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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Leelanau condemned the N-word, but the fight over racism had just begun

LAKE LEELANAU — It was a Tuesday in August when road commissioners in Leelanau County gathered to discuss the prosaic business of road commissions everywhere — self-insurance funds, a staff opening, a millage vote.   

But before it could even get started, this obscure board meeting in the dog days of summer would achieve national notoriety for one commissioner’s unapologetic use of the N-word. 

“Well, this whole thing is because of them n-----s in Detroit,” board member Tom Eckerle told a colleague who asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask. A rebuke from the chairman did little good. 

“I can say anything I want,” Eckerle said. “Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us.”

In the hours and days that followed, there was official condemnation all around. Democratic and Republican leaders from Leelanau to Lansing called for Eckerle to resign — which he eventually, grudgingly did. On the use of the N-word, at least, politicians could agree that a line had been crossed. 

But what happened next highlights the chasm that separates activists eager to confront institutional racism and some in the institutions themselves, who appear bewildered to find themselves under the microscope. 

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A week after the road commission meeting, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners met to discuss a resolution condemning racism in an effort to distance the county from Eckerle’s outburst. Instead, the commissioners wound up stoking the controversy he had sparked.

One board member began by suggesting the resolution did not adequately acknowledge all the good things Leelanau County provided its residents, including “our seasonal workers.” Its food programs are “extremely generous,” and “safety and policing — out of this world!” Another said that while Leelanau did have gaps in areas like housing and health, those were “not based on race so much as socioeconomic.” 

A board member took issue with the phrase “social justice” in the resolution. Another added, “I would like the word ‘racial’ removed where it says ‘ensure racial equity’...Why do we have to segregate people into groups? Equity should be equity for all. So I think that in itself is a racial slur.” 

The discussion then turned to how to define racism. Chairperson William Bunek and Commissioner Melinda Lautner thought they’d found an example in the number of Black women who sought abortions, citing unspecified news articles showing that African Americans were more likely to have the procedure than other women. It’s “perhaps the truest form of racism that’s going on,” Lautner said, calling it “genocide.” 

Bunek also raised verbal harassment of police officers as racism. 

“I have in there about law enforcement, and how they’re called ‘pigs’ or whatever. I mean, that’s another example of racism,” Bunek said.

The resolution failed to pass that night, but angry calls, letters and emails began flooding in almost immediately. The county board’s effort to show that Eckerle’s words did not reflect the culture of the county had only provided more evidence to the contrary. 

“I am appalled,” one person wrote. Another called the comments “insulting and demeaning to Black women.” A third called them “equally as shocking” as Eckerle’s use of the N-word.

In the more than two months since, the racial reckoning in this pocket of mostly white, rural northern Michigan continues unabated. It’s a sustained outrage that the region’s justice advocates hope to parlay into political activism and reforms aimed at addressing racial bias.

“It’s what our complacent white relatives needed to see,” said Holly Bird, a local attorney, Indigenous activist and co-executive director of the environmental and social justice nonprofit Title Track. “You can’t just say you don’t see it now.” 

Fuel for a movement

This is a conversation Marshall Collins has long waited to have. As a native son of Northport, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, Collins said he has spent a lifetime picking his battles when confronted with white neighbors’ words and actions that can come off as tone-deaf or outright hostile. 

Collins, 44, who is African American, was quick to note his affection for his hometown. But he said he has been called the N-word. He has encountered stares while walking down the street. He has been asked where he’s from, as if the answer couldn’t possibly be northwest Michigan. 

“I’ve always thought I'm going to be that guy who people say ‘I have a Black friend’ to defend their racism.”

Collins and others who spoke to Bridge Michigan for this article said the region’s lack of diversity contributes to a culture of avoiding conversations about race and racism locally, even among people who see racism as a problem elsewhere in the state or nation. 

Nine in 10 Leelanau County residents identify as white, without Hispanic or Latino heritage, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, part of an unbroken swath of northern Lower Peninsula communities that are far less diverse than the state as a whole. Neighboring Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Antrim and Charlevoix counties have even lower percentages of nonwhite residents.

But while the region’s racial makeup has long been this way, its politics have shifted in recent years. Formerly a reliably Republican-leaning county, Leelanau’s politics have crept leftward along with its rising popularity as a vacation and retirement destination, and the steady growth of liberal-leaning Traverse City, which dips into Leelanau County’s southeastern corner. Leelanau was the lone northern Lower Peninsula county where Democratic candidates for state office received more votes than Republicans in 2018. 

That shift is likely to continue as the region keeps growing, said Tom Ivacko, executive director of University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. 

“If this pandemic pushes that even faster and further, I think we could start to see some significant change that bleeds out even further from the city itself,” Ivacko said.

