Bankole: With Benton Harbor crisis, Gov. Whitmer fuels public cynicism

Bankole Thompson
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses residents of Benton Harbor at a special community meeting on June 5  to discuss the state's proposal to close the high school.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigned as a game-changing liberal. In a never-ending pursuit to secure the black vote, she visited many in the black community to answer questions and discuss poverty and education. In fact, she was so relentless during the campaign that at one point, I thought she was either a candidate with Mother Teresa’s instincts or someone who came out of a Shirley Chisholm school of political transformation.  

For example, when I moderated the Democratic gubernatorial town hall on poverty at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in 2018, Whitmer came ready for the forum and declared that one of her first priorities as governor would be to appoint a cabinet-level poverty secretary to directly deal with inequality.

But since the election, Whitmer has been governing like a typical white liberal politician who sang every sweet tune to the listening ear of unsuspecting blacks to garner votes.

Almost six months into her tenure, she has not appointed the poverty secretary she promised or created a specific portfolio or named a department to deal with poverty.

Her press secretary, Tiffany Brown, says Whitmer still plans to make the appointment. When pressed for a timeline, Brown offered this non-committal response: “You can expect to hear more from the governor in the near future regarding her cities agenda and plans to address poverty and help strengthen communities across the state.”

As with most white liberal politicians, the issue of poverty will resurface as a central theme when she’s up for reelection. 

That explains why her administration has woefully failed to fix Benton Harbor's educational crisis by understanding the problem in a larger context of extreme poverty and inequality that have long plagued the community.

Instead she is focused on  shutting down Benton Harbor High School.

But Whitmer could point to the blacks working in her administration as a defense mechanism against any charges that her administration has been racially insensitive toward places like Benton Harbor.

After all, Garlin Gilchrist II is serving as the first African-American lieutenant governor. But what good is it to have blacks working for you when some policies of your administration are in direct contravention to the aspirations and advancement of black communities like Benton Harbor? It is not enough to put black faces in high places, and then ask the black community to shut up and be thankful for that gesture alone.

Faced with criticism, a seemingly confident Whitmer did what white liberals like Hillary Clinton have always done in playing games with the black community. She went to a local church in Detroit for cover Tuesday evening, and took a handful of questions regarding education and insurance and then was quickly whisked away. Her answers about Benton Harbor were vague.

What Whitmer’s regime shows is that in politics, your voice is only as significant as your clout. Benton Harbor doesn’t have billionaire investors like Dan Gilbert who can force the governor to accept a deal on the no-fault insurance reform a week after he threatened to launch a petition drive on the issue.

Poppy Sias-Hernandez, regional director of community affairs for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, talks with local minister Don McAfee at Benton Harbor High School, which the state says must close to salvage the struggling district.

That community doesn’t have an influential leader like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan who can play hardball with the governor. That is the naked truth about power and politics. Those without power are left looking in from the outside.

“It is apparent representatives of urban communities do not have direct day-to-day influence with the governor. Seems like big donors and corporate interests have the access,” said state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D- Detroit.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, explained the larger context of the Benton Harbor crisis and why Whitmer needs an education on the true needs of an urban agenda.  

“Children need access to public education right in their backyards. These school communities create bonds with not only the students, but with everyone in the neighborhood. A holistic approach is needed when it comes to educating our youth. Taking a predominately black school population and moving them into districts outside of their own neighborhood has the potential to create an environment where their ability to flourish may be impeded,” Tlaib said.

“We’ve seen in Wayne County, especially with the dismantling of the Inkster Public School District and widespread Detroit Public school closings, that closing neighborhood schools can and often has a negative impact on our communities. These examples, along with this crisis in Benton Harbor, should be a wake-up call that inequity in education is a problem for our communities and must be addressed immediately.”