On the Human Rights Commission de-funding

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

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.

11 thoughts on “On the Human Rights Commission de-funding

  1. This decision seems to have come out of nowhere, at least from the outside. I imagine it will take some time to sort through the accusations and recriminations on this one.

    A few preliminary thoughts:

    Clay Miller, the "privileged white male," actually spends his days representing individuals charged with crimes who do not have the funds to afford legal representation. He is actually one of the best workers for the "underprivileged" in the community.

    Having worked in many facets of the local legal community over the last 17 year, I cannot name a single instance where I encountered the work of the civil rights commission, nor heard of any positive impact. This doesn't mean that there was not good work going on there, but I can't help but think that I would have seen someone touched by the commission over a career such as mine if the reach of this commission was significant.

    Can you name another case handled by the commission in the last 20 years otehr than the Bane case?

  2. Thanks for your great comments, Thomas.

    I have no doubt that Clay does a great deal for underprivileged folks in the community, and I appreciate it. I can't help but point out however that as a public defender, he is likely paid through government funding to perform that work, instead of doing it on a volunteer basis. His clients also probably value that he is employed and lives locally, instead of coming in from the state level when someone needs legal representation.

    These observations don't make the work any less commendable, but they do seem to support the notion of valuing some kind of government-funded, locally-based service to represent underprivileged people here, instead of assuming they can be just as well served by state agencies.

    I cannot claim any firsthand knowledge of the work that the Commission has done or the value that it has brought. I do know at least one person who I trust greatly, who has been involved with the Commission and is passionate about its mission and work, even if they also aware of its shortcomings.

    Part of this is symbolic - it speaks to the question of what we value as a community. I'm not saying we should spend $75K on symbolism if no practical value is being seen from that, and maybe there is a real marketing/awareness issue for the HRC as you indicated. But again, I don't feel particularly in touch with the slices of the population that the HRC is designed to serve, so I would be careful before saying that just because I hadn't directly heard of success stories there were none out there.

    Your point is well taken, though, and certainly if no one can identify the positive impacts of the HRC, it would be much harder to argue for its funding. The decision last night shifts that burden onto HRC supporters to make that positive impact very clear, very quickly.

  3. I have come into direct contact with the HRC, admittedly not for a period of years. Based on working at a reduced hourly rate as a hearing officer for contested discrimination claims, here are my observations about why this particular agency was a [poor] duplication of the EEOC at the state level.

    1. Claimants, understandably, did not have access to legal counsel. Therefore, staff and board members alike attempted to advise those claimants, usually inappropriately and inaccurately. The suggestion that the Commission hire an attorney to draft a sort of a handbook for its unrepresented claimants was ignored.
    2. The Commission, in determining what claims to pursue, often misunderstood or simply disregarded the legal definition of "discrimination." Because of that misunderstanding or disregard, it further totally misconstrued what appropriate damages should be.
    3. The result of 1 and 2 above was that unrepresented claimants would enter into a contested proceeding against an employer/landlord/etc. who usually was represented by counsel, with absolutely no idea of the legal procedure necessary to prove a case of discrimination, which is incredibly complicated.
    4. Then, when the aforementioned unrepresented claimant failed to make his/her case - perhaps not because there was not one, but because s/he did not meet even the baseline evidentiary standards (which s/he knew nothing about) to do so - a hearing officer would have no choice but to rule against the claimant, in a very lengthy, carefully worded, legal-citation-loaded Order (again, at an extremely discounted cost to the Commission).
    5. Sometimes, the Commission would refuse to accept said lengthy, carefully worded, legal-citation-loaded Order and try to hire ANOTHER lawyer at a significantly discounted rate, to review and overturn the previous decision, which, by the way, is completely inappropriate and contrary to procedure.

    I therefore always refer my clients to the EEOC at the state level. The claim forms are easy to fill out, a representative will investigate the claim in much the same manner, but often more efficiently, as the HRC, and a representative will travel to the claimant's location to assist in mediation between the claimant and the accused. It may take months or even years, but that is the case with any legal process, even that processed through the HRC.

  4. Great post, Chris. I appreciate your succinctness in explaining the issue as well as your ability to outline clear expectations of research that should have occurred before the Council made what appeared to be a decision loftily handed down from on high. Had they gathered such background information, they might not have made such an (at least by appearances) easy decision.

