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How does the Minnesota State Fair do in hiring minority vendors? Nobody knows — there’s no data to figure it out

The fair’s decision not to track the diversity of its vendors “is sort of like putting your head in the sand,” said Rebecca Lucero, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Rights. “You’re choosing to not find out what’s going on.”

corn cob vendors
The Minnesota State Fair does not track the race, gender or ethnicity breakdown of its vendors, exhibitors or employees.
Minnesota State Fair

When the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and other advocacy groups have protested at the Minnesota State Fair in recent years, they’ve focused primarily on a call to end police shootings. But Sam Sanchez, an organizer for the campaign, said they’ve also tried to highlight disparities in wealth between whites and people of color in Minnesota.

That includes asking questions about the fair itself, questions like, “Who has access to these things that create wealth?” Sanchez said.

For vendors, after all, the fair offers a shot at some eye-popping revenue and hundreds of thousands of potential customers. But the answer to Sanchez’s question is largely unknown. That’s because the fair does not track the race, gender or ethnicity breakdown of its vendors, exhibitors or employees, General Manager Jerry Hammer told MinnPost, and doesn’t use such information in its selection process.

While Hammer said the fair has recruiting efforts that try to bring in a wide array of vendors and employees, its first and foremost duty is to “do the best job we can for people who are attending the fair.”

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“What we look at is product and experience and how things might fit into the fair,” Hammer said of picking food vendors.

The result, however, is a vendor selection process that has drawn some criticism from those who say it’s not doing enough to open doors for people of color — and that it could be unintentionally excluding them. 

“Choosing not to track [racial diversity] is sort of like putting your head in the sand,” said Rebecca Lucero, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Rights. “You’re choosing to not find out what’s going on and doing the best to support all of Minnesota. And that’s unfortunate.”

Selection and recruitment

To choose new vendors, the fair considers a list of criteria, including experience at other fairs, the appearance of a booth and whether there are similar products already at the fair. The opportunity to snag a license is rare. 

Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
While nearly all vendors are on 12-day licenses that they have to apply for each year, Hammer said about 99.5 percent of vendors are renewed. The fair keeps sales numbers, but Hammer said staff would only step in if they’ve had “performance” problems, such as complaints from fairgoers, run-ins with health regulators or other operating issues. (Even businesses that own buildings are subject to 12-day licenses, Hammer said, because they can still be barred from selling food.)

When a spot opens, it’s usually because of outside circumstances, like a business owner moving away, dying or closing their restaurant. “There’s not much of a turnover,” Hammer said.

That leads to intense competition for available space. Sales exhibitions generally have more turnover, but they can also be competitive. 

Hammer said the fair, a quasi-state agency, is legally barred by Minnesota’s human rights laws from using race, gender or ethnicity to pick vendors and can’t require applicants to divulge that information either. He also said the fair could ask people to volunteer their race, gender or ethnicity, but opts not to, because not everyone would answer. “I’m not sure we would ask a voluntary question that would give us data that’s not complete,” he said.

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Still, Hammer said the fair works “very hard” to make sure it recruits vendors and hires employees that represent the state. He said the fair advertises through “minority media,” does extensive outreach and works with nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Clubs for hiring. Because Minneapolis Public Schools is once again starting after Labor Day this year, he said that may bring a surge of racially diverse students. (The fair ends on Labor Day.)

Jerry Hammer
Jerry Hammer
Hammer pointed to stories that he said show the fair has been successful in its approach. One example is Funky Grits, a new booth operated by the Minneapolis restaurant, which is owned by Jared Brewington, who is black. Another is the Indigenous Food Lab, a daylong program on Sunday run by chef Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe better known as the Sioux Chef. Sherman has a best-selling book and a James Beard Award. The fair also has a Hmong Minnesota Day, Hammer said.

In 2016, the fair did conduct what they call an “informal” internal survey of exhibitors and found about 10 percent of the fair’s “commercial exhibitors and vendors are licensed to minorities.” At the same time, in an email to MinnPost, the fair’s media team said the survey “involved no questions or collection of data from exhibitors.”

A state report published last year says 6.3 percent of businesses in the state have owners that identify as black, African-American, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Latino or “other,” despite representing 17.4 percent of the population. Another survey using similar data found only 7 percent of firms in the Twin Cities with employees were owned by minorities, despite representing 22 percent of the population. The largest sector by far of minority owned businesses with employees in Minnesota was accommodation and food service.

“We go to great lengths to make sure everybody’s included and you see that at the fair,” Hammer said. 

A fair fair?

Lucero, the state’s Human Rights commissioner, said Hammer is correct in saying anti-discrimination laws prevent the fair from explicitly hiring or turning away a vendor because of race or other legally protected characteristics of an applicant. 

But she said the fair “absolutely can consider race, ethnicity or gender as one of many factors in a holistic hiring process.”

Lucero also said while an application and data tracking system that leaves out race can appear neutral, it can also lead to unintended consequences by presenting barriers to some more than others. For example, the nearly automatic renewal process for vendors could be leaving in a disproportionate number of white-owned businesses as the state grows more diverse, she said.

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But to find out if that’s true, they would have to ask people to voluntarily divulge their backgrounds, something she said is routinely done in the vending and hiring world. 

“It’s very common for employers, for anyone who works with vendors,” Lucero said. “Any vendor that operates with the state or city would provide information about what the makeup of their workforce is. It’s just so common for that request to come to vendors.”

Unemployment rates and other economic markers for black, indigenous and other minority groups in Minnesota lag far behind that of whites, which elected officials across the state have sought to fix. State agencies have worked to increase the number of minority-owned businesses that win government contracts. There are also state and federal programs to encourage people to hire contractors run by women, minorities and others, such as Minnesota’s Targeted Group, Economically Disadvantaged and Veteran-Owned Small Business Procurement Program.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission, which selects vendors at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, participates in the Targeted Group program, and the commission also must participate in the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program to be eligible for federal funding on certain construction projects and concessions, said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the commission.

Lucero said the fair could set goals for racial diversity in its vendors and workforce and create a strong cache of candidates. “It really is about creating a strong pipeline and you’re never going to be able to create a diverse pool if 99.5 percent of vendors get automatically renewed each year,” she said.

A 10 percent rate of exhibits run by non-white people still would not reflect the demographics of the state or the Twin Cities, Lucero said.

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis DFLer who has championed equity in the state’s workforce, said he’d like to know which parts of the state vendors are coming from as a way to see if the Twin Cities is represented. He also said the high renewal rate offers little opportunity for new people to make a mark at the fair.

“Even when people say it’s neutral on its face, it could have a disparate impact,” Champion said of the fair’s practices.