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Minnesota reaches tipping point on race disparity as a priority

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

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.

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/20/2016 - 12:37 pm.

    “tipping point”?

    Really? Based on observation of local news coverage, we may be reaching the “tripping point.” There may be several realistic solutions here. Legislative decrees certainly seem the most desperate.

    When chart labeling is internally inconsistent, some find it difficult to believe all else is in good faith.
    The proper labeling (based on U.S. Census reporting) would be Caucasian/White, Caucasian Latino, Negro. Asian and American Indian are correct race categories.

    Shouldn’t we get the terminology correct in order to correctly address the issues?
    So, so political we seem…in everything.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 01/20/2016 - 06:52 pm.

    Ok, 2nd try at it. What specific proposals are our law makers talking about implementing to help? Everyone can read a chart but what will help the lower end of the wage scale earners in particular blacks/American Indian. On the 50th year anniversary of the war on poverty,(in 1965 the “war on poverty” was going to eliminate these wage gaps within 10 years) we should have figured out what DOESN’T work, how about some new ideas?

    Liberals will clamor for more money and a duplicate program that will not work any better than the original program. After the trillions we have already spent shouldn’t we be able to come up with something that might help.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/21/2016 - 08:08 am.

    It’s complicated

    …with complicated causes and – probably – complicated solutions. Some contributing factors in local society are more easily dealt with than others. For example, if Mr. Smith has a solution for racial prejudice and discrimination (on the part of both blacks AND whites, but much more often on the part of whites) that he’s been keeping a secret, now would be a good time to present it to the public.

    Sergeant Rothecker, for example, did nothing to ease racial tension with his social media post, especially after the shooting of, first, Jamar Clark, and then the subsequent shooting of Black Lives Matter protesters at the 4th Precinct police station. Suggesting that BLM protesters be “run over” is quite a bit more than a “poor choice of words,” and in the process, smears *every* police officer with a racist slant that is (I hope) inaccurate and unfair. There’s ample evidence, some of it presented here on MinnPost in a variety of articles and charts, to show that housing segregation and other forms of racial discrimination don’t just exist, but have flourished in the Twin Cities. As part of that housing segregation, while people of varying degrees of color argue over who should get to live in what neighborhood or suburb, the wealthy quietly isolate themselves even further from people who don’t live on investment proceeds or a 7-figure income.

    On the other hand, crime – and especially violent crime/shootings – seems far more frequent in the heavily black (segregated) neighborhoods on the north side of Minneapolis. It’s obviously a problem, but I’m neither black nor a north side resident, and Americans are fervent believers in “local control.” What would create social conditions that would reduce or eliminate that crime and violence? Are any of the ideas to address the issue legislative solutions, or is it more a case of residents getting their act together? Or are the root causes so deep and/or widespread that we need to change the way we think about race and crime altogether? I don’t have magically-correct answers for these and related questions, and my guess is that Mr. Smith doesn’t either.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 01/21/2016 - 09:41 am.


    You are correct it is complicated, but doing the same thing over again without results is insanity. First thing I would say is break up MPS into small school districts (more choices) with individual school boards and encourage private and charter schools to compete with public schools for students. Each student is worth over $80,000 in their 9-12 years, use the power of that money with a voucher system so parents can have a choice in their children’s education. 2nd, if you are an able bodied male over 18 and you are going to get welfare you must either go to college, tech school or trade school so you can get a skill that is employable. You can’t find enough electricians, welders, plumbers and other trade skilled positions.

    The current school system isn’t working and welfare is not helping anybody get a job. The last thing I would say is to have an honest conversation on how the “war on poverty” has caused more problems than helped folks. If we can admit we have spent 20 Trillion in that war with negative results maybe just maybe we can move to solutions not just more spending to say we are helping.

    Doing more of the same or writing article that make it seem we are leaving a certain classes of folks behind will not help.

  5. Submitted by Richard Adair on 01/23/2016 - 01:54 pm.

    Invest in transit

    What is the data on how kids born into poverty can grow up to escape it?

    A recently released Harvard study showed that the most important neighborhood factor is transportation–getting to and from work quickly. More time to parent. Mixing with other people at work and learning from each other. Transportation was more important than school test scores, percent two-parent families, crime.

    Connecting people who don’t own cars to good jobs is an excellent strategy for reducing racial disparities. And not just local jobs reachable by bus, but higher paying jobs along this area’s light rail lines. Even people whose political philosophy is “less government and more personal responsibility” can understand that getting people to work is something worth paying taxes for.

    Our transit system needs a dedicated and reliable funding stream. Now. If we’re serious about reducing racial disparities, we should address this in the upcoming legislative session.

  6. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 01/26/2016 - 02:02 pm.

    Hope so!

    I’ve also been encouraged by the apparent energy for this important issue. I hope that you are right that we are at a tipping point. It’s a serious challenge we must address!

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