Dueling lawn signs throughout the region underscore the growing political divide. Along the cross-peninsula East Traverse Highway, the series of hay bales adorned with the red letters T-R-U-M-P compete for attention with the blue B-I-D-E-N painted across apple bins down the road. 

A roughly equal number of signs thank Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her COVID-19 directives, or thank the Republican sheriff, Mike Borkovich, a self-described “constitutional sheriff,” for vowing to defy them. 

And increasingly, the politics of race show up in the Black Lives Matter signs that have inched into the rural areas beyond Traverse City since George Floyd’s death in May under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. They too have their counterpoint: anti-abortion signs depicting a Black mother and baby. 

The political shifts were already happening. But since the spring, the region has also undergone what the area’s racial justice organizers describe as a cultural shift.

Following Floyd’s death, local protests drew large crowds. More than 2,000 people attended the second one, said Courtney Wiggins, a Traverse City resident who organized the protests.

The rallies served as an incubator for a new anti-racism task force that has since coalesced under the name Northern Michigan E3—shorthand for the group’s mission to elevate, educate and engage people on race. Led by people of color, the group aims to organize residents against racism and bring visibility to the region’s diversity. 

Latino residents represent 4.5 percent of Leelanau’s population, Native Americans make up 3.6 percent and African Americans and Asians each make up less than 1 percent of county residents.

“I’ve had people say ‘we don’t have to worry about [issues important to communities of color], because there’s not a lot of diversity here,” Wiggins said.

Northern Michigan E3 had begun to change that, with some early success: Hundreds of people have registered for racial justice training programs for white Northern Michiganders hosted by the social justice nonprofit Title Track. And the group said it is meeting regularly with local law enforcement officials to discuss ways racial bias may influence law enforcement.

Such ideological shifts, said Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political scientist who studies public opinion, voting behavior and the politics of race, often come with a commensurate backlash. He calls it Newtonian politics — that a political action will have an equal and opposite reaction.

“Every political movement necessarily gives rise to its counter,” Hutchings said, and the Eckerle incident and the Leelanau County board’s initial response to it are a classic example.

Following the uproar over the commissioners’ comments on racism, the county board returned the following week and Lautner offered contrition for mentioning abortion. “It was the wrong place and it was certainly the wrong time for this issue,” she said, “and I apologize.”  

In an interview with Bridge, Bunek, the board chairman, said he was only seeking clarity when he suggested that higher rates of abortions among African Americans was racist. The Republican from Suttons Bay said he believed the board’s response to Eckerle’s racist slur should stick to the specifics of what happened, rather than “addressing [racism] worldwide.”

And so, I asked about a couple of examples of, is this the kind of racism we're going to condemn?” he said. 

Bunek, who is white, said he was taken aback by the response. Before the Eckerle incident, he said, he hadn’t spent much time thinking about racism. But he also said he never noticed much racism in Leelanau. And as a construction worker by trade, he said, “I don’t have any kind of bias or prejudice against who’s hiring me.”

Bunek said at the follow-up board meeting that his earlier comments had been misconstrued — he was talking about the abortion industry, he said, and referencing harassment of Black police officers specifically.

The board voted 7-0 at the meeting to adopt a revised version of the anti-racism resolution.

By then, the angry emails had given way to an organized effort to counter the commissioners’ rhetoric. A handful of white residents, led by a Cedar attorney who had recently attended the rallies following Floyd’s death, set up a political action committee. 

Operating under the group name Northwest Michigan United For Racial Equity, the group raised money to buy a series of full-page ads in local newspapers. They used the space to condemn Eckerle’s actions and cover a range of topics related to race and racism. 

“Our goal was to make a statement that we’re no longer going to tolerate this in our community,” said Ellen Fred, the attorney who spearheaded the effort.

The ads have run weekly for months in the Leelanau Enterprise, and appeared in other local publications. Fred, who grew up in the Traverse Bay region, said she hopes they serve as a catalyst for discussions on the ways racism surfaces. Eckerle’s outburst, she said, is not an isolated incident. 

“It comes from years and years and years of systemic racism being, if nothing else, tolerated,” she said, incidents that only sometimes make the news.

In 2016, an off-duty Traverse City police officer was suspended after driving past a political rally with a Confederate flag hanging from his truck. In 2018, Kalkaska voters ousted the village president over his anti-Muslim Facebook posts. And Empire doctor Cyrus Ghaemi, whose parents are Iranian immigrants, said he answered his door in May to learn that someone in the neighborhood had called the sheriff to report a “suspicious person” outside Ghaemi’s home. It was him.

Ghaemi said it can be frustrating to hear the region’s white residents express surprise about such incidents, or profess that they’ve never noticed much racism in their community.

