On Sunday evening I went to a local church in Minneapolis to hear a forum discussion on the George Zimmerman verdict. The panelists were both outraged by the jury verdict and horrified by the implications for young black men. The panelists and members of the audience echoed what has been widely reported by media outlets and cable television hosts. But below the outrage on the surface, I’m still not sure what lessons both blacks and whites are taking away from this tragedy.
President Barack Obama gave us a bird’s eye view of how this incident is seen through the eyes of many in the black community. Those remarks weren’t designed to mark a shift in policy, nor will they. Tavis Smiley, a well-known advocate for issues that affect minorities, noted that the president “didn’t walk to the podium, he was pushed because of mass protests.”
A University of Pennsylvania study backs up Smiley’s general concern. The study found that President Obama spoke about race less in his first two years than any other Democratic president since 1961. In our state, Gov. mark Dayton made some remarks about Stand Your Ground laws (which by the way he pledged to support in his campaign but later vetoed). But he is largely quiet on issues pertaining to race. In fact he only has one black person in his Cabinet.
If policies won’t be changed and political leaders won’t lead, then where does the energy and renewed awareness about the plight of black people in America lead us? Some community leaders and a few of the panelists at the forum I attended suggest we will have justice when America recognizes white privilege as the main problem and takes steps to do away with it. As a black man, I am familiar with the concept, but it is doubtful to me that many white Americans feel privileged when it comes time to pay their rent or make their car- and student-loan payments. Others have called for a renewed focus on education — and, more specifically, black history.
Focus on closing the gaps
The renewed focus on education is justified, but it highly doubtful that teaching more black history will solve the problem. Our state has the largest achievement gap in education between black and white students in the entire country. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the four-year graduation rate for black students in Minneapolis is only 36.8 percent. We also have the largest employment gap between black and whites in the entire country, with black unemployment in the Twin Cities at nearly 20 percent.
What we know for sure works are models like Cristo Rey in Minneapolis. The school has a well-rounded curriculum and produces stellar results. Working with the same inner-city student population our public schools work with, Cristo Rey has managed to achieve a graduation rate of over 90 percent. Students there are learning the academic and life skills needed to succeed in and not become victims.
Their model works. Instead of copying it this past legislative session the Democratic majority eliminated high-school graduation exit exams. At a time when the vast majority of Minnesotans and experts across the political spectrum agree that the way to avoid tragedies like this in the future is to ensure we are educating our children, we should not be eliminating the bar. Instead we need to help our minority communities stand on their feet and ensure they never stand alone.
Doing nothing isn’t an option
As Minnesotans we need to learn that doing nothing about the problems that continually plague our inner-city youth is not an option. We must reignite our passion and concern for some of the most vulnerable among us. As a black community we need to learn that black on black violence (like the carnage we see happening in Chicago) is just as unacceptable as this atrocity.
This is an opportunity for all of us to rise to the challenge of this moment because while yesterday matters, today counts.
Chris Fields is Secretary of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
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