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Benton Harbor — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s political mettle is being tested not in Detroit, Oakland County or Grand Rapids. But rather in Benton Harbor, a small city in the southwest corner of the state that before the most recent educational crisis was perhaps not on the radar of most political players and wealthy campaign donors in southeastern Michigan.

Why?  

The votes that significantly determine the outcome of elections don’t come out of Benton Harbor, because it is a community of roughly 10,000 blacks for whom disinvestment has been a constant reality for decades. Instead, the votes come mostly from our region of southeast Michigan, and according to modern conventional politics, you are supposed to go where most of the votes are. You are not obliged to spend any kind of serious political capital in a city like Benton Harbor, because it is a community considered easily expendable.

That is perhaps one of the reasons why many top white labor groups in our region have been noticeably missing in the ongoing debate regarding state closure of the only high school in Benton Harbor. They are either sitting on the sidelines or waiting for the storm to pass because it’s not worth the fight when you consider how many votes are cast in that black city. That is classic white liberal bait-and-switch politics. You will only hear from them if their interest is truly at stake.

The push to ensure that Benton Harbor’s only high school remain open is about the moral character of the current administration in Lansing. It is about demanding that the governor seriously consider the larger implications of her impending decision over the lives of innocent children instead of a quick fix. It is about education and racial equality, because we are still a society of unequal opportunity.  

“No evidence that shifting students to districts where they are not wanted solves the problem of children. It provides a quick solution for adults who do not want to be bothered by the burden of inequity. This is an opportunity to demonstrate transformative leadership,” Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said about the Benton Harbor crisis. “Real problems exist in Benton Harbor, but they need to be met with authentic problem solving that respects real issues related to race, class and a history of inequity. Closing the high school is the easy and wrong answer.”

To understand the enormity of the crisis Benton Harbor faces right now, I visited the city last week and spoke to the Rev. Edward Pinkney, one of the city’s most outspoken leaders. We spent hours taking a tour of the city as he gave his candid thoughts about why Whitmer’s decision to get rid of the high school could place their community in a state of paralysis.

 “This is an attack on Benton Harbor’s black community. A debt can be forgiven. That should not be a reason to close any school. [Whitmer] as governor can forgive the debt. That would set a level playing field for this community and give us an opportunity to start fresh,” Pinkney said. “If she wants to shut down our only high school, then the morality of this governor has to be questioned. We can fix anything if we put our heads together.”

When I asked the governor about forgiving the reported $18 million debt the school owes, she said it’s up to the Legislature.

“I absolutely have to work with the Legislature to get an agreement for whatever the solution is,” Whitmer said. “We don’t have a solution to simply wipe away the debt without a plan for the school. I don’t unilaterally make appropriation decisions.”

The paradox of the Benton Harbor crisis is that it challenges Democrats who claim to support black issues to really define an urban agenda. That includes rolling out a realistic plan that includes community input and not a helicopter approach to addressing the myriad of problems facing black cities across the state.

The Flint water crisis largely defined the legacy of former Gov. Rick Snyder. Benton Harbor also stands to define Whitmer’s first term in office because the education of Benton Harbor’s black community matters.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

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