    I also deeply appreciate your ability to name your own privilege, and your bravery in pointing out the privilege of others who have power and influence. Just because Mr. Miller is a public defender does not mean, as Mr. Kemp seems to imply with his carefully placed clause and quotes, that he cannot also be a privileged white male. Mr. Miller is a privileged white male. I am a privileged white female. What your post (and accompanying response to Mr. Kemp) lifts up so incisively is the Council's particular estrangement from the community members who the Human Rights Commission serves. This estrangement necessarily taints any decision about its usefulness that it (or we!) might hand down without doing the necessary background research (including but not limited to, as you mentioned, meeting with staff, board, and the folks served.) The fact that the Council has clearly not reflected on this issue with respect and gravity reflects poorly on all of its members.

    My prayer is that supporters of the HRC and those who have yet to learn of its dire need will come to have sincere, respectful dialogue with one another for the benefit of our community.

  5. Ms. Lowe, just to clarify, my use of quotation marks (placed haphazardly, I must point out: I am seldom careful in my punctuation) was to call Chris out on bringing up the race and social makeup of the decision makers. While Chris did not actually say that they made their decision based on racist or elitist attitudes, the implication was created (at least in my mind) because of the observation.

    Does anyone recall the comments made by the former director of the commission on the commission's role in issues involving discrimination based on sexual preference? If there was a formal statement by the commission disavowing those comments, I do not remember seeing it.

  6. Thanks for checking me on the "carefully placed" comment, Thomas! I am pretty careful about mine, usually, so I guess I was projecting. 🙂

    While you "called Chris out" for bringing up race and social makeup of the decision makers, I praised him for doing so! Indeed, that was the point of my response. I think the reason the Council made the decision that they did is because, as people of privilege, they are estranged or alienated from the kind of folks who are served by the Human Rights Commission. Our social location--rich, poor, black, white, disabled, elderly--really affects how we think about this and other issues. I challenge the Councilmembers to consider how their own social location (and lack of research about HRC) has affected their rapid, and to many, slipshod, decision-making.

  7. I want to comment on Thomas Kemps inquiry about whether the Human Rights Commission's challenged Mr Chappell's statements about sexual preference. Our main problem was that because the city ordinance does not cover sexual orientation we could not speak as a commission to that issue. But some of us did and continue to address that issue personally. I as Chair (at that time) proposed amending the city ordinance to include sexual orientation. It was never taken up by the council and I wonder if ending the commission is, in fact, a preemptive act to keep that issue from ever surfacing.

  8. In response to Thomas Kemp's question of effectiveness of the commission I can only say that we have had many successful resolutions to situations that could have become major. That they did not rise to the level of the Bane case is a good thing not a bad one. I know that at least one of the council members who voted against defunding the commission was from a person who had a family member with such a case. I encourage you to go visit the office and sit down with Ron Church, he would be glad to go over the stats with you.

    To Amy's point. I do remember you as hearing officer and always appreciated your expertise. We did have some staffing issues, although to be fair our major issue was funding. The city of Richmond has never committed the resources that many other cities have. Nonetheless, we did have regular contact with Civil Rights Attorney's throughout the state and have increased that consultation. And found ways to get the expertise and training for our staff. The present Director is recognized both State wide and nationally for his expertise by the National Association of Human Rights Workers. The current commission has increased the regularity and quality of oversight with both the city council and sister agencies around the state. That is why it is hard to understand the cut at this time.

    Bob

  9. I'm curious to know how similar offices are run in other Indiana communities. Did the council do any investigation in that regard?

    I talked to someone just yesterday who said her agency (works with the disabled) has been flooded with calls from people who don't know what they will do when the HRC closes. So much for no one being helped by the HRC. I suspect that if you don't routinely work with people who have gone to the HRC for help, you won't have heard of the work they do, good or bad.

    Did Mr. Miller and the others who voted to de-fund the operation even consider the impact on other agencies in the community?

    I do think that there is more to this story than is being publicly discussed. The previous director was a lightning rod for criticism, perhaps rightfully so. I know him personally and have found him to be a nice person, but he was perhaps not the right person for that position. At least one of the council members (not Mr. Miller) has been opposed to the existence of the local HRC for several years.

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