East Lansing seems to be mired in a crisis of identity. On one hand, the community aspires to be an inclusive and welcoming city that values diverse people, thought and cultures. On the other hand, a series of issues and challenges, including several racially charged incidents in city government and public schools, stand in earnest opposition to this vision — calling into question just how deep the commitment to a shared sense of belonging is. The principles are clear, but the early results are less than promising.
According to current census data, the East Lansing population is 77% white, 6.8% Black, 4.8% Hispanic and 9.4% Asian. The city is home to Michigan State University and draws faculty and staff from across the globe that offer cultural, racial, and community diversity, and many of these professionals call EL home permanently. Still more undergraduate and graduate students arrive each fall, bringing with them every possible demographic identifier alongside recreational and housing dollars. It’s not hard to see that a college town is a hub for innovative thought and cultural diversity, and East Lansing is a shining example of this. Yet, the city’s history shines light on the challenges of today.
In 1964, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended enforcement of restrictive housing covenants, Realtors in East Lansing blocked civil rights leader Robert L. Green, an MSU professor and member of the East Lansing Human Relations Commission, from buying a home in East Lansing. Green appealed to the state’s Civil Rights Commission, which then forced a company to sell a home to him. Nearly 60 years later, in summer 2022, the state erected a marker to commemorate Green as the first African American to buy a home in East Lansing. A school was renamed in his honor.
Consider that history when also reflecting on East Lansing’s recent contradictions. Several instances of progressive activity align with aspirational values. In 2020, Dana Watson and Ron Bacon were appointed as the city’s first Black Council members since Thelma Evans was appointed way back in 1973. Bacon became the city’s first Black mayor in 2021. Further, City Council decided this year to become a sanctuary city, which limits cooperation with federal authorities for the sole purpose of enforcing immigration law. It chose instead to stand with undocumented persons who are living in and contributing to the greater community. Similarly, East Lansing Public Schools stated a commitment to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, such as implementing a system known as Restorative Practices to increase respect and responsibility; hiring more Black teachers and staff; establishing equity teams in all schools; deciding to no longer employ a school resource officer; and removing police presence in its school buildings during the school day. These commitments came in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and complaints decrying a lack of diversity among the district’s educators.
These progressive actions are admirable, but the current challenges are numerous. In April 2022, a young Black man was shot in the Meijer parking lot on Lake Lansing Road by East Lansing police. The incident called into question racial bias on the part of the officers and led to calls for transparency in the investigation. In January, the administration of the East Lansing Public Library wrongly accused a Black teen of lighting a fire and called the police. The library’s board heard several other allegations of racial profiling during a subsequent board meeting. East Lansing Public Schools have also experienced their share of issues this year, with several fights plaguing the teaching and learning environment for students and staff. One such fight in January included a gun falling on the floor as a teacher attempted to intervene. In subsequent school board meetings, public comments were directing blame for the behavioral issues onto “those kids” or “schools of choice” students. The district’s restorative practices, DEI lens and removal of school resource officers have all come into question and had some in the community asking if the schools had become too “woke.”
Both city government and the district have hired leadership for DEI work, and while some of the hiring and training goals in the district are improving, albeit slowly, issues at the city are more contentious. Recently, the city’s DEI director was anonymously accused of bullying amid a mass exodus of administrative personnel. The high number of resignations occurring under the city’s first Black leadership is seemingly more than coincidence.
The resonant conflict in East Lansing is a debate between intentional pledging and planning vs. visible action, outcomes and results — in essence, can the community live with and up to its virtuous ideals? East Lansing has been talking the talk, but it is finding it far harder to walk the walk.
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