Opinion: Mich. needs to record hate and bias incidents

Agustin V. Arbulu
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, right,  addresses Michigan Civil Rights commissioners as Dr. Agustin V. Arbulu, left, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, takes notes.

The Michigan Constitution, Article 5, Section 29 plainly states “It shall be the duty of the commission in a manner which may be prescribed by law to investigate alleged discrimination against any person because of religion, race, color or national origin in the enjoyment of the civil rights guaranteed by law and by this constitution, and to secure the equal protection of such civil rights without such discrimination.”

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights take this constitutional duty seriously. From its beginning, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has determined that part of this obligation requires the department to provide training and education to reduce and eliminate discrimination.

The Department also recognizes our responsibility to be fiscally responsible by working within the confines of our appropriated budget. This means, in order to effectively marshal our resources we need to develop systems which enable MDCR to quickly identify and engage with communities facing divisive situations.

Recently, the Department announced its intention of creating an improved system by which we can quickly and effectively identify hotspots across the state where bias may be present. This system will only identify incidents or acts. The intention has been and continues to be focused on actions and not people. This type of systemic analysis is an acceptable tool in government. Examples include local police crime maps to heat maps by health officials tracking drug overdoses or disease outbreaks.

This system aims to allow the department, along with community partners, to more quickly, effectively and efficiently identify communities where multiple incidents involving bias have occurred. Using this information will enable us to proactively deploy the necessary resources to help keep tensions from escalating. Our assistance could be as simple as an outreach to local law enforcement or community leaders to offer technical advice, or an intervention working with communities to develop detailed community forums and conversations to educate and alleviate potential frictions in impacted communities.

Bias incidents create added tension and fear, known stressors, in a community. According to a 2013 study by the American Institute of Stress, injuries and illness related to stress cost the American economy an estimated $300 billion a year. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has an entire unit dedicated to addressing the health disparities among minorities in this state, based upon dozens of studies linking stress related to discrimination and bias to illness and injuries.

When bias incidents happen, people in the affected communities are subjected to increased stressors related to that bias. That in turn increases health impacts and in turn absenteeism, tardiness, and increased medical institutional interventions, according to both MDHSS and the American Institute of Stress.

Immediate action addressing flares of bias in communities within our state is in our best interests. It improves lives, reduces the burdens to the community and the economy and, most importantly, creates a more cohesive sense of community. The early interventions we are developing with this process will,

in fact, promote safer and healthier communities by proactively preventing bias from becoming law-violating discrimination, or worse, a violent hate crime.

Currently, different advocacy groups and affinity organizations, as well as governments, collect information regarding incidents of hate and bias that impact their respective communities. We cannot spot trends without knowing about incidents. A central repository would allow us to be more keenly aware of the interrelatedness of bias and its geography.

Much has been made of this plan, which remains under development, based upon false assumptions about its intent. As the director, and as a Department, we want to assure all residents that protecting the civil rights of all people includes protecting the rights afforded to all of us under the First Amendment. This precious foundation of the U.S. is not being subordinated or ignored.

When we continue to work towards minimizing bias and hate, all Michiganders win. This developing protocol will allow us to more accurately identify and more effectively respond before broader, more damaging incidents occur. Together we can build a more inclusive and respectful Michigan.

Agustin V. Arbulu is director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.