“It’s like, of course you didn’t. Of course you could never believe. Of course you had no idea,” Ghaemi said. “You would never have crossed [racism’s] path because you’re very sheltered and protected and privileged. I’m glad you’re seeing it now.”

Following urging from residents, including members of E3, the county board of commissioners agreed to undergo anti-bias training scheduled for November. County department heads will participate, too. Collins and other people of color from the region will serve as panelists. 

The session, trainer Diane Carpenter Emling said, will focus on establishing a “common basis” among participants of what racism is, and how racial bias shows up in everything from housing to health care to the justice system.

“Right now, people are talking past each other because they don’t have that common basis,” Carpenter Emling said.

The events in Leelanau Country fit into broader themes nationwide. Across the country, sustained protests since George Floyd’s death prompted a wave of concern about racism in the weeks and months afterward. People bought books on the subject, marched in greater numbers at protests, and sold out equity workshops and trainings. 

But at the same time, hate crimes are on the rise, according to recent FBI statistics, and the Southern Poverty Law Center said it has documented a 55 percent increase in the number of white nationalist groups in the United States since 2017.

Collins said he sees that dynamic in his own community. Despite the growing attention to racial justice, he said, moments like the Eckerle incident still happen. And “no matter which back road you take to get to Traverse City, you’ll see a Confederate flag on the way there.”

Where from here?

Regionally, members of the E3 say they want to see changes that go beyond trainings and messaging. They want to shift institutions. 

That will be far more difficult, said Hutchings of U-M. Research shows that white Americans are more likely to express racial sympathy with Black people over incidents of overt discrimination than they are in scenarios involving institutions or systems with no “clearly identifiable villain.”

Those systemic issues, from housing segregation to disparate educational outcomes and heavier policing in Black neighborhoods, show up just as prominently in cities and suburbs as they do in rural spaces, he said.

“It’s easier to go after people who utter the N-word and try to discourage them from doing so,” Hutchings said. “But it’s harder to to take on these larger systemic oppressions that have resulted in a society that is racially divided.”

Leaders of Northern Michigan E3 hope to parlay the energy from the Floyd protests and the Eckerle backlash into voter mobilization to change the makeup of local public bodies, and support for reforms to local policies and practices that they say uphold racism. 

They have focused much of their efforts so far on a list of demands that emphasize law enforcement reform in Grand Traverse County, including the purchase of body and dash cameras for police and sheriff’s officers, the creation of a citizen oversight commission to investigate officer misconduct, and reforms to divert officers from calls that could be better handled by other professionals. 

E3 leaders say they’ve achieved some progress, including a verbal commitment to anti-bias training from the Grand Traverse County sheriff.

In neighboring Leelanau County, the path forward after the upcoming county training is less clear. Local officials who spoke to Bridge seemed divided between those who see Eckerle’s statements as evidence of a bigger problem with racism in Leelanau County, and those who do not.

Ty Wessell, a Democratic county commissioner from Northport, said he wants the board to go beyond a resolution condemning racism by setting goals and creating an online dashboard where county residents can track the board’s progress. Hiring more people of color to work for the county, Wessell said, is one example. Working with the sheriff to institute anti-bias training for officers is another.

But Bunek, the county chair, said while he sees the commission’s upcoming training as an opportunity for reflection and discussion, he doesn’t think it’s necessary to follow up by reforming county policies with an eye toward race.

Eckerle’s use of the N-word was unacceptable, he said, and “we are reckoning with it.” But within county government, “I don’t see anything that’s [biased] or racism in what we’re doing.”

Recently, Northwest Michigan United for Racial Equity asked people running for the commission leading up to the Nov. 3 election what they “learned about racism recently that influenced their thinking about it.” 

Several challengers were effusive in embracing discussions of race and inequality. 

Bunek said he, too, would work to promote equity. But he remained bothered by the limited way in which people want to define racism. 

“I have learned that there are certain types of racism that people do not wish to discuss publicly,” he wrote. “How will these kinds of racism be resolved if open dialogue is not allowed?”

Commissioners Rushton and Lautner did not respond to the survey.  

Eckerle, the now-former road commissioner, said he doesn’t regret what he said. Noting that he has non-white family members, Eckerle dismissed those who have condemned his language as “far leftists.”

His former colleagues on the road commission haven’t discussed Eckerle’s outburst since it happened, road commissioner John Popa told Bridge. 

“We're focused on moving forward,” Popa said, by addressing local road budgets and projects, not the controversy Eckerle created.

The county board of commissioners, which must appoint Eckerle’s successor, will interview candidates on Nov. 9. The pool of six vying for the appointment includes at least one lawyer Barry Adler, who said he applied specifically to be a voice against racism on the road commision.

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