The following essay appeared in the Holland Sentinel on January 29, 2023. I wrote it in response to several actions taken by our local county commission after a new “Ottawa Impact” majority was sworn in the first of the year. Their words and deeds both indicate they are following a Christian Nationalist worldview as they seek to make big changes in county government. (For more on Christian Nationalism, see the last few paragraphs in this essay.) Ottawa County has been Republican since the Civil War and was conservative before that. But this new majority wants nothing to do with mainstream conservatism, and they have wasted no time implementing new policies. If you want more information, the Sentinel would be an excellent resource, but the story has been carried by numerous news outlets. Just do a news search for “Ottawa County Commission.”
I would like to address the abolition of Ottawa County’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and the tired, predictable, ridiculous assertion that racial equity is “divisive” and “Marxist.”
I am a social psychologist who has studied race in America for 45 years. I appreciate the opportunity to share a bit of what I have learned.
I started graduate school at the University of Florida in 1978, only five years after the local public schools were desegregated. I got to be part of an evaluation of how well integration was working. In every school, administrators and faculty said they wanted it to work. Those in the schools where it wasn’t going well blamed the broader social context or simply said that, you know, birds of a feather are flocking together. But in the schools where it was going well, administrators and faculty had taken deliberate steps to make that happen. How students were assigned to classrooms, how the teachers taught — everything was organized to make integration successful. They did their DEI work and it paid off.
Our research showed that while good intentions likely were necessary, they were nowhere near sufficient. I began to understand that, yes, racism can be personal, but it is also embedded in policies and procedures and the narratives used to justify them. Those policies and procedures can be changed, but only by being intentional about it. You’ve got to do the work.
The recent actions of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners are nothing new. People in power often see a conflict between equity and liberty. That’s because they want the freedom to limit the freedom of others. Racists in 1870 called Reconstruction “socialism.” Racists in 1960 called the Civil Rights Movement “communism.” And racists today call DEI “Marxism.” Anything that might challenge their authoritarianism, their white supremacy, or their Christian Nationalism is seen as a threat.
DEI is eliminated.
Public Health is eviscerated.
The administrator is fired.
The law firm is replaced.
All accomplished in secret meetings so they can substitute the appearance of democracy for the real thing.
They’ve been telling the very same lie across the centuries, and with the very same purpose: ignorance in the service of hate.
White people love to quote the line from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech about judging others by the content of their character. But that was just one part of his message. The setting in which Dr. King gave that speech was quite deliberately named “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
Here’s a section from that speech White people don’t quote very often:
“America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Dr. King wanted justice. He demanded justice. That’s the reason he was murdered. He was in Memphis that fateful day to support a strike by the people who hauled off the trash, people who deserved a decent wage and recognition of their humanity. (Their marching mantra? I am a man.)
Dr. King’s entire life was the promotion of diversity. And equity. And inclusion.
So let freedom ring1 in Ottawa County, knowing that it will not ring for anyone until it rings for everyone. And let’s do the necessary work — the DEI work — that will transform our new county motto from an empty political slogan into a reality for everyone who calls Ottawa County home. Because all of us belong, and DEI is how we make that happen.
- Ottawa County’s previous motto was, “Where You Belong.” The new commission changed it to, “Where Freedom Rings.” Of course, as I noted in the essay, part of the Christian Nationalist concept of liberty is being able to tell other people what to do.