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

Demonstrators gather at Traverse City’s Hull Park for a community accountability rally on Oct. 2. The Traverse Bay area is among communities across the nation that have experienced a wave of activism tied to issues of race and police accountability prompted by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in May. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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. 


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.

William Bunek, the county chair, said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to follow up by reforming county policies with an eye toward race. (Courtesy of Leelanau County)

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.” 

Marshall Collins, an educator in the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District, who was born and raised in Leelanau County’s Northport, said “silent racism” has long been a problem in the region.  (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

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. 

Dueling yard signs throughout the Leelanau Peninsula hint at the region’s political divide. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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.

Dueling yard signs throughout the Leelanau Peninsula, including nearly identically-designed signs supporting either Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or the sheriff who has defied her, hint at an ongoing political divide in the region. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

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.

Cedar resident Ellen Fred and fellow Leelanau County residents have created a political action committee and placed weekly ads in local newspapers to counter what Fred called a culture of tolerating racism.  (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

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. (Courtesy of Leelanau County)

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.” 

“We're focused on moving forward,” John Popa said of the Eckerle incident. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

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.

Leelanau County's political leanings have grown less conservative in recent years, but cultural divides still mark the region. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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Thu, 10/29/2020 - 11:29pm

Northern Michigan is Red, very Red. The only local elections that matter are the Republican primaries, since it's nearly guaranteed that the winners of these primaries will win the general election. If you're a Democrat and want to serve in public office, run as a Republican and win the Republican primary, because that's the only way you'll win the seat.

It wasn't always this way. Democratic politicians protected unions and much of the north was unionized. Union membership is a fraction of what it was in past decades. Northern Michigan is more religious than urban centers and abortion has become a major issue.
Northern population is getting older. The young leave and retirees move here; the old are more likely to be Red.

It's tough imagining a different track for northern Michigan. To change politically, we need new people, young people. But, there are so many obstacles to this happening: a dearth of good paying jobs, few services favored by the young and very spotty broadband Internet that could be used for remote learning and work if it was widely available.

With the exception of a few enclaves, Traverse City and some college towns, northern Michigan is destined to remain Red.

Sun, 11/01/2020 - 9:34am

I have tried to vote Dem for years.....in many cases there are no Dem candidates. I find that disheartening. I know plenty of folks that would vote for them if they were on the ballot.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 2:43am

The term "police" is not a race. Read Gordon Allport's "The Nature of Prejudice", if you want to learn the meaning of words like "bias", "prejudice", "bigotry", "ethnocentrism", "xenophobia", etc. Words do have meaning. We also have "protected classes" of people, but that could change with the new Supreme Court majority. Expect to lose many of your civil rights now that everything will be questions based on a new regressive 1776 approach to our Constitution, with a disregard to laws passed and precedents upheld. It seems that now more and more we need to state the obvious and encourage critical thinking, teach more civics classes.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:08am

Great article. Well balanced and explained on an important topic.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:29am

My many Black friends use the "N" word often as well as the "C" word,,so let us just get over it.

Northern Michigan is far from racist. I have experienced great racism towards me, a Caucasian and Cheyenne mix working IT jobs in Detroit and Flint than I have ever seen in Northern Mi. ,,, even to the point of having my life threatened if I wasn't out of the area by sunset,,truth!

Nancy Flanagan
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:52am

Thank you. Well done. As a member of Northwest Michigan United For Racial Equity, the group that sponsored (and wrote) the full-page ads in the Leelanau Enterprise, I think Bridge took the time to get the story right.

Antiracist rhetoric is good--we need more of it--but what really matters is the impact in policy. Most of Leelanau County's problems stem from old policy and political thinking--things like no affordable workplace housing, overpriced and inaccessible internet, threats to the clean water we depend on for both tourism and our own recreation. All of these have racist underpinnings.

We are just at the starting blocks of making Leelanau County and the whole Grand Traverse region open and affirming to people of all colors and beliefs. Thanks for highlighting our story.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:59am

Bunek has played this game for years: he knows a topic gets attention if "racist" is attached to it, so he tries to defend cops by saying they're victims of racism. Lautner, too: she loves to attach racism to her pro-life slogans, but ask her how they're linked, and she can't give a straight answer.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:01am

Leelanau County has gotten itself into the unfortunate position of being branded racist and for a county that depends to a large extent on tourism and new visitors and residents, this is sad. The County Board and other organizations should just adopt resolutions that declare unequivocal support of racial justice and diversity. Every community should project a welcoming picture. Absolutely no one should object to that.

Barry Adler
Mon, 11/02/2020 - 2:57pm

You are absolutely correct. However, resolutions are only a start. The problem must be carefully and thoughtfully defined. and then a plan of action to address it be implemented at all levels of government. Our leaders must be cognizant of the lack of diversity that insulates us from a greater understanding of what it means to be a victim of racial stereotypes. It is not just "us vs them". We are all in this together., trying to build a better place to live, work and raise our families.

