In recent days many Lansing residents received a postcard from a local political action committee touting Mayor Andy Schor’s leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. The postcard also includes photos of Schor with African Americans, including State Rep. Sarah Anthony, presumably to show that Schor gets along just fine with Black people. Setting aside the fact that we’ve seen little actual leadership from Schor over the past three months, the fact that an interest group would spend money on a campaign mailing more than 17 months in advance of the mayoral election suggests that Schor and his allies understand he is in trouble. Sadly, a postcard isn’t going to fix the vexing racial issues that have dogged Schor and his team for the past year.
At the outset of his administration, Schor declined to retain Planning Director Bob Johnson and Human Resources Director Mary Riley. Both are African Americans who were appointed to their positions by Schor’s predecessor, Virg Bernero. It’s not unusual for a new mayor to bring in their own team, so dismissing Johnson and Riley didn’t necessarily raise any race-related concerns.
A year into his term, however, Schor got into an ugly public spat with Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, who resigned his position out of frustration with not being consulted on any issue of consequence to his department or the city, resulting in an “unhealthy” work environment created by Schor and his team. Next to go were Chief Information Officer Collin Boyce, who quietly left the city for a new job in Arizona but recently came forward with nearly identical complaints, and Martell Armstrong, executive director of the Lansing Housing Commission. Then came the Joan Jackson Johnson debacle, in which the city’s long-time Human Relations and Community Services director and homeless advocate was forced into retirement amid allegations of financial impropriety, none of which have been proven nearly six months later. The latest allegations come from former mayoral staffer Natasha Atkinson, a recent MSU graduate who was hired last year to work as Schor’s scheduler. She says she was ostracized by the mayor’s staff and twice had her work area trashed. She was fired without explanation in January after making suggestions for improving the administration’s approach to race-related issues.
Any one of these episodes is enough to raise questions about Schor’s commitment to diversity and willingness to listen to the perspectives of people of color. Taken together, they establish a pattern that is impossible to ignore and that raises serious concerns about Schor and his administration.
Schor’s pandemic of race-related troubles is truly confounding. By all appearances, and based on his track record as a public official, the mayor is a bonafide progressive Democrat with a deep commitment to serving his community. He’s also a genuinely nice guy. But even nice progressives can have a blind spot when it comes to race, and so it seems with Schor. We don’t believe Schor or his staff are overt or even covert racists. It appears likely, though, that their blind spots are rooted in implicit bias, an unconscious tendency to disregard the views, concerns and issues raised by people of color. Implicit bias is embedded in the cultural conditioning of white Americans and manifests itself as unacknowledged white privilege.
Yesterday’s announcement of the mayor’s plan to promote racial equity and community healing has some laudable components, including hiring a “Diversity and Inclusion Officer” and holding community forums to develop solutions to race-related problems. Perhaps most important, the mayor’s call for implicit bias training for him and his staff is a tacit acknowledgement that there are unresolved issues in his office that need to be addressed. We applaud him for recognizing the problem and taking steps toward a remedy.
The mayor’s plan gives the appearance of understanding racial equity and social justice and what needs to be done to move the city forward in those areas. But statements and plans are merely words; it is action that counts. What matters is not that you created a diversity commission, marched with protesters or signed a pledge. What matters is how you treat people on a day-to-day basis and the actions you take to make good on your expressed commitment to diversity. These are the benchmarks by which Schor and his team will be judged.
In the absence of actions that back up his words, Schor’s tenuous relationship with the city’s Black community will not improve and calls for his resignation will only intensify. He will need far more than glossy postcards to salvage his mayoral tenure and launch a viable campaign for reelection, if it is not already too late. We are willing to give him a chance to make things right but the bar is high. We’re hopeful that Schor finds his way.
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