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Bankole: Benton Harbor, ground zero of Whitmer’s troubling urban agenda

Bankole Thompson
Benton Harbor High School students gather for a group photo on Tuesday during an annual Peace Walk held at the end of the school year.

The crisis in Benton Harbor, one of the poorest cities in the state, is exposing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration as either callous or clueless about solving urban issues. The Democrat is determined to shut down the only high school in that majority black city, blaming poor academic and financial performance.

 “I am worried about outcomes for kids. We’ve put a plan in place that will alleviate the debt,” Whitmer told me Tuesday afternoon.  “I’m trying to avoid a dissolution of the district so Benton Harbor can maintain K-8, which is a lot more manageable.” 

 Whitmer’s explanation falls flat. What good is a district if it has no high school?

What is happening in Benton Harbor is viciously wrong. It shows the disparity between wealth and inequality because that community lacks the clout to force the governor’s team to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that prevents the closure. Their only recourse is to protest, organize town halls or appeal to a conscientious media to tell their story as the governor doubles down with her army of PR veterans, policy advisors and strategists.  

“One thing about Benton Harbor is that it is a community that is built around the high school itself. When you kill the high school, you are pulling the heart of the community,” longtime Benton Harbor activist the Rev. Edward Pinkney said. “Forcing our children to attend schools outside of their community will be detrimental to them because those surrounding areas don’t understand our children.”

The irony of the Benton Harbor fiasco is that if a Republican governor proposed closing the only high school in a predominantly black city, the entire white liberal establishment will be up in arms. They will use the issue to get more black votes in the next election. They will brand the GOP governor a racist. They will send out letters calling for a day of protest in Lansing with their allies. 

But because Democrats now control the executive branch, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence on the part of most Democrats. Where are the top white labor groups and their bullhorns? Does the future of Benton Harbor's economically disadvantaged black students matter to them? This hypocrisy stinks to the highest heights.

When she was seeking the governorship, Whitmer assured us she will be an urban champion. She emphasized that in my first face-to-face conversation with her during the campaign, after she asked to meet for coffee. We had a candid discussion about how Democrats take blacks for granted. She vowed to be a governor who will do things differently.

For her to now resort to this contradiction earlier in her tenure is telling about what more is in store for blacks under Whitmer. The Benton Harbor crisis may be viewed as a small flame that can easily be extinguished. But that may be wishful thinking because it could be the fire that begins to potentially engulf some of the governor’s political capital for a second term. 

Whitmer needs to put herself in the position of Benton Harbor’s poor black mothers whose lives will take a hard turn when the governor gets rid of the high school and displaces 700 students. 

The bottom line is if Benton Harbor were wealthy suburban Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham, no governor will march in there with a delegation and defiantly stand by their decision to close a high school. They will find an alternative that preserves the school because major campaign donors and the politically connected and influential are able to fight back with their dollars. 

That's something Benton Harbor cannot do. All that the people of this tiny city can do is raise their voices. All they can do is cry out publicly and plead for help, hoping for a saving grace. 

It’s time to break silence on Benton Harbor.

I feel compelled by history and the mandate of my conscience forces me to tell the governor she is wrong.