Michigan civil rights director reflects on efforts to combat hate
Following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, there's been an increased focus on efforts to promote equality around the country. We wanted to learn more about those efforts here in Michigan so we sent WCMU's Sarah Adams to visit the state Department of Civil Rights in Lansing.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) is headquartered in our state capitol building, but the group considers itself non-partisan and exists because of a mandate added to Michigan’s Constitution in 1963.
“I think if you go back to the 1960s, (it) was a period of turmoil also,” says Dr. Augie Arbulu, MDCR director. “(There was) dealing with civil rights, addressing the issue of race in housing and employment and in different areas.”
Arbulu says he remembers the 1960’s vividly.
“I can remember on MSU campus where I went to school, and they yelled out the N-word thinking I was African-American,” he recalls. “So yeah I've had that. It shapes you and you can do something about it, or you carry it and creates anger.”
“Free speech is very important,” Arbulu comments when asked about what is happening across the country now. “Freedom of assembly is very important. But when it crosses over and the intent is not only to incite violence, but to attack certain individuals, then now we cross over to what I view as criminal act.”
“Hate groups, of course, come in all different sizes and shapes,” he continues. “They typically advocate a certain superiority against one individual or group based on any number of characteristics, and all of those characteristics are found on the Elliot Larsen act.”
The Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act became law in 1977. It says it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of a slew of characteristics: including "religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status."
Today, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ mission includes educating communities and organizations about racial equity. They also investigate reported civil rights violations, and monitor hate groups.
“Our role is to be a watchdog,” Arbulu says. “To speak up to address civil rights issues, and we'll continue to do so…But in some ways what is taking place today is a wake up call. It's a wakeup call for all of us. And this is the time to speak up.”
Arbulu says anyone who has been the victim of discrimination has 180 days to report it to the department. You can do that at Michigan.gov/MDCR.