presented should include an acknowledgement that racism is evident in what they said is a high percentage of African Americans who abort their unborn babies.

    The incidence of abortion amounts to “genocide in this country for Black Americans – perhaps the truest form of racism,” according to District No. 7 commissioner Melinda Lautner.

    Lautner noted that in the past year the county board would not even consider adopting an anti-abortion resolution to condemn the “killing of babies” even though abortion “kills 1,000 black babies every day in America.”

    District No. 3 Commissioner and County Board Chairman Will Bunek agreed, citing statistics he’d found showing the high incidence of abortion among African-Americans.

    In addition, protestors calling police “pigs” and other names should be cited in the resolution as an example of racism, Bunek said.

    District No. 2 Commissioner Debra Rushton said she thought the resolution should include a definition of racism because the word means different things to different people.

    “As we have seen out there across our nation, we see one sort of racism condemned, but yet the racism against our police forces, our deputies…we have seen different types of racism that seems to be accepted in some communities,” Rushton said.

    She added that she would also like the term “social justice” removed from the draft resolution. “When the phrase is used, it presumes the program is grounded in particular ideological perspectives,” Rushton said.

    Rushton added that she would like to see the word “racial” removed from the term “racial equity” in the resolution because, she said, it “targets a specific group” and is itself a racial slur.

    “It should be ‘equity for all,’” Rushton said.

    All of the commissioners made it clear in one way or another that they are strongly “against racism.”
    Rushton asked to know who drafted the anti-racism resolution that was presented to the county board for consideration at its executive meeting Tuesday morning.

    County administrator Chet Janik said he and his executive assistant, Laurel Evans, put the draft together by “cutting and pasting” similar resolutions they found online that had been adopted by other municipalities.

    Janik asked that commissioners provide him specific suggestions in writing by later this week so he can continue working on the draft.

    Janik said he would try to incorporate more of the county board’s thoughts into a draft resolution he will present to the board for consideration of adoption at its regular monthly meeting Tuesday night, Aug. 18.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Northport is probably the most liberal of the resort towns strung along M-22. And of course, there are plenty of smart and sensible people here. The difficult challenge will be, of course, get those people into decision-making positions.

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