Mayor on racism: ‘We’ve still got a long way to go’

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Eber Menjivar from ALASI speaks during WITZ, WQKZ and JUAN radio stations’ Unite Dubois County panel at Jasper City Hall on Monday. The panel was organized to discuss “how to unite our county in the wake of COVID-19, unemployment, racial injustice and the civil unrest that followed.”


JASPER — Anna Grant was the first to call out the elephant in the room.

Monday evening, when Dubois County leaders and community members gathered at Jasper City Hall to discuss a wide range of issues stemming from racial injustice and COVID-19, Grant pointed out that the six panelists who spoke at the event were mostly white.

“If you look at the table, right now, tonight, the majority is white,” Grant, a One Dubois County representative, said in an answer to the event’s moderator. “Right? We have a lot of progress to go as a whole community to see through that we’re really acknowledging our really diverse youth that are growing up in Jasper.”

Eber Menjivar, a Latino man who lives in Jasper and represented ALASI at the discussion, was the lone person of color at Monday’s livestreamed and radio-broadcast gathering. Still, participants agreed that the event was a good starting line for deeper conversations that can have meaningful impacts.

That was the organizers’ goal — to highlight unifying ideas and begin the process of healing in a united way, together.

“We are a more diverse, more culturally accepting place to reside, to work and to play than we were in the past,” said Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Dubois County radio stations WITZ, WQKZ and JUAN hosted the panel discussion — named Unite Dubois County — and after it ended, WITZ General Manager Gene Kuntz said an invitation was extended to and turned down by another person of color.

Similar events could be hosted by the radio stations in the future.

“There’s no reason we can’t do this again and continue this conversation and go any number of directions after what we heard tonight,” Kuntz said. “So, there’s a lot to discuss, and this is just scratching the surface of where we need to go.”

The panel was comprised of Grant, Vonderheide, Menjivar, Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner, Jodi Richardson from Memorial Hospital Behavioral Health and Dubois County Sheriff Tom Kleinhelter.

Much of the nearly 90-minute conversation centered on race. When asked bluntly if we have a racial problem in the community, Menjivar said yes.

“And a racial problem doesn’t necessarily have to mean someone straight told me to my face, telling me to go back to my country,” he explained. “It could be someone talking with their friends.”

He then shared one of his recent experiences with racism. Two weeks ago, while hopping into a boat, a pontoon pulled up to him and his best friend and someone on board said, “Hey, it’s Taco Tuesday.”

“That kind of racism still exists,” Menjivar said. “And it doesn’t have to be, ‘Hey, leave this country.’ ‘You don’t belong here.’ Or ‘Speak English, this is America.’”

Small comments can really break a person down to their core and ruin their day, he added. That feeling is devastating. After hearing Menjivar’s comments about the recent racist remark thrown at him, Kleinhelter apologized to him for having experienced the exchange, and the sheriff admitted that he’d never realized “that part of it.”

“I guess I never realized that and how prevalent it is,” Kleinhelter said. “And maybe that sort of racism is more prevalent than I ever realized. I don’t know.”

Kleinhelter voiced his approval of the recent One Dubois County protest spurred by police brutality against people of color that took over the Courthouse Square. He said law enforcement is “here to protect and serve, no matter who you are or what you’re doing.”

At one point, Kleinhelter fielded a question about the lumping of “good deputies with the bad ones.” He related a recent incident in which deputies were accused of being racist, which Kleinhelter attributed to the uniform and recent fallout regarding police brutality.

He said he hated to compare the experiences of police officers to Menjivar’s, but he did say, “maybe we’re feeling a little bit of the same thing, just because of the uniform that we wear. And I don’t know if it’s the same thing or not.”

One commenter on the WITZ Facebook Live stream wrote, in part, that “‘The police’ is not a race,” and that “Anger towards the police is not racism. It’s a false equivalence to even try to make that point.”

Grant shared the importance of actively being anti-racist by acknowledging and challenging our own biases and calling out racist jokes and slurs. Being inclusive, not just by acknowledging people of color in the community, but also by valuing them as humans and understanding how they can make us better, is crucial.

“The protests and the rioting since George Floyd’s death, they’ve really kind of awakened racial issues that have been quietly subdued over decades around here,” Vonderheide said. “It’s not that they’re huge, it’s not that they’re overwhelming, but they’re there. And out of sight, out of mind.”

He continued: “So, with this, we’re starting to see that the national spotlight is shining as an opportunity for us to address those issues here in our communities.”

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