Commentary: Council Person Addresses HP’s Approach to Racial Bias

Highland Park Council Member Matthew Hersh at the April 3, 2018 Council meeting addressed the issue of racial profiling and racial bias in the community with the following commentary about how HP – even though a community of earnest human rights efforts – must be clear-eyed about the realities of racism.

At our last meeting on March 20, we heard from a number of concerned residents about racial profiling and racial bias in our community. We heard about this in the context of a highly regarded young black man on his way to Columbia University in the fall and a decorated officer whose extensive commitment to community safety in Highland Park is unsurpassed.

Both men have been deservedly lauded and formally recognized by this body right here in these chambers.

In many ways, the fact that the latest iteration of this discussion on racial bias and profiling focused on residents who represent the best of Highland Park only bolsters the fact that unconscious bias exists in all aspects of our community. Just like we have a deep tradition of addressing and advocating against social inequity in society, what keeps hope alive in Highland Park, in part, is the idea that we operate at a manageable scale, have the political will, and understand that we can serve as a model for other towns and even the state.

The most important thing we can do as elected officials is to be honest about the things happening in our community, good or bad. I think we fell far short in achieving that at our last meeting. Only when we’re honest about the world in front of us will we be able to effect real change. If not, we get Band-Aids, we defer action, we simply say the task is too daunting, or worse: the same things continue to happen, possibly with even more negative outcomes.

But if we overcome all that, we can create a positive, inclusive society, right here in Highland Park! This is the unfinished business of living in a highly diverse state. Here, we can educate and empower our next generation of leaders, we can strengthen our municipal agencies and workplaces, and we can create truly inclusive communities.

This is what we set out to do with our immigration policies last year and this is how we need to approach concerns about racial profiling and bias. State the socio-political realities first, look for signs right here in our community, understand how to address them, and work to change policies so history doesn’t repeat itself.

And it’s not just immigration. We’ve been clear-eyed when it comes to facing all kinds of social challenges. We look at the realities of gun violence like the forum we’re hosting on April 15, economic inequity as discussed in the civics for the community series and budgetary shortfalls. We know what to look for when it comes to anti-Semitism. We’ve tackled environmental issues like fracking, health issues like e-cigarettes, and have been clear-eyed in getting cars off the road. We’ve marched for women’s rights and equal pay.

So why not be clear-eyed about the realities of racism, too? Doesn’t this issue intersect deeply with most, if not all of the issues I just stated?

“One of the most popular liberal post-racial ideas is the idea that the fundamental problem is class and not race,” said Ibram Kendi, a professor and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. “But for whatever reason, we’re unwilling to stare racism in the face.”

Kendi’s comments were featured in the New York Times on March 19, the day before our last Council meeting, in a report on a new study led by researchers from Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau  that income inequality between blacks and whites is driven entirely by what is happening among these boys and the men they become. Black boys — even middle class black boys on their way to Columbia University — can seemingly never assume that they will not be subject to structural inequity and inequality.

The report goes on to say that much of what matters in many young lives probably lies outside the home — in surrounding neighborhoods, in the economy and in a society that views black boys differently from white boys, and even from black girls.

On March 26, our Human Relations Commission met and spoke about this issue extensively, a conversation that typically spilled into the parking lot with HRC Chairman Ashton Burrell and HRC commissioner John Wenz. We talked at length about how we embrace our cultural diversity very well in Highland Park and while that’s important, we also have to “walk the walk. I know the entire HRC is ready to overhaul those abstract perceptions that limit our practical understanding of race and bias.


The next day, March 27, our Human Relations Commission held its book club meeting, this time discussing Carol Anderson’s White Rage. This book, which, to me, is just as important as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, systematically unpacks our country’s legacy of racism and racial inequity. It’s a brick-by-brick look at our biased institutions which are alarmingly resilient to any proscriptions, condemnations, or even Constitutional Amendments. It’s proof that we are all complicit but if we fail to acknowledge our unbalanced society, we are also relegated to being responsible for it.


While I’m encouraged by the interest shown in the Mayor’s Committee of Understanding, the task force announced two weeks ago at our last meeting, I do hope – and I understand – that task force’s mandate is limited, as this work must come back to the Borough’s Human Relations Commission because not only is this where the work should occur in the long-term, its extensive ties to many different constituencies within our community makes its work all the more effective.

I also hope this task force sets ambitious goal posts that get to the heart of the issue. Nearly 16 years ago, the Borough commissioned a study to explore how community relations could be improved in Highland Park. However, the members of the task force were clear that the critical issue at hand was to be race relations. We are doing many of the goals advanced in that report, but there are some that were left out – goals that could be critically important moving forward.

Beyond the task force, I can confirm that we will have Elizabeth Williams-Riley of the American Conference on Diversity back in town for a series of workshops, although we do not yet have a timeframe. Ms. Williams-Riley will conduct diversity and inclusion-focused sessions where participants will be given the opportunity to explore ways to combat bias, bigotry and hate. Consider it a training, really, as participants will begin to think about new approaches to manage challenging dynamics of diversity that can ultimately build stronger inclusive community partnerships.

We all have racial bias and undoing that is a lifelong endeavor. Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech, we’re still reminded that “we’ve got some difficult days ahead” and that our journey starts right here at home.

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