Tonight: Bristol Town Council debates the need for a Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

No one can reasonably deny, in this era of rising fascism and Trumpian intolerance, that our country has a long way to go towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The work against racism, bias and white supremacy is an ongoing effort. Certainly, a Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will not be the end of racism in Bristol or anywhere, but it could mark a new beginning in understanding and confronting these issues.

January 20, 2021, 10:55 am

By Steve Ahlquist

On Wednesday evening the Bristol Town Council will be taking up the creation of a Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Looking at the meeting packet, ten people have written correspondence in support of establishing the committee, including elected State Representatives June Speakman and Susan Donovan who both represent parts of the town.

Only one letter opposed the the creation of the committee. It was from Bristol Attorney Diane Messere Magee, Esq. I’ve presented the letter in full below, but would like to highlight several of the remarkable claims and arguments, many false and misleading, made by Attorney Messere Magee.

“Bristolians,” writes Attorney Messere Magee, “rely on their Honorable Town Council to govern by reason and not by emotion.”

Attorney Messere Magee organized her objection around four main points:

  1. The committee is not necessary;
  2. the committee would set a dangerous precedent for Bristol;
  3. the committee is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Bristol Town Charter and the Rhode Island Constitution; and,
  4. The committee is not in the best interest of the people of Bristol.

The Committee is Not Necessary?

The advisory committee is not necessary “based on objective criterion,” writes Attorney Messere Magee, who then goes on to deny the existence of “pervasive or trending racism or discrimination in the Town of Bristol.”

“…there exists no objective empirical evidence of pervasive or trending racism or discrimination in the Town of Bristol – by its residents or first responders,” writes Attorney Messere Magee. “To the contrary, the day-to-day life in Bristol is marked by the outreach of its first responders to schools, the elderly, and the most vulnerable. Nor is there any evidence that the daily protection of Bristol’s citizens is scarred by excessive force or disproportionate profiling of any one group of Bristolians or visitors to the town. One need only walk about town at sunset, on any beautiful evening, to see the genuine and generous heartbeat of our town’s people.”

In a study of police stops conducted by Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, conducted under a Rhode Island state law passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2015, five municipalities with significant racial disparities in police stops are Warwick, Westerly, Smithfield, North Smithfield and Bristol.

Contrary to the claims of Attorney Messere Magee, this study is “objective empirical evidence of pervasive or trending racism or discrimination in the Town of Bristol” by its “first responders” – the Bristol Police. Acknowledging the need to do better, the Bristol Police as recently as October of last year were training on recognizing and understanding bias in policing.

Attorney Messere Magee writes that since Bristol is a tourist destination, “it is second nature for Bristolians to welcome the new face in town.” In the event that someone sees a fellow Bristolian commit some sort of racist act or make some sort of racist comment, Attorney Messere Magee recommends that the “person of good will” confront the situation and make amends.

“In the rare instance of resistance, where an individual is less than open and welcoming to a new friend, the better alternative to an ‘advisory committee’ is for the person of good will who witnesses the event to reach out in charity with fraternal correction – and, to personally make the effort to show compassion and acceptance to compensate for the error of another,” writes Attorney Messere Magee.

The existence of eight Christian churches and one Jewish synagogue has convinced Attorney Messere Magee that a Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is not necessary because these religious institutions have that covered.

“…within walking distance to the Town Common, there are three Catholic Churches, one Congregational Church, one Episcopal Church, one Baptist Church, a non-denominational church, and one Jewish synagogue,” writes Attorney Messere Magee. “I humbly suggest that most Bristolians would agree that, collectively therein, is the Town’s built-in ‘advisory committee,’ constantly reminding us to ‘love our neighbor.'”

Since most Bristolians are naturally welcoming and not at all racist, “[t]o force charity through a passive-aggressive tool such as a wholly subjective ‘advisory committee,'” would “be deleterious to the peace and stability of our overwhelmingly proud, diverse, and inclusive community.”

“Bristolians,” Attorney Messere Magee assures us, “overwhelmingly and routinely stand with humility against bias and discrimination wherever it is found.”

Destabilizing the Government Structure of Bristol?

Groups similar to the proposed Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have been established in cities and municipalities throughout the United States, to positive effect. But Bristol, writes Attorney Messere Magee, is different. In Bristol, the establishment of such an advisory committee would set “a dangerous legal precedent that would destabilize the government structure of the Town of Bristol, and generally demoralize Bristolians.”

