Karter Etchin moved to La Crosse last June to start his education at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Within four days he was harassed due to the color of his skin.
Etchin, who is a person of color, recounted the story at a community listening session Wednesday organized by the Human Rights Commission of La Crosse.
“As I’m walking down the street with a couple other kids who look like me, these two big trucks with Confederate flags all over them come on down and start harassing us as we’re walking down the street,” Etchin said. “They called us names and said some not very nice words.”
He told his story to demonstrate that La Crosse has a racism problem that people don’t seem to want to acknowledge.
“This is really happening. It’s a real problem, and I’d like to be part of the solution while I’m here,” Etchin said.
The listening session was led by Tracey Littlejohn of the HRC, who asked the people there to tell their stories and ask the commission to address issues they see in their community.
“I think it’s important that the community makes the statement, ‘This is what we need,’” Littlejohn said. “If they don’t hear from us, they don’t know what’s going to work.”
While the listening session offered minorities a chance to air their grievances and give the HRC examples of problems they may not see in the community, most speakers took the opportunity to offer solutions to racism in the community, including Fletcher Mitchell Barnes III, the father of Deshawn Randall, who is accused of fatally shooting George Miller Aug. 21.
Barnes, who is biracial, called for greater racial representation in La Crosse’s economy, asking for greater support for African American entrepreneurs.
“What we need in La Crosse, honestly, is more minority businesses,” Barnes said.
Barnes said he knew of three minority-owned businesses in the city and more minority businesses would be good for La Crosse, helping it grow more economically vibrant, but it would also be good for young people of color.
“Let’s create a business for these young black men. Let’s give them something realistic to do,” Barnes said.
Barnes said he moved to La Crosse and attempted to start a business, allowing Randall to help, but was unable to get a loan.
“So we need some money. We need more than money, though. We need a commitment to one another to make this process work,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the city and community needed to encourage credit unions and bankers to lend to minority entrepreneurs.
Thomas Harris of UW-L’s multicultural student services office added that minority-owned businesses might help, the community also needs to address problematic hiring processes in white-owned businesses, where it is primarily white people in management positions doing the hiring.
“Because this is so white-led, the mentality is that what we do is not valued,” Harris said. “Maybe one simple way to do it is to include the diversity component as part of the process for one of the criteria to be hired.”
Harris said that would be a start, but people also needed to look more deeply than criteria on paper when hiring.
“There are options, not only in individuals that you can hire and businesses that you can hire, but there are options in processes and ways to hire people,” Harris said.
Harris referenced an office manager who reached out to UW-L’s multi-cultural office and asked them to encourage qualified individuals to apply when the office has an opening.
“It might be the most diverse business I can think of,” Harris said.
Jazzma Holland, a senior at UW-L, said it was most important that the commission and community members at the event took a call to action.
“If you see someone that is being discriminated against for their race, gender, ability or anything like that, don’t let it pass by, because then you’re part of the problem,” Holland said.
Holland said there’s always been discrimination in La Crosse and while she thought people had good ideas, it was important to follow through to fix the problem.
“Talk is cheap,” Holland said.
The listening session was the first of many the HRC plans to hold as it attempts to address discrimination in the community.
“If you see someone that is being discriminated against for their race, gender, ability or anything like that, don’t let it pass by, because then you’re part of the problem.” Jazzma Holland, UW-La Crosse senior