Bankole: Whitmer should offer a balm to Benton Harbor

Bankole Thompson
A water tower near downtown Benton Harbor.

Political leadership is more than just rhetoric and promises. It is also a balm that reaches beyond the central spaces of wealth and power and into the places of frustrating quarters where there is no hope or sense of recourse. 

No place exemplifies the urgent need for a decisive and compassionate political response to its educational crisis than Benton Harbor, a majority black city of roughly 10,000 residents in Berrien County that is now facing state closure of the high school or complete shutdown of the district in 2020.

In fact, to drive home the point for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to personally intervene in the crisis and stop Benton Harbor High School from closing, Mayor Marcus Muhammad went biblical in an interview last Thursday evening.  

The mayor invoked one of the most profound questions the prophet Jeremiah once asked: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The question evokes penetrating sentiments that have long resonated in African American spirituality and has been used to call urgency to the needs of those who have been left out to fend for themselves. It also was used during slavery to comfort  those who were holding out for the promise of freedom despite the harsh conditions they were going through.

Benton Harbor feels deeply wounded right now and needs a balm because of the difficult choice it is facing. Closing the high school and forcing an estimated 700 students to seek education in other communities will create a lot of instability for families. 

“About 80% of the convicted felons in Berrien County are from Benton Harbor. So if education is yanked from these students then that feeds into the pipeline to prison,” Muhammad said. “Benton Harbor has a growing special education population, whether it is by misdiagnosis or not, but that has not even been put on the table.”

Mayor Muhammad wants the governor to resolve the issue in a way that keeps their school in place, even as the state contends with poor academic and financial standing that triggered the threat of closure.  

“Benton Harbor has one of the oldest high schools in the state. It needs reinvestment, not disinvestment,” Muhammad said. “I would encourage the governor to really sit down and produce an urban agenda that would address distressed municipalities like ours. I supported her. I brought her to Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church during the campaign. So I want her to be successful.”

He added, “Benton Harbor can be a litmus test for how urban education can succeed as well as for some of your more rural communities that are suffering from financial deficits and achievements. We don’t need punitive action. We need restorative action.”

But Muhammad also thinks there is something more sinister going on. The high school sits on prime property on the waterfront, and he said that could be a ploy to give the land away to developers.

The Benton Harbor School Board also fired off a letter to the governor last week.

“The contention by representatives of your office that hiring a single staff person to act as a cultural dean to smooth over discomfort that the displaced 700 black students might feel when transported out of their community to predominantly white schools is an appalling insult to our youth and the community. Such insensitivity to the painful history of racial segregation, unsuccessful past desegregation efforts, and continued state-sponsored dis-investment in Benton Harbor calls for a swift and strong response,” the letter stated.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that Benton Harbor is easily expendable. After all, it is a very tiny city emblematic of the urban crisis. But Whitmer would be smart to use the kind of judgment she touted during her campaign to go to Benton Harbor and hear directly from those who would be adversely impacted by the state’s decision.

I don’t believe Whitmer is an out-of-touch governor. She cares about education. But there are certain decisions political leaders can make that can have far more ramifications than they’ve imagined.

Benton Harbor offers a challenge but also an opportunity for the governor to rewrite the script on what urban education should really mean for black children. It would behoove the governor not to repeat the kinds of mistakes that similarly led to the problems that plagued the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

When I asked Muhammad if he had asked for a meeting with the governor, he responded, “I’ve not asked for a sit-down with the governor. You never ask the coach to go in the game. Just be ready.”

Whitmer should talk to Benton Harbor.