Minnesotans heard a global sigh of relief when the guilty verdicts were announced in the Derek Chauvin trial. Throughout the trial the world’s eyes have been glued to the Minneapolis courtroom where, for the first time in the state’s history, a white police officer stood trial for murdering a Black man in his custody. That global media outlets were on hand when police shot and killed two more men in separate incidents in Twin Cities suburbs during the few weeks the trial was pending is telling.
Over the past year, Minnesota’s longstanding failures have been laid bare to the world. Even “Saturday Night Live” opened with an all-too-accurate commentary on white Minnesotans’ blindness to racial injustice and misplaced fidelity to the narrative of Minnesota nice.
The significance of this verdict and this moment will be analyzed for years. One thing that is certain is that a guilty verdict does not solve Minnesota’s underlying problems. When attention inevitably turns to another crisis, Minnesota will be left to decide whether it has the wherewithal and political will to confront systemic racism and white supremacy and dismantle them.
No one has all the answers. But a focus on our common humanity and a commitment to fundamental human rights principles is a good place to start. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It also recognizes that the disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” Every core international human rights treaty prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, sex and other important categories.
The first, most obvious step is to ensure that the laws governing police use of force in Minnesota align with internationally accepted human rights standards. Minnesota is not alone in falling short of the international standards, but it can be a leader by adopting policies that were expressly designed to counter violence and oppression experienced by civilians at the hands of the state.
Another important step is to address the racial disparities resulting from historic and continued discrimination: discrimination in employment, in housing, in health care, indeed, in every sector of life. We have known – and tolerated – for years a disparity gap between white and Black Minnesotans that is among the largest in the country in nearly every indicator. For instance, while poverty affects people of all races, the disparities between white and Black Minnesotans is breathtaking: 7% of white Minnesotans lives in poverty, while 32% of Black Minnesotans lives in poverty.
Disadvantages exist for a Black person at every stage of life, even before their first breath. Between the years 2007 and 2018, the rates and prevalence of risk-factors for pregnancy increased among racial minority populations, contributing to disparate racial differences in neonatal mortality. African American babies have higher rates of infant mortality, more than double that of white babies (Black babies = 10.8/1,000 births v. white babies = 4.6/1,000 births), and these rates have continued to rise, according to recent trends. If Black children survive into adulthood, the number of health disparities and resulting deaths are nearly incalculable, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. With food deserts and inequitable living conditions, many communities of color do not have the ability to live in homes or areas that promote health. In fact, studies have shown that there are racial disparities in the number of children who have been exposed to lead poisoning in the paint of urban homes.
These disparities reflect entrenched systemic racism, including the failure to provide equal access to education, health care, and housing. The good news is that Minnesota is equipped to succeed in this struggle. We have resources and the infrastructure for a strong social safety net. We have world-class health care facilities, world-class academic institutions and data to define the problems accurately. And we have powerful community leaders in the movement for racial justice who know what is needed.
Real progress will require the political will to dismantle the laws and policies, the procedures and practices that constitute the “system” of racism so entrenched in Minnesotans’ lives. It will take vigilance, accountability and a willingness to change.
Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights.
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