By CAITLIN TAYLOR
Capital News Service
LANSING — At 14 percent, African-Americans are the largest ethnic minority group in Michigan, according to census data, but there is no state commission dedicated to the needs of this community.
“Currently in Michigan, we have a Hispanic/Latino Commission, an Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and a Commission on Middle Eastern American Affairs, but we have nothing in terms of civil rights for African-Americans,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. “I think this is a huge oversight.”
To bridge the gap, Jones re-introduced legislation this month to create an African-American affairs commission focused on improving equality and opportunity for African-Americans in the state.
According to the bill, the commission would consist of 15 members who have a particular interest or expertise in the African-American community. They would be appointed by the governor.
Members would hold quarterly meetings and be tasked with developing a comprehensive plan to serve the needs of African-Americans in Michigan.
Members would also make recommendations to the governor regarding ways to overcome discrimination, improve equal access to state programs and services, and recognize contributions by the state’s African-American community.
According to the proposal, the commission would be housed within the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), among the state’s three other ethnic commissions. Jeannie Vogel, media contact for LARA, said the department does not comment on pending legislation.
The commission “would encourage a better understanding of different demographics’ experiences in the state and help residents overcome barriers,” said Taylor Nash, chair of the Traverse City Human Rights Commission..
Similarly, Strick Strickland, president of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP and state chaplain for Michigan’s NAACP unit, said his associations support any legislation that will increase statewide representation for African-Americans.
The Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP lobbies for the equality, civil rights and voter mobilization of African-Americans in the private and public sector.
“Such an institution is long overdue,” Strickland said. “It’s an obvious need within our state for better representation within communities of color.”
Strickland said there is a lack of communication and responsiveness between citizens and state legislators. He said having a commission reporting directly to the governor would be critical to improving life for Michigan’s African-Americans.
According to Jones, the commission could make recommendations on a variety of topics, from employment to law enforcement, but Strickland said he would hope for a focus on educational support services.
“One of the major needs in the African-American community is to make sure that we have the right educational access and the right services for young people in our community,” Strickland said, adding that there is a specific need for programs ensuring students’ degree completion.
Last year, the bill to create an African-American affairs commission stalled in the House, after making it through the Senate. But this year, Jones has the help of Rep. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, who introduced a similar bill in the House.
“Perhaps (last year) it was too late in the session, and so many other things were pressing, but I think with Bizon, it will finish and be successful,” Jones said.
Bizon could not be reached for comment.
The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is the committee chair. His press secretary, Amber McCann, said the bill is not scheduled for a hearing, and Meekhof does not have a timeline for action.
By CAITLIN TAYLOR