In denial: Lansing-area candidates who see no structural racism

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Several political candidates in Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties have contended that structural racism does not exist within their local communities as social unrest persists ahead of the general election.

City Pulse sent out surveys to virtually every candidate in Mid-Michigan. A total of 93 of 259 candidates replied, while 166 either declined to participate or ignored them altogether. We awarded up to six points to those with progressive views on racial justice and social equity. (The full scoreboard was published in last week’s issue and online at lansingcitypulse.com.)

More than a dozen of those who responded — most of whom were Republicans — flunked the survey by choosing “all lives matter” over “Black lives matter,” denying the existence of racism within their communities and failing to elaborate on any significant reforms to remediate inequity.

Here’s a sampling of responses from candidates who scored three points or fewer last week:

George Platsis is a Republican who is challenging Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon, an incumbent Democrat. He selected “all lives matter” over “Black lives matter.”

Asked if structural racism exists within his community, he responded, “Without knowing the specific structure or hierarchy in play, generally, no,” Platsis told City Pulse. “However, I will know it when I see it.”

As for what role he would play in leveling the social equity playing field or amplify the voices of Black and brown residents across Ingham County? Platsis said he has “no agenda” on criminal justice reforms, only noting he understands “the importance of discipline and the rule of law.”

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth, a Democrat, is running for another term this year. He noted last week that “you can’t say all lives matter unless you believe black lives matter,” but otherwise he said he doesn’t believe that structural racism or implicit biases exist within his ranks.

“Structural racism, as I know it, does not exist at the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “ICSO members are imperfect people like us all. Yet we are well vetted, well trained, embrace being held to a higher standard, and are mission driven. Our mission does not discriminate.” 

Wriggelsworth, for his part, said he will continue to engage with the local Black community.

“If it’s wrong, hold people accountable,” he said. “If it’s broken, fix it.”

Carol VanDrie is an “all lives matter” Republican who is challenging Derrick Quinney, an incumbent Democrat, for another term as Ingham County Register of Deeds. She rejected the “liberal definition of structural racism” and refused to entertain the concept of “white privilege.”

“I had no such thing growing up working since I was 13 years old and holding four jobs through college as the only daughter of a school secretary and a grandmother who was a waitress,” VanDrie said. “There is racism. It exists. I acknowledge that. I abhor it and have always spoken out when I see it. I will not, however, define it as the liberal left does and will fight it based upon Biblical principles as it is founded in hate and there is a loving way it can and should be fought.”

Tony Spagnuolo, a Republican candidate for Clinton County prosecutor, failed to pick “Black lives matter” and flatly denied the existence of structural racism in the entirety of Clinton County. Accordingly, he offered exactly zero suggestions for how to promote social equity if elected.

“I will treat all persons who come into the Prosecutor’s office with respect and dignity,” he said.

Mason Mayor Russell Whipple is another “all lives matter” Republican who claimed to be unaware of the existence of structural racism within his local community and therefore offered no plans to promote racial justice and social equity if elected to another term in November.

“Social equity should not, in my opinion, be a primary objective of government policies,” he said. “The ordinances and policies put in place by government should be focused upon allowing all citizens to pursue their own goals and objectives from an equal footing.”

Others like Lansing Township Clerk Susan Aten, Elsie Village Councilman Todd Carroll, Grand Ledge City Council candidate Michael Doty and Duplain Township clerk candidate Sandra Frink, ignored several questions in the survey. Parsing out their views was entirely impossible.

When asked how she would amplify voices of Black and brown residents, Aten also made clear that she would widen the focus to “all residents” if reelected. Doty botched the definitions of equity and equality and, like others, failed to say whether discrimination exists in Grand Ledge.

Democratic Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner labeled himself a “passive observer” amid the latest round of activism geared toward social reforms. He said he supports efforts to uproot discriminatory attitudes and practices, but will not be “at the vanguard of that fight.”

“They don’t need my help at the moment. They’re making themselves heard,” Grebner added.

Greg Uihlein, nonpartisan candidate for Stockbridge village president, was also hesitant to commit to amplifying voices of minorities if it meant white representation would be diminished.

“Assuming you have to amplify a voice, who are you amplifying that over? I can say this: I see no reason to keep anyone down in our community for any reason,” Uihlein explained. “We all live here and have an investment in this community and that means everyone has a voice.”

Rick Olivarez, an “all lives matter” Republican, is facing off against Brandon Haskell for a slot on the Eaton County Board of Commissioners. He said there’s no difference between equity and equality and that he had no trouble overcoming adversity despite his Hispanic ethnicity.

Christine Gardner-Terpening, a Democratic candidate for the Kalamo Township Board of Trustees, contended that her farming community is far too “rural” for structural racism to exist.

“I believe that individual racism is far too existent in every avenue of our country,” Gardener-Terpening added. “Kalamo Township is, corner to corner, full of good people with the best hearts. We, as Americans, can all do better when it comes to putting an end to racism.”

Jon Elgas, Libertarian candidate for Wayne State University Board of Governors, also chose “all lives matter” over “Black lives matter.” He said structural racism on campus is unintentional and is only tied to perceptions of poor people — who only tend to be African American people.

“I will try to help those in need to get a level of education so they can provide for themselves,” he said. “I will treat everyone, regardless of who they are, as I would like them to be treated.”

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