To make her point, Attorney Messere Magee elides the truth and misrepresents the charge of the Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For instance, Attorney Messere Magee asserts that the existence of such a committee “destabilizes our government structure by giving unelected individuals, not provided for in the Bristol Town Charter, a recognized say in the administration of the town” – contrary to the Town Charter.

But this is simply not the way the committee would work. The charge of the committee, as Attorney Messere Magee repeatedly states throughout her letter, would be advisory in nature, and would provide “advice on inclusive and equitable policies” upon the request of an elected official. All the committee would do, under its charge, is “promote, support, nurture and celebrate a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community” and occasionally provide advice on “inclusive and equitable policies and initiatives.”

“Raising those well­ intentioned unelected citizens to the status of some Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion ‘advisory committee,'” writes Attorney Messere Magee, “implicitly and impermissibly changes the structure of the Bristol Town Government, itself. A plain reading of the Bristol Town Charter prohibits such unilateral elevation of unelected individuals.”

This is simply not true. Bristol has many committees that provide advice to the Town Council and run pats of the town under the supervision of the Town Council. The annual 4th of July Parade is not micro-managed by the Town Council, for instance, it’s a committee. The existence of that committee has not usurped the power of the Town Council. Instead, it makes the running of the Town by the Town Council more effective.

Sadder than her baseless claims that the committee will have some sort of repressive, legislative power over the town is Attorney Messere Magee’s assertion that the mere existence of such a committee will demoralize Bristolians.

“The establishment of the proposed Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, with no over-riding basis of need, will have a repressive effect, wherein Bristolians (of every race, religion, creed, status, and orientation) will be demoralized by the unsupported and irrational belief that we are not, in fact, who we really are – a gracious, open, harmonious, other-centered, and cohesive community” writes Attorney Messere Magee, but it is the next paragraph that she reveals her hand:

“Worse, such an unnecessary committee sets a presumption that our neighbors of color and LGBTQ+ are somehow per se on an unequal footing in Bristol – in need of rescue by some nebulous committee – instead of being the inherently valuable part of our community that they are from the outset.”

Attorney Messere Magee continues:

“Specifically, the term ‘equity’ is itself antithetical to diversity, to the extent that Miriam­ Webster’s dictionary defines it as synonymous with ‘neutralism,’ or like ‘apathy,’ ‘indifference,’ and ‘unconcern.'”

Equity as a value has developed in recent years as people realized that work like diversity and bias training against racism in our institutions was not yielding desired results. Instead of trying to change people so that they can better work together, equity work means changing the culture to better recognize the humanity and differences of each of us as people. In other words, you don’t have to change yourself or act differently to fit into our community, instead, our community is structured so that all of our inherent differences are fully valued and protected.

The Founding Fathers would Oppose the Idea?

In part three of her objection, Attorney Messere Magee makes a historical and constitutional case against the committee, saying that individual liberty is at risk.

“Committees of unelected non-council members… undermine such individual liberty by substituting individualism with a collectivism philosophy, as defined by unelected overseers – irreparably diluting the very foundation of the guarantees promised each individual Bristolian,” writes Attorney Messere Magee, adding, without apparent irony, “The founders of America would not tolerate such dilution.”

I think Attorney Messere Magee is correct in her assessment that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t approve of such a committee, but not for the reasons she suggests. They would be opposed to the creation of the committee because they were, by and large, racists fully invested in the economic advantages of brutal chattel slavery. This is a hard fact for many to acknowledge. It’s harder to love America, or believe that this country is worth bettering, with this fact firmly in mind.

The Committee is not in the Best Interests of People of Bristol?

Bristol, like many cities in Rhode Island, is deeply embedded in the historical evil of slavery. The Town was built with the money made through slavery, and the evidence of the wealth and power of slaveowners is found throughout the Town, as it can be found throughout Rhode Island. The inequalities created then resonate and exist in different forms today.

No one can reasonably deny, in this era of rising fascism and Trumpian intolerance, that our country has a long way to go towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The work against racism, bias and white supremacy is an ongoing effort. Certainly, a Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will not be the end of racism in Bristol or anywhere, but it could mark a new beginning in understanding and confronting these issues. Pulling our collective heads into our turtle shell and ignoring the existence of bias and racism simply leaves an open wound in the community.

Bristol can be better. We can all be better.

Here’s the full letter:

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