ESCANABA - The history of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, LGBT legal protections, and the use of Native American mascots in schools were among the topics MDCR Executive Director Leslee Fritz discussed during a visit in Escanaba earlier this week.
Fritz was in Escanaba Wednesday as part of a tour of the state.
"We are on a 50-city tour, which is a fancy way of saying we're traveling the state," said Fritz. "We started in March and we're just a little more than halfway through."
Fifty years ago, Michigan became the first state in the nation to establish a civil rights commission and a department of civil rights by state constitution. According to Fritz, the tour is an opportunity to celebrate the creation of the department and to interact with people across the state who may need the services the MDCR offers.
Despite public opinion being largely negative towards the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the Michigan legislature believed that creating a civil rights commission was important to ensure that residents' civil liberties were protected.
"An overwhelmingly large group of white men - it's 1963, that's who served overwhelmingly - said, 'This matters enough to us that we're not going to just put the general statement that every constitution has - that all people are created equal,'" Fritz said. "(They said), 'We're going to create this body, this eight-person commission, and give them broad authority to enforce the law.'"
The eight-member commission has the authority to hear cases and determine settlements for civil rights disputes, but it is the MDCR with a staff of just more than 100 that actively investigates discrimination complaints, enforces settlements, and provides training on civil rights issues.
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"The two tasks given to us in the constitution are to enforce the law and prevent discrimination - which is easy to say and very hard to do," said Fritz.
Michigan law protects residents from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodation, education and law enforcement. Statewide, roughly two-thirds of complaints handled by the MDCR are related to employment, but in the central Upper Peninsula complaints about employment discrimination are much higher.
"In the seven county radius, basically from Houghton to Escanaba to Marquette, we've done about 550 investigations over the course of (the last) 10 years, and it's almost 80 percent employment-based," said Fritz.
According to Fritz, for many years race was the most common reason given for employment discrimination complaints. However, in the last decade a growing number of people have filed complaints claiming employment discrimination based on gender or disability.
In addition to cases where discrimination cannot be proven, some cases submitted to the MDCR cannot be helped because the complainant waited too long or because the type of discrimination they are experiencing is not protected against by Michigan law.
"LGBT, sexual orientation and sexual identity is not covered by Michigan law. A lot of people are not aware that in this state it is still legal to fire somebody from a job or to deny somebody a house or service in a restaurant because they are either gay or perceived to be gay," said Fritz, adding that many LGBT individuals may be protected against discrimination by local ordinances or by requirements on programs through federal agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Following her stop in Escanaba, Fritz traveled to Houghton to participate in a public forum on LGBT issues at Michigan Tech to discuss a report released by the MDCR in January on the economic impact of Michigan's lack of legal protections from discrimination for LGBT residents.
"We specifically wanted to look at if there is - beyond the question of is it right, is it fair; beyond the moral question - is there a financial impact, positive, negative, or none?" explained Fritz, adding the report suggests a negative impact on both LGBT individuals and the general economy of the state. The entire 131-page report is available on the MDCR's website at www.michgian.gov/MDCR.
Fritz also discussed the department's work on issues facing Native Americans in Michigan during the past year, including a controversial complaint filed by the department earlier this year over the use of Native American imagery and mascots in schools.
"We deal with a variety of issues that are specific to or at least engage in some way the Native American community in Michigan," said Fritz. "The one we're probably the most known for, of course, is our work in dealing with American Indian imagery and mascots in schools."
In February, the MDCR filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education asking the federal agency to issue an order prohibiting the use of Native American imagery and mascots in schools. Included with the complaint was a list of 35 schools in Michigan that use imagery the MDCR believed was discriminatory. From the Upper Peninsula, the Gladstone Braves, the Marquette Redmen, and the Newberry Indians were identified as school mascots that used discriminatory imagery, according to the complaint.
"In everywhere that we have engaged in the issue it is an incredibly painful and emotional issue. Local high schools get people riled up just about faster than anything else you can engage in," said Fritz.
The controversial complaint was denied by the U.S. Department of Education.
"We believe the scientific evidence, the research that has looked into the impact of using those images and mascots, is pretty clear, and that it shows regardless of the intent - even if the intent is to honor local history, local traditions, a local tribe - no matter what the intent is, that the impact is harmful to students," said Fritz, noting that receiving complaints about the mascots and other issues related to discrimination towards Native Americans is not uncommon for the department.
No matter what type of discrimination Michigan residents may be experiencing, the department is faced with the challenge of making people aware of the services that the MDCR provides.
Residents who are interested in filing a complaint with the MDCR, learning about MDCR services, reading MDCR reports, or receiving training for their business or organization on civil rights laws or cultural competence can find out more at www.michigan.gov/MDCR or by calling the MDCR Marquette office at (906) 226-6393.