Updates: Fighting Racial Injustice: NPR

A Michigan county official is defending his use of the N-word – repeatedly uttering the insult and insisting it doesn’t imply he’s racist.

Leelanau County Highways Commissioner Tom Eckerle has been facing calls to resign since Tuesday when he allegedly used one of the most taboo words in American society to explain why he wouldn’t wear a face mask .

“Well, it’s all because of them n****** in Detroit,” Eckerle said, according to the Leelanau company.

Commission Chairman Bob Joyce was quick to take issue with Eckerle’s use of the word: “You can’t say that!” it is quoted saying.

“I can say whatever I want,” Eckerle reportedly replied. “Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us.”

Eckerle made the comments in the committee meeting room on Tuesday, just before the start of a public meeting. Discussing the incident later in a phone interview with Interlochen Public Radio, Eckerle doubled down.

“No, I don’t regret calling him a n*****,” Eckerle told IPR. “An n***** is a ***** is a *****. It’s not a person at all.”

IPR reports that the commissioner likened the use of this word to saying someone is German, or a “Polack”, a pejorative term for people of Polish descent.

“No, it’s not racism,” Eckerle said.

Some of Michigan’s top officials disagree and are urging Eckerle to resign. Governor Gretchen Whitmer added her name to those calling for Eckerle’s departure on Friday.

“Governor Whitmer believes Roads Commissioner Tom Eckerle should resign immediately,” said Tiffany Brown, the governor’s press secretary. “His comments are atrocious. The governor was very clear – there is no place for hate and racism in Michigan.”

Members of the Roads Commission are elected officials elected for a six-year term. Eckerle, a Republican, was elected in 2018.

State Rep. Jack O’Malley, a Republican whose district includes Leelanau County, says he sought out Eckerle to hear his side of the story — and after hearing it, he asked the commissioner to step down. Eckerle refused, O’Malley said.

“I reminded him that he represents everyone in Leelanau County like me,” O’Malley said via Facebook, “and his comments were and are beyond stupid.”

O’Malley says there are at least two ways to remove a road commissioner. Voters can request a recall, he said; or the county council can ask the governor to remove him.

Eckerle’s colleagues at the Leelanau County Road Commission signed a joint letter Thursday asking him to resign immediately.

“We will not tolerate any form of racism in our meeting room or in our organization,” wrote the other four members of the commission. They added that Eckerle’s behavior had “a serious effect” on the commission.

The Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force, an advocacy group, is calling on county officials to call for Eckerle’s removal. The group also says a recall petition is being created.

“We are working with other members of the community to initiate the recall petition effort,” the task force said Friday, in an email to NPR. “There is no place for hate in our beautiful northern Michigan communities.”

A day after Eckerle used the insult in an official setting, Whitmer signed an executive order declaring racism a public health crisis in Michigan.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer said, has exposed “the deadly nature of pre-existing inequalities caused by systemic racism.”

The next road commission meeting is scheduled for August 18.

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