According to the 2019 US Census, Livingston County is 96.4 % white. Nicole Matthews-Creech,president of the Livingston Diversity Council, said the conversation regarding racism in the county has to change for any progress to be made.
“People say we don’t have to talk about diversity because we don’t have any, well, I am going to reverse that and say we don’t have any because we don’t talk about it,” said Matthews-Creech.
Robert E. Miles moved to Howell and eventually settled in Cohoctah Township in the early 1960s. Miles was the Grand Dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. He hosted cross-burnings on his property and bombed 10 empty school busses in Pontiac days before a court-order was passed to integrate schools on Aug. 30, 1971.
Miles died on Aug. 16, 1992. Even 29 years after his death, his impact remains. Howell still carries the reputation of being a Ku Klux Klan hotbed and Livingston County has a racist label attached to it. Recent events continue to contribute to that reputation.
In May, four Livingston County teens were charged following allegations of racial harassment against Hartland High School student Tatayana Vanderlann, who is Black, calling her the N-word and making fun of her appearance. After being ignored by school officials, she went to social media to express her concerns. It was not until her post that an investigation was started.
Earlier this month, Brighton High School students made a video in which one was blackface and included homophobic slurs. They have not been charged.
Dr. Jessica Garcia is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant as well as a Brighton resident. She said it is easy for people to behave in this way when no one will hold them accountable.
“What’s different about Livingston County than some other areas I think is because it’s so white, it’s very easy for people to feel emboldened and at a minimum protected, but more likely in good company when they behave in this way,” said Garcia. “And so that emboldens them and they don’t think there’s anyone that’s going to hold them accountable.”
Despite the reputation of Livingston County, Garcia said she knows that not all of Livingston County shares in racist perceptions.
“Livingston County has pockets of really great people and efforts going around diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Garcia.
“We can’t build a building and put out the fire at the same time. And unfortunately right now our focus has been putting out fires,” said Matthews-Creech.
Matthews-Creech said that the safety of the residents of Livingston County is ultimately the No. 1 priority, but she knows there is a lot more work to be done.
“I think everyone can agree that everybody should be safe,” said Matthews-Creech. “I think safety is the unarguable point. When it comes to my rights versus your rights that’s a whole other thing and that scares a lot of folks because they feel like ‘if I give you rights, then it takes rights away from me’. Where we can all agree that we want people to feel safe, we want people to feel welcome in our communities and we know that is not the case.”
So what can be done to stop these incidents from occurring? Matthews-Creech said that racism is impossible to completely erase but it can be reduced to a minimum.
“I think first and foremost there will always be racist individuals,” said Matthews-Creech. “There will always be folks who disagree. There will always be folks who are fearful of change. I think the difference where we need to see things and where we can have an impact are individuals. I think changing all minds is a lofty goal but it’s not realistic…again, with every community you are going to have racist individuals. You don’t have to have a racist community.
“At one point we all knew how to be kind and how to interact with each other just on a very basic human level, and we’ve kind of lost that.”
Garcia said she believes it starts at the top. Especially in schools, people in positions of authority have to do a better job of setting the bar for what is appropriate.
“When you’re talking about kids, it often comes from…their peers and what their peers think is cool or funny and socially appropriate and then they do it to seek their approval or to secure their place in some pecking order in the school system,” said Garcia.
“If there’s no one in a leadership position to model for them, to manage expectations about what is appropriate or not, to hold them accountable when they behave in this way, then it will continue because that’s a free pass. And when things like this happen in the school system, which means it will likely be perpetuated.”
Social media has been a double edged sword in regards to racism, especially among younger people. It helps with exposing racist behaviors but it is also a place where racist remarks can be made behind the safety of a screen.
“There’s two sides to social media,” said Garcia. “One is a lack of accountability and what we see with social media is not only disinformation being shared but people being absolutely willing to say things they would never say in person….on the flip side of that, social media can be used and has been used to amplify what is going on.
“It’s really hard for us to understand a reality that we have no experience with and social media has been able to make that very visible to the whole country and galvanize a lot of support.”
Garcia said that the county has to keep the conversation going in order for progress to be made.
“What some of us are trying to do in Livingston County is make sure that we are being more vocal,” said Garcia. “So there was the impression that there were not folks who disagreed with this behavior or who strongly objected to what’s going on and now we’re trying to be very intentional about being vocal. Reaching out to administrators, reaching out to elected officials, participating in school board meetings, county commissioner meetings to raise awareness and build our community to support one another.”
Livingston County’s past can’t be changed, but Matthews-Creech said that acknowledging that history is a huge step to improve the county.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get away from this perception of Livingston County because the history is there,” said Matthews-Creech. “The history is accurate. I think we can get to a place where we acknowledge where our history is and then say, ‘We know where we have come from. This is what we have done to change it and this is why we are different’.”