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The achievement gap cannot be resolved by isolating it

Minnesota is coasting on a reputation for racial justice that was established by Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1940s.

All of us wish Mayor R.T. Rybak the best as he prepares to begin his new job tackling Minnesota’s achievement gap.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

All of us wish Mayor R.T. Rybak the best as he prepares to begin his new job tackling Minnesota’s achievement gap, by some measures the worst in the nation.

According to the Star Tribune, “Federal data indicate that Minnesota has one of the largest education achievement disparities in the nation. Most recently the state ranked dead last in four-year graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students, second to last for African-American students, and near the bottom for low-income students overall.”

We often talk about the “achievement gap” as if it were an isolated phenomenon. The solutions too often focus on the public schools alone. Reformers target teachers, or administrators, or the teacher unions, or the need for more charter schools, or the necessity for more and better testing, or the pressing need for tablet computers in every classroom. Rarely do Minnesotans focus on racism and discrimination.

The wider picture: discrimination and racism

The achievement gap cannot be resolved by isolating it. Based on recent reports, Minnesota ranks near the bottom in several other critical areas. Discrimination and racism are baked into Minnesota’s culture, and we are coasting on a reputation for racial justice that was established by Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1940s. For Mayor Rybak to succeed he will have to widen his vision to include an open assault on the icy cold racism that characterizes Minnesota.

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Consider the facts:

Minnesota is at or near the bottom of the rankings as regards the “employment gap.”

  • Recently MPR reported that, “the Twin Cities region has one of the country’s widest racial gaps in employment, according to the Economic Policy Institute.”
  • In 2010 the same institute reported that, “Looking at the unemployment ratios with whites for Hispanics and African Americans … the Minneapolis metropolitan area stands out as having the worst relative disparity. The Minneapolis metropolitan area has a black-white unemployment ratio of 3.1 to 1. This means that blacks are 3.1 times as likely to be unemployed as whites. Additionally, the black-white difference in unemployment is almost 14 percentage points.”

Minnesota has one of the worst “health care disparity gaps.”

Minneapolis has an exceptionally high disparity in arrests rates for marijuana possession.

  • The Star Tribune reported that, “while nationally blacks are 3.73 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, in Hennepin County they are 9.1 times more likely to be arrested. Even more disturbing, however, is that in Minneapolis blacks are 11.25 times more likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Moreover, the racial disparity increased by 112 percent between 2000 and 2010.”

Though we may not like to admit it, Minnesota is a racist state. Indeed, depending on how you count the data, we may be the most racist state in the union.

Part of a larger struggle

Now before I am accused of opposition to solving the achievement gap or opposing all forms of educational reform, let me say that I am only pointing out that to solve the achievement gap we need to admit that it is part of a larger struggle against racism that dramatically impacts our educational systems, our employment picture, our health care system, and our public safety institutions.

Before they are six years old, young people of color enter educational systems that reflect Minnesota’s frozen style of racism. Racism permeates President Barack Obama’s Department of Education. It is present at the Minnesota Legislature, the Minnesota Department of Education, and on our school boards. It is there among our teachers and administrators. It infects every level of the higher-education institutions that train our teachers.

Once they complete their education, they graduate into a state that rejects them and provides too few openings for joining the middle class. They experience a Minnesota that discriminates against men and women of color for jobs and health care and they live every day with police and sheriff departments that racially profile with impunity.

To solve the achievement gap, Mayor Rybak and his allies need to confront and root out racism and discrimination in the same forthright ways that Hubert Humphrey did in the 1940 and 1950s. Without this commitment, we can open as many charter schools as we want, we can bust the teacher’s union and fire all the teachers, we can revamp the systems of teacher training and collect as much data as we want, and we will still be left with one big gap — the racism gap.

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Read the data — and confront racism

It is time for white liberals to look themselves in the eyes and stop blaming others for the problems that confront Minnesota’s communities of color. It is time for white liberals to stop dreaming up ways for communities of color overcome “their gaps.”

It is time for white liberals to get their own house in order and to confront racism where it is and when they see it. And if they cannot seem to find any to confront, they need to shake off their “Minnesota Nice” and wake up and read the data. And then they need to do something about it.

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.


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