Last night, Richmond, Indiana's City Council voted 5-4 to de-fund the Human Rights Commission, a local agency that investigates and addresses complaints of discrimination based on race, religion, color, gender, physical disability or national origin. The budget for the agency was $74,150, an amount that is already down from other cuts in recent years.
The de-funding measure was proposed by Councilman J. Clayton Miller. Every encounter I've had with Mr. Miller has been a positive one, and he seems to be a good person doing what he believes is right, which I appreciate. I'm sure that his fellow supporters on Council who also voted in favor are also doing what they think is right. But I question whether they have made this decision with full consideration for the needs of the whole community in mind.
Let's not kid ourselves: these five men are privileged white males who enjoy a fair amount of power and influence in this community. It's unlikely that they have recent personal experiences of being discriminated against in Richmond based on their race, gender, or ethnicity. I write this blog entry as a privileged white male in the community who is fortunate to have experienced minimal discrimination in my own efforts at employment, career-building and personal success. Are the lot of us really in a position to confidently say that Richmond doesn't need a locally-based organization focused on defending the rights of people who are NOT coming from a place of privilege, and who ARE being discriminated against?
Before making such a decision, I hope the council members at least took the time to:
- Meet with the staff and board of the Human Rights Commission to listen closely to their input and suggestions about how closing down the agency would affect the community
- Meet with the people who have been affected by the Commission's work, especially citizens who have submitted claims or engaged in casework, and listen closely to how their case might have gone differently if the local Commission didn't exist
- Say, as Mr. Miller said he would in his campaign for his Council seat, "let's figure out how" we can make this agency work in a way that meets the needs of local citizens and balances budget constraints in the City government, and then really work with all parties involved to do so.
- If they can't figure it out, work with state agencies to insure that in the absence of a local commission, the same level of services can and will be provided to the citizens of Richmond who are being discriminated against.
If these Council members voting in favor of cutting this agency's funding didn't each personally engage in at least those activities, then I think they've been irresponsible in their actions and failed the people they are supposed to represent.
To be sure, the Human Rights Commission has had a checkered past in this community. A former director was known for defending against some kinds of discrimination while actively engaging in others, politics and grandstanding often go along with any headlines about its work, and there are real questions to answer about the role it plays in the context of state agencies and other organizations with similar missions.
It seems clear from the initial reaction to last night's vote that these questions were far from answered, and that the Commission still plays a critical role in a community that does struggle with discrimination of all kinds. The decision needs to be re-examined and better explained, and in the absence of a clear justification that goes beyond saving money to really look at the impact on all citizens (not just privileged white men in power), the decision should be reversed.