Hoff: Dover Human Relations Commission can make a difference again


Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He served as a Dover Human Relations Commission member from 2004-10 and as its chair from 2005-10.

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen and City Council have expressed a commitment to reduce racial tensions in the community. One beneficial resource the city has to accomplish that goal is the Dover Human Relations Commission. That the commission has been rediscovered for that purpose is a good thing for the city government and citizens alike.

Since the commission’s creation in 2002 and startup a year later, it has possessed a semi-independent advisory role. One of the tools of that duty is to “investigate complaints,” which was claimed by the city solicitor at a 2003 DHRC meeting. Over the next several years, the commission not only established an Intake Committee to report on filed complaints and schedule hearings, if necessary, but the City Clerk’s Office created a specific form for such complaints to be registered. The commission and Intake Committee chair subsequently met with several citizens who filed forms to discuss issues. Whether the full commission held specific intake complaint hearings misses the point: This process was helpful in demonstrating that someone cares and will listen. Even if full hearings do transpire, the commission can only recommend a course of action to the full City Council. The intake process in no way did, has or will interfere with the separate jurisdiction of the Delaware Human Relations Commission.

The Dover Human Relations Commission was out in front of the slavery apology movement, discussing and passing a resolution in 2007 directing the Delaware General Assembly to take action in that area. While that effort was tabled by Dover City Council, the commission repeated the process three years later. Especially during the second go-around, several forums were held and were well attended by citizens. On Feb. 22, 2010, the City Council approved DHRC’s slavery apology resolution by a 5-3 count. Dover remained the first city in the state whose government had taken a stand on the monumental matter. Though it took six years, the Delaware General Assembly passed a slavery apology resolution in January 2016, and it was signed by then-Gov. Jack Markell a month later.

Other resolutions and proclamations approved by the Dover Human Relations Commission over the years have directly dealt with race and ethnicity. While not a complete list, among those are the following:

  • A hate crimes resolution, passed by the commission and City Council, resulting in revision of a city ordinance.
  • A proclamation for Black History Month, passed by DHRC and issued by the mayor.
  • A proclamation for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, passed by commission members and issued by the mayor.
  • A proclamation for Native American Heritage Month, passed by DHRC and issued by the mayor.
  • A proclamation for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, passed by the commission.
  • A proclamation for the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case, passed by DHRC and issued by the mayor.
  • A proclamation for Fair Housing Month, passed by DHRC and issued by the mayor.

To understand problems in the community, government officials should be familiar with the area they represent. As the Dover Human Relations Commission represents the same constituents as City Council itself — all residents of Dover — it is necessary for DHRC members to go to them. In the past, the commission has held general and specific issue forums at a range of locations throughout the city, including Dover High School, Liberty Court Apartments, Manchester Square Apartments, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church and Towne Point Elementary School.

In its role as an advocacy group, DHRC has partnered with a number of other organizations and entities. For example, it has linked with the Food Bank of Delaware, the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing (once part of the commission) and Stand Up for What’s Right and Just. Additionally, DHRC has regularly supported or sponsored citywide events, such as Race Unity Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the “Positively Dover” African American Festival.

The national landscape dealing with race has changed significantly over the last decade. The Dover Human Relations Commission made an effort to adapt to the new environment by initiating the Diversity Research Project in 2015, a long-term project to survey the attitudes of local citizens. Further, the commission’s updated 2020-23 strategic plan clearly espouses the mission of intergroup cooperation.

DHRC recognizes the need to interact with local police, even holding one of its general forums at the community meeting room at police headquarters. Further, Dover police representatives have addressed the commission on occasion. Any healing from past controversies must include all stakeholders. Going forward, it is imperative for the commission to help recoup community support for law enforcement by engendered reciprocal respect.

For the commission to reach its full potential now, there must be full membership on a consistent basis. Second, the commission must renew a schedule of regular monthly meetings. Finally, the commission must have the unstinting backing of City Council. With these improvements — some of which are already underway — DHRC can again lead the way in achieving community consensus and calm on racial and ethnic matters.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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