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Civil Rights, 2011 Style

Daniel Krichbaum is head of the only department of state government explicitly authorized by the Michigan Constitution.

He is also executive director of the smallest department of state government, one that few people even know exists. If you haven‘t guessed, it is the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

And if your response is, “huh? Civil Rights? That’s so 1960s. Isn’t that over?” he won’t be surprised. He hears that all the time.

Krichbaum, in fact, has been around for long enough to have had a number of stellar careers. He has a PhD in education and is an ordained Methodist minister. But he’s devoted most of his career to public service, most notably as head of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity. Before that, he spent seventeen years as parks and recreation director for the City of Detroit.

Krichbaum joined the Granholm administration as Chief Operating Officer four years ago, where he attempted to bring some stability to chaos. Last year, he took over at Civil Rights after his predecessor, Kelvin Scott, tragically succumbed to cancer.

But he is anything but a caretaker. Nor, Krichbaum told me over lunch Thursday, are civil rights concerns “over.”  True, nobody is  turning fire hoses and police dogs on people.

Yet discrimination still exists.

Last year, his staff investigated more than two thousand, five hundred complaints. Fewer than a third of those were racial, though they were the biggest single category.

Complaints about violations of the rights of the disabled were next, followed by gender discrimination, and a whole range of other civil rights issues, from weight to age to national origin.

Krichbaum does this all with a team of investigators and a staff of five lawyers. Last year’s cases included an African-American man who was denied a loan modification because of his race, and a young woman fired from her job because she was disabled and pregnant. In both cases, the Civil Rights department got those decisions reversed.

Those who work there, however, say there is a lot more to do. The department is suffering the effects of the recession, just like every other part of government. It has barely a hundred employees, half the number it had a few years ago. It closed two of its branch offices.

But it still has outposts in Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids, and a single staffer in Marquette looks after the Upper Peninsula’s civil rights concerns. While in some ways society is becoming more sophisticated, Krichbaum thinks his office may be busier than ever.

Michigan is becoming more diverse -- and there are those, especially without jobs, who may resent their presence. That’s why the civil rights department is interested in a new immigration initiative.   Krichbaum also believes that bullying is becoming an increasing concern, but he needs new legislation to allow him to treat workplace and school bullying as a civil rights violation.

And he wants to convince all of Michigan that civil rights ought to be seen as the concern of everyone.

The department is running a new branding campaign, built completely around one word: Fair. Only fair is fair, their ads say; all they are demanding is fair treatment for everyone.

Which certainly sounds fair enough to me.

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