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Minnesota reaches tipping point on race disparity as a priority

The House-Senate “Working Group on Economic Disparities’’ shows a need for sustained resolve to prioritize racial equity.

Minnesota’s median household income is more than twice the median for black households.
Minnesota State Demographer

It’s easy to get optimistic and resolute during the marching and speechifying of Martin Luther King Day celebrations, which seem to grow larger and more multifaceted every year in Minnesota.

Dane Smith

A crowning moment of renewed resolve for me on Monday arrived at the 26th Annual MLK Holiday Breakfast, when Andrea Turner, a General Mills vice president whose ancestors were slaves, described her own story as “the living embodiment of dreams imagined over 150 years ago.’’

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, reared in poverty in Chicago, electrified the packed ballroom at the Minneapolis Convention Center with a deeply patriotic keynote speech that celebrated civil rights progress in “the only nation in human history organized around a set of civic values.’’ These values, he said, were “freedom, equality, opportunity and fair play.’’ And Patrick warned all Americans of all colors against anger and cynicism, with the closing words that “despair can’t be the final response to the ambiguities of history.’’

Finally elevating race equity

Although the hopeful enthusiasm of MLK Day tends to fade, when we all confront the realities and difficulties and short-term costs of equity policy, Minnesota really could be at the tipping point. There are abundant signs that we are finally elevating race equity as an utmost concern of public policy and a primary target for public investment.

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The best current case in point is that just before the holiday weekend began, the Minnesota Legislature’s brand new Working Group on Economic Disparities heard more than six hours of testimony from close to 70 passionate justice-minded Minnesotans, of all colors and political stripes, who are actually making progress with creative interventions for erasing racial disparity. Our local mainstream media mostly missed the stories of the several hundred people who showed up for two hearings, on Jan. 8 and Jan. 15.

The committee room on the second floor of the State Office Building was too small for the Jan. 15 hearing and an overflow space with televised proceedings was set up in another room. Perhaps even more encouraging than the public turnout, there was barely enough room at the committee table for the dozens of legislators who volunteered to serve on the panel. Co-chairs Jim Knoblach, a St. Cloud Republican, and chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis DFLer, vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, say they were pleasantly surprised by the large number who wanted to serve, almost a fifth of the entire membership.

The Disparities Working Group is one of three temporary bicameral committees set up in response to Gov. Mark Dayton’s itemization of three areas of action for a special legislative session: Iron Range layoffs, the state’s noncompliance with federal ID laws, and recent reports showing black income declining amid unrest on Minneapolis North Side. That special session now appears unlikely to happen, and all three issues will be on the table when the Legislature convenes in regular session in early March.

A long-haul mission

One point of consensus and resolve is clear already. One of those three problems is much bigger and broader than the other two. The blight of racial disparity is chronic and stubborn, and stagnant and worsening for many communities of color, and can’t possibly be ameliorated by one or two pieces of legislation in a special session or one regular session. Knoblach and Champion told me in separate interviews that they believe this must become a long-haul mission for the Legislature.

“There was a great cross section (of legislators) who found it important to be there,’’ Sen. Champion said. “I hope they see this as more than a shiny new thing and that they stay the course of improving lives for those suffering from these disparities.’’

The headline of a Minnesota House Public Information Services article on the Jan. 8 session — “Group thinks economic disparities too big an issue for special session’’ —reflected Knoblach’s take on the situation: “There are some very serious issues, regarding racial economic disparities. It is a lot to ask of us for a one-day session.’’

At a hearing of the working group on Jan. 8, State Demographer Susan Brower laid out over two hours the stark realities of racial disparity in Minnesota, including household income and poverty rates that are chronically worse for African-Americans, African and Latino and some Asian immigrants, and for native Americans. These injustices were easier to let slide when people of color made up less than 2 percent of the state population, as it did when I arrived in Minnesota in 1971. Now we are 1 million people of color, close to 20 percent, and a much larger and growing percentage of the school-age and working-age population.

Disparities: a direct threat to economic growth

Emphasizing demographics that show a disproportionately white baby boom generation moving into retirement, Brower echoed the frequent warnings by business leaders that disparities in educational attainment and well-being of households are a direct threat to economic growth in the near future. Brower’s simple and clear warning: “Minnesota can’t afford to lose any human potential.’’

At the Jan. 15 hearing, legislators heard about dozens of dozens of promising interventions from “beat the odds’’ private and public schools, to improved “fast-track’’ work-force training and adult education models, to nonprofit efforts to serve black men in particular.

Both Knoblach and Champion have offered up their own starting points for equity proposals. Knoblach is proposing expansion of low-income tax credits for parents who invest in education enrichment and tuition for their children. Champion has produced a somewhat more expansive set of proposals and bills that increase state investments in education, minority-owned business development, work-force training, housing, and community engagement.

I presented the case for investment in the “Career Pathway’’ model and applauded the ambitious menu of policy options presented by Champion and Knoblach and others. I encouraged the Legislature to try “a lot of things’’ in response to a gap that had been caused by “a lot of things.’’ And my testimony ended with a plea to keep some sort of formal legislative focus on disparity in place, whether a standing joint commission or other permanent fixture.

The consensus for prioritizing racial equity really has arrived. Business leaders like Andrea Turner and many of her white colleagues in Minnesota’s corporate boardrooms are saying, more loudly all the time, that there is no bigger threat to our long-term business health than racial disparities. Erasing them, investing in and realizing all our human potential is a homegrown recipe for growth.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization based in St. Paul. 


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