State Sen. Knollenberg responds to outrage over comments perceived as racist

TROY, Mich. (WXYZ) - Republican State Senator Marty Knollenberg from Troy is responding to outrage over what he said during an education committee meeting in Lansing Thursday.

“You mentioned these school districts failing, and you mention economically disadvantaged and non-white population are the contributors to that.  I know we can’t fix that.  We can’t make an African-American white.  That's just, it is what it is,” Knollenberg said during the meeting recorded on camera by the state.

He was talking about failing school districts all over the state. Natasha Baker, the state school reform officer and Karen McPhee, the senior advisor for education to Gov. Rick Snyder, were answering questions for the committee when the comment was made.

Baker responded during the meeting, saying, “We didn’t get here because someone is poor. We didn’t get here because someone is black. We got here for a variety of reasons.”

“I was disgusted to hear any human, especially an elected official who is responsible for creating policy, to talk that way,” said Rep Brian Banks, (D-Detroit) “It is clear you have some built in racism. It is clear you are out of touch with reality. As an elected official, as one of your colleagues, you owe us an apology.”

“It was as racist a comment as anyone can make,” said David Hecker, the President of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan. “It is scary to think an elected official thinks that.

7 Action News found Knollenberg at work at his insurance company in Troy on Friday afternoon. 

"If they knew me they would know that I am not racist at all,” said Knollenberg of anyone offended by his comments.

He says he feels his words are being taken out of context.  He had just seen statistics that said that most kids in struggling districts are of color, and they led to his words.

When asked if he could see how some people would feel he missed what is contributing to the problem of failing schools when he made his comment, “We can’t make an African American white. We can’t fix that,” he said no.  He said the bottom line is he doesn’t believe race is a problem.

"I have an African-American employee who works for me,” said Knollenberg.

Knollenberg says he feels bad that he offended people.

"I can apologize to people who felt that way,” said Knollenberg. “My passion is for improving education and making sure every single child gets a good education. We should not have failing schools anywhere."

Since he was speaking to an advisor to Gov. Snyder, 7 Action News reached out to the governor’s office for context.

"School Reform Officer Natasha Baker was presenting data that included both performance and demographic information.  As required by federal law, student performance data is disaggregated to determine if specific achievement gaps exist between student sub-groups,” said David Murray, Deputy Press Secretary for Gov. Rick Snyder.

"There was no suggestion made that the students’ academic performance was caused by their economic status or their race or ethnicity. Baker specifically commented that all children are capable of high academic performance in a high performing school. We must have high expectations for every student and provide families with quality educational options,” said Murray.

If you want to see the entire state video of the meeting, you can find it here: misenate.vietbit.com.

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