GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Several months after the July 1967 race riot devastated parts of Grand Rapids, a report listed a dozen challenges the city’s blacks faced.
At the top of the list in the city’s “Anatomy of a Riot” report: income, housing, health care, the family breakdown and crime.
Fifty years later, Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink is struck by how much of that list still applies.
“It is very troubling,” said Dr. Pink, a black leader who co-chairs Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ Racial Equity Initiative — a project driven by a $300,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Among the inequities it will address: The disparity between black and white poverty in Grand Rapids, the state’s biggest gap. In the city, 41 percent of blacks live in poverty. For whites, it’s 16 percent.
“It is surprising that you see that disparity,” Pink said. “It, yet, still remains a surprise to me that we’ve seen that disparity for so long.
“This is now the opportunity for us to get together and say, ‘Here’s the problem, what do we do about it?’ And then put the action plan together and do it.”
He said the focus should be on education, jobs and what he calls “covert” racism.
A W.K. Kellogg report found that fewer than one in five blacks in Grand Rapids have associate’s degrees, compared to more than half of whites. It also reported a black unemployment rate of 22 percent in 2014 — three times the rate for whites.
“I sure as heck want to see if I, as president of this college, can put some things into motion in our community that can start in getting rid of some things that we recognized years ago — 50 years ago,” Pink said.
Working with local businesses, nonprofits and others, the initiative will focus, in part, on young minorities in the poorest neighborhoods. Grand Rapids Community College, Pink said, could be key.
“I call us the great connector in this whole regard,” he said.
He said GRCC could provide scholarships and tuition breaks, work with the Rapid transit system to make sure students can get to class, get a degree, or job training.
“How do we make sure we can make a connection between these businesses and organizations within our city that say we need talent, and over here in neighborhoods that need jobs?” Pink said. “It’s not just about getting to work; it’s about getting to work in a wage job that can help take care of you and your family. It doesn’t help for us to give somebody magnificent training so they can go and make $8.50 or $9 an hour.”
The GRCC president said the initiative also must address racism.
“I think we would be naive to think that that doesn’t have something to do with it,” he said.
Pink grew up poor in Abeline, Texas, across from a drug house, listening to gunfire outside his door.
“We did on occasion have someone come to the door, bleeding, and we’ve got to do something for them,” he recalled.
He was the youngest of five kids whose parents were custodians for a local university.
Now, as president of a college, he still sees subtle racism, even when out on a walk.
“My biggest surprise has been the lack of eye contact that I see,” he said. “I have friends in this city who are people of color who have incredible positions in their organizations, community recognized positions, great responsibility, yet still will tell me, ‘Yeah, I got pulled over the other day.'”
His father was a World War II veteran who lived through racism. He died in 1995.
“I think it would be a sadness to him that we’re still dealing with this conversation, and that we’re still having to have this conversation, but we have to,” Pink said. “We’ve got to have it. The issue is still here.”
At the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives, the focus is not only on the past.
“I think from the mayor on down, I think it’s a community that wants to see a change,” said George Bayard, executive director of the museum. “Whether they outnumber the folks that want to keep things the same is really where that balance is.”
He said he hopes the words won’t, again, be just words.
“I’ve been on lots of committees. A lot of time, talking is where it ends up,” Bayard said. “I believe that slowly it will happen, hopefully not another 50 years, but slowly we can get past that.”
On Tuesday, GRAAMA will air a documentary about the disturbances, titled “Riot Race Reconciliation.” The film showing starts at 6 p.m. at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium, located at 401 W. Fulton St. A panel discussion will follow.
The president of GRCC said closing the race gap is important for all of West Michigan.
“A better Grand Rapids makes for a better Cascade community,” Pink said. “A better Grand Rapids makes for a better east side or West Side.
“If I can help all ships rise, it helps my ship rise as well.”