Race relations in the U.P. complex

Brice Burge

The improvement of race relations in the Upper Peninsula will come from a multifaceted effort of legislation and soul searching, according to a race relations panel.

Sponsored by the NMU Department of Education and the Multicultural Education Resource Center, the panel discussed race relations with a small group of listeners in the Whitman Commons on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The event was formatted in only a question and answer format, with questions ranging from personal definitions of race relations to what might be the source of discord for different groups of people.

“If we change one of them, it won’t do enough good,” said the director of the School of Education, Rod Clarken. “It is a complex problem. What we do have to do is change, and we have to start that process wherever we can.”

The panel was made up of three Northern professors, Clarken, Education Associate Professor Judith Puncochar and Education Assistant Professor Markisha Smith, as well as 2008 NMU graduate Michael Davis, who is a teacher’s aide and wrestling coach at Bothwell Middle School. Two of the panel members were white and two were black, two were male and two female, and two were under 40 years old.

One of the debated points was how to change perspectives about racism. Puncochar said change starts with the government and credited previous civil rights laws and equality policies like Affirmative Action.

“Without the laws, I don’t think we would see the improvement that we’ve seen so far,” Puncochar said. “If we have the laws that promote fairness, they have to be enforced. Our society needs to articulate our values.”

However, Davis disagreed, saying that only attacking racial problems from a governmental standpoint would not work, because it hasn’t in the past.

“We’ve been unsuccessful time and time again in our attempts to regulate racism,” he said. “You can legislate that people can live and work together, but you cannot legislate that people are going to like each other.”

Clarken said that the best place to start is within a person.

“To me, the first place starts with the individual’s heart,” Clarken said. “I can’t be going out and preaching to get rid of prejudice without doing the work myself. Whites have (prejudices); blacks have (prejudices).”

At the end of the event, NMU Provost Susan Koch asked Smith and Davis, the two black members of the panel, about how the university could obtain and retain minority students and faculty, specifically of color. Smith said that she thought being introduced to other diverse members of the faculty would have helped her adjust to the area, but Davis said that until students are committed to an increased level of learning  compared to just getting a degree – that it doesn’t make much difference.

“The university is committed to diversity for a number of reasons,” Koch explained. “A rich educational experience mandates that we provide a diverse culture for everyone because (a diverse culture) is what the world is, despite ethnicity. We must increase the numbers; it’s part of the solution.”

Sophomore psychology major Tiara Garland attended the panel and was pleased.

“You can’t tell someone to do something that you don’t believe yourself. Another good point is that it should start within the family when the children are young,” she said.