Richard Barron
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:05am

This type of in depth Michigan reporting on fundamental social issues is what makes Bridge so valuable to our state. Thank you.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:31am

My experience from 25 years living rural and volunteering on issues there is that any type of progressive change movement needs to involve two components - one bringing in information on how things really are in the rest of the state- for instance the virus did not start here in the black community it was heaviest initially in the white suburbs but also looking at similarities between rural areas and urban related to poverty, health care access, and how cost of living plays out in each area. Dealing with abstract concepts has limited significant policy results.

Eric Carlson
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 11:50am

Nice job of reporting. And you're welcome. Eric Carlson, reporter, The Leelanau Enterprise.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 11:52am

This is definitely an opportunity. Having grown up in an almost all-white area in the 50s & 60s, a lot of white racism is unspoken and--for that reason--unexamined. When Commissioner Bunek referred to black American women as more likely to seek an abortion than white American women he was probably giving voice to something he'd unquestioningly thought but never said out loud.
Unspoken thoughts are slippery things. Once they are spoken, though, they are out in the open and easier to examine.
Assuming that what Mr. Bunek said is true, why would he suppose that black American women would be more likely to CHOOSE not to carry their pregnancy to term. Could it be that they believe that their babies' life prospects are more bleak than white Americans' babies? And why would they think that?
Another example is Mr. Eckerle's statement that, "Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us.” Well, who does "us" refer to? Obviously, white Americans. Mr. Eckerle must be going through his life assuming that America belongs to white people by right of possession. Other people--black Americans, brown Americans, and native Americans--are just SUBJECTS of America, but aren't really equal American citizens in the view of Mr. Eckerle and the many millions of white Americans who share his assumptions.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 1:39pm

Time for us all to realize that there are people we agree with and those we disagree with among all races. Rather than race it is more a political line that divides us. Don’t see how we solve that one as I totally could not agree with any progressive socialist idea.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 1:39pm

Time for us all to realize that there are people we agree with and those we disagree with among all races. Rather than race it is more a political line that divides us. Don’t see how we solve that one as I totally could not agree with any progressive socialist idea.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 6:21pm

I’ve owned property in Leelanau County since 1981 and would observe that a majority of residents don’t see a problem with racism here because EITHER they are racist themselves to one degree or another - - and/or tolerate it among others. OR - they just don’t “see” racism in this county because, other than the Grand Traverse Bay Tribes, there are so very - VERY - few people here who do not identify as Caucasian. (The seasonal workers who harvest assorted fruit crops certainly include racial minorities - but they are necessary to the county’s economy and are, generally, not here long enough to be resented.)

The result is a sort of “innate racism” - - a sort of self-perpetuating status quo in which people of “other races” are not encountered on a regular basis. So - in the absence of non-Caucasian people, how can we have overt racism? We can whack down racism when creatures such Eckerle expose themselves to the world - or when Commissioners make such blatant and obvious attempts to avoid a resolution on racism. But until more than a handful of minority race members take up residence and seek to be part of the Leelanau community, this innate racism will just lie dormant and be perpetuated from generation to generation. (Is there a “red line” painted on the southern border of our county?)

The Leland Superintendent of Schools sent a letter to parents recently suggesting overt acts to counteract this perpetuation of racism. The negative community reaction to that letter verifies and enforces my above comments. (There were, of course, some positive community reactions.)

Changing the exposure of our students to and discussing with them the racism that exists elsewhere - such as Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis and the myriad other cities where racist atrocities have been committed recently - is the only way that the innate, passive racism which exists in this county today can be eliminated. Parental involvement by those who are, genuinely, NOT racist (at any level) would help too.

This article’s headline is precisely on target!!

Sat, 10/31/2020 - 11:17am

I'll bet Marshalls mom is Mary Collins anyone who has visited Northport Mi, and spent any time in town would know her she had the shop by the marina what a wonderful person.

Sun, 11/01/2020 - 9:58am

Born and raised in Leelanau County. Thinking back on my childhood, I don't recall too many people who weren't racist. Some outwardly, some silently, but most racist nonetheless. I recall going to Sunday School and learning how to treat people and that we are all the same, and then leaving and going out into my world to see that no one was practicing this. Very confusing, very disturbing. Leelanau has changed with the influx of "transplants" and has brought in some good and some bad. My hope is that the conversation and this article will force folks to take a look at how they view the world. Calling out racism against folks of color, is in no way being racist against white people, and if you think that, it's time for some proper education on the subject. Also, so much of what racism is, happens subtly and not always blatantly out in the open.