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The Star Tribune was right to air Tony Cornish's views

State Rep. Tony Cornish
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
State Rep. Tony Cornish

Judging by the responses, most — most — readers of GOP Rep. ​Tony Cornish’s letter​ to the Strib Wednesday rolled their eyes at his list of suggestions for how people who are subject to the use of force by police (presumably black people, given his reference to advocacy groups) might improve their chances of avoiding confrontations with the police. Cornish was a police officer for half a decade 30-some years ago and no doubt thought he was imparting hard­-earned street wisdom based on his experience in rural Minnesota.

Except that it hasn’t played that way, with most people. The Minnesota Legislature’s foremost champion of Second Amendment rights has taken a pillorying in the Strib and elsewhere for the stark dog-whistle quality of his letter, beginning with the never-misunderstood use of “thug,” as in how not to appear to cops.

For example, a letter published this morning from Ian Wolfe of Minneapolis says, “If he were writing to criminals, he would be right. However, he misses the point of criticizing racist structures. Movements against, or criticisms of, racist structures are not a criminal endeavor. People who are criticizing are not advocating for criminals; they are advocating for people who are being treated like criminals. It is one thing to say ‘don’t do a crime.’ It is another to be externally labeled as a criminal because of appearance. I believe Cornish may benefit from some empathy and experience. His self­-proclaimed ