Minnesota, with a population of just over 5 million, is nationally known for having an overall high quality of life for its residents. Indeed, Minnesota enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates, one of the lowest poverty rates, one of the highest rates of homeownership, and one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the country. For decades, Minnesota has benefited from its longstanding reputation as being progressive and a land of opportunity for all. Last weekend, however, through the social-media firestorm known as #pointergate, the rest of the country became exposed to aspects of Minnesota’s culture that are typically hidden from outside view.
Through blog posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook shares and commentary, #pointergate drew questions about the distorted relationships between news media, law enforcement, public officials, and the disparate treatment of young black men in Minnesota. It all started with a KSTP 5 news segment that falsely accused Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Navell Gordon (a young black man) of throwing up gang signs while out canvassing in North Minneapolis. This was made worse by the on-air statements of Lt. John Delmonico of the Minneapolis Police Federation and Michael Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police officer claiming that the mayor’s gesture (of pointing) put the safety of officers and the public at risk.
Long list of disparities
While many in our community were shocked and outraged by the blatant display of racism contained in the KSTP 5 report, many in the African-American community saw #pointergate as yet another illustrative example of the dehumanizing way in which people of color are too often treated in Minnesota. African-American men face excessively high unemployment and poverty rates (in the double-digits) in Minneapolis and other parts of the state. They are over-represented amongst our homeless population in Minnesota. They are significantly more likely to be arrested and charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses in comparison to their white counterparts.
Young black men are also disproportionately placed in special-education settings, alternative schools, and referred for suspensions and school-based arrests at higher rates than white students. Although overall incarceration rates in Minnesota are low, they are disproportionately high for black men. It is worth noting, African-Americans are 5 percent of the state population, but represent more than 35 percent of those who are incarcerated. Additionally, thousands of black men are placed on probation for long periods of time and run the risk of being re-incarcerated for probation violations, and not necessarily for commission of new offenses.
One of the hidden story lines within the #pointergate debacle is the stark evidence that we do not truly value young men of color in Minnesota. Through what are sometimes distorted media and law-enforcement narratives about the threat of young black men as gang members and criminals, we have been taught to fear them, disassociate ourselves from them, and exclude them from mainstream society.
This phenomenon is painful to witness and yet it will not go away through wishful thinking and nice smiles. In order to change the course that we are on, we will have to radically shift our way of thinking about people of color in our community and strive for greater levels of equity and inclusion, even for those who have been in the criminal-justice system.
What it will take to change
Young men like Navell Gordon who are working to turn their lives around after being incarcerated should be viewed as assets, rather than as menaces to society. We know that high rates of poverty in various pockets of the Twin Cities and an overconcentration of police in those neighborhoods, contribute to the widening gaps of inequality and criminal justice impacts that occur.
Although many Minnesotans are well-meaning, the reality is that very few, even those in the upper echelon of various professions, will open their doors to young men like Navell to provide a pathway to opportunity and upward mobility. How many young men like Navell have been hired as apprentices and employees within our local media stations? How many young men like Navell are provided opportunities to work at Fortune 500 companies or within law enforcement or local government? In many ways, we have marginalized young black men to the bottom rungs of our society, with limited access to opportunity or an expansion of their personal networks.
The other disturbing revelation about #pointergate is that we have become a society more focused on punishment, rather than forgiveness and restoration. No matter how hard we try, we can’t punish our way to “public safety.” Instead, we must ask ourselves: What is the moral cost to our nation — indeed, to our souls — when we callously throw away a generation of young men of color? Where is our capacity to forgive? To welcome people who have committed crimes and done their time back into society so that they — and we — might thrive?
From punishment to restoration
The central issue of #pointergate is this: We must care for one another — even those who have committed offenses — and we need to move from a punishment society to a restorative, more just community. We are stronger when we forgive and give second chances to those who are looking to reintegrate back into society.
In short, it is easy to single out the blatant, discriminatory conduct of KSTP (and yes, it needs to be called out and swiftly addressed). But it is much more difficult to hold up a mirror to the ways in which our own personal biases, structural and institutional racism across many of our systems, public policy and budgetary decisions, and apathy in holding law enforcement accountable all helped to lay the groundwork for #pointergate and the national embarrassment that it has brought to our state.
We can’t point the figure solely at KSTP without also pointing the finger at ourselves and the role that we play as individuals, and that our institutions play, in perpetuating the day to day injustices that set the stage for #pointergate and all its troubling implications about race relations and inequality in our state.
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas and the founder and director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic. Michael Adam Latz is the senior rabbi at the Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis.
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