The Rapidian

Response to Mayor Bliss: Real kindness requires justice

Respecting and supporting each other are indeed a necessity -- as is recognizing the context and systems of discrimination that we benefit from and perpetuate. We can go further.
The city skyline as seen from the Black Hills neighborhood

The city skyline as seen from the Black Hills neighborhood /Steven Depolo

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Dear Mayor Bliss,

I hear that your heart is heavy about the recent increase in blatant prejudice and bigotry. We are all saddened and want to help create a safe space for our neighbors of color, for our residents who have immigrated, for those who struggle with poverty, for our women, for our citizens with disabilities, for our friends of different faiths, and for our LGBTQ neighbors, all of whom contribute so much to our community, our culture, and our economy.

“Make an extra effort to remind them they are welcome here and they are cared for and valued,” you remind us. “Our friends and neighbors need to know they are supported.”

It’s a good reminder and I absolutely agree.

But we can go further. Supporting and valuing our neighbors means more than refraining from saying bigoted things, more than reaching out in a moment of kindness. We value our neighbors when we look carefully at how policies, development, and changes affect lives.  

In interviews and conversations over the past year or two, I have been reminded that almost half of African-Americans in the city live at or below poverty level; Latinos are not far behind, and some white neighborhoods are affected as well. Access to quality education is still very limited at some neighborhood schools, while jobs coming into Grand Rapids in the fields of healthcare and higher education require a good education. Our continued attention to bridging the gap between the education needed and the education provided will show how much we support our community members who live in parts of the city still segregated by class and race.

I have glimpsed how policing can have an economic effect on poor communities. An impounded car is no longer available for work; that can cause the loss of a job. Bail money for something as trivial as a family member's trespassing charge is no longer available for rent, which can cause the loss of a home. The police are just doing their job, yet these costs add up, a hundred dollars here and another hundred there. When we don’t seek solutions for public safety that allow the marginalized to hold onto the income they do have, are we sending the message that their work and their efforts to gain economic ground are not valued?

Though communities of color and poor white neighborhoods pay taxes (sales, income, and property, as well as city fines), we can see they often do not get the same consistent investment seen in other areas. The disinvestment allows well-funded developers to purchase and develop real estate at low prices. Our lower-income neighbors are eventually priced out of their homes and businesses to make way for gentrified white neighborhoods and stores. I have heard our residents and taxpayers say at recent city commission meetings that they are losing their homes. They need continued attention and a search for solutions to feel valued or supported.

Historically, entrepreneurs of marginalized communities have not been invited to the table at initial development meetings. Historically, new development has not included as many opportunities for Black and Latino businesses (often under-capitalized because of the wealth gap) to come in at an investment level they can afford. Though they have the drive and the willingness to work, these community members are not always valued at decision-making time.

In his book A City within a City, Dr. Todd Robinson says that Grand Rapids has a history of “managerial racism” that allows mostly white, mostly middle-class leadership to believe in the idea of a progressive city while still maintaining systems of racism through bureaucracy. If we truly value our neighbors, we must listen to their voices, acknowledge this context, and work harder to dismantle bureaucratic barriers -- as well as to be nicer.

To that end, since you have asked us to reach out, I ask you to also reach out in these difficult times.

1. As the city grows and changes, create an actionable plan for inclusive contracting that ensures that businesses owned by people of color and/or women participate in governmental procurement and contracting processes. Currently it seems to be white-owned development companies who profit from the drive for growth and affordable housing.

2. Revise the Grand Rapids Police Civilian Appeals Board and train them so that they are able to receive complaints directly regarding both use-of-force and policing procedure, rather than being brought in after an Internal Affairs investigation. Create a committee of members from underrepresented communities to study and address the impact on marginalized communities of fines, bail and court fees, jail time and impoundment of vehicles and property for minor infractions and misdemeanors.

3. While Grand Rapids Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal and the Grand Rapids School Board do the important work of stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhood schools, the city should have a committee study and address the impact on segregated neighborhoods of decades of school churn and decline. The city should also engage with the community in reviewing policies and practices that have caused, and are still causing, de jure segregation in matters of access, zoning, and city services. We cannot ask our neighbors to overcome decades of inequitable access by themselves -- we must take responsibility for our part in it.

As a white, abled, cis-straight woman of middle-class, I see only glimpses of the discrimination and racism that is woven into the systems we inhabit, nearly invisible but pervasive. We see the world through the veil of structural inequity while forgetting that this veil is clouding the view. We are so used to inequity that we no longer realize how it blurs our vision.

The veil affects us all: even those of us who benefit from privilege miss out on the companionship of our neighbors. Through the hazy veil, we miss the context of an individual’s life and the clarity of their character.

Over time, may those of us with privilege learn how to dismantle the veil by deeply valuing and supporting our neighbors with our consistent action.

Yours truly,

Amy Carpenter-Leugs

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