On October 5 , the Chestertown Town Council unanimously approved Ordinance 06-2020 proposing the creation of a new Human Rights Commission dedicated to combating racism in our community. Many local residents applauded the Council’s approval of this initiative as Chestertown’s first official act to publicly recognize the reality of systemic racial discrimination in our community and create a viable mechanism to address it; officially acknowledge the contributions of black and brown residents to the creation and endurance of Chestertown; and establish an officially sanctioned, supportive path for residents of color to pursue resolution of personal experiences of overt racism and discrimination. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Well, apparently a lot as far as most Town Council members have since decided.
On November 2nd, in a 4 to 1 vote, the Town Council rescinded its endorsement of Councilman Tolliver’s original proposal and. accepted Councilman Herz’s offer to redraft the proposal to make it more “publicly acceptable”. What has emerged from that effort bears virtually no resemblance to the original proposal. Instead of a Human Rights Commission commissioned to address issues of racial discrimination, promote racial parity and justice and otherwise support people of color in our community, what is now proposed for Town Council approval is a toothless unfunded Commission whose unwieldy, amorphous mission encompasses addressing discrimination in all of its possible forms that may be experienced by anyone who ever sets foot in Chestertown. Further, newly proposed requirements for appointment to and service on this Commission are so cumbersome and daunting that public participation on its Board is, at best, doubtful.
In the thirty years I’ve been a tax-paying member of the Chestertown community, no one has ever suggested that the customary practice of appointing white residents to the vast majority of seats on Town- sponsored commissions might be “illegal”. Or that Town-sponsored commissions and initiatives that principally serve the interests of white town residents or some but not all residents might be “unfair”. Yet, those were Council members’ justifications for opposing appointment of people of color to fill four of seven Commission Board seats and for redrafting the Ordinance to totally whitewash and obscure its original purpose. It is also worth noting that, in soliciting public comment on the Commissions originally proposed mission and purpose, the Council refused input from anyone who doesn’t reside in Chestertown while, on other matters of concern to the Town like the hospital oil spill, they routinely welcome input from non-residents whom they find have a “vested interest” in Chestertown. What is going on here?
The sad truth is that the rationale for and the process involved in redrafting the originally proposed authorizing language of the Human Rights Commission are both prime examples of the persistent insidious nature of racism at work in our community. If Chestertown leadership is truly committed to the “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” pledge that Mayor Cerino insisted be added to the Black Lives Matter street murals, then the Town Council needs to do more than give that pledge inconsequential lip service and adopt Town policy and governance measures that actually promote and support racial parity, opportunity and justice in Chestertown. The redrafted Human Rights Commission proposal scheduled for an up or down Town Council vote on December 7th doesn’t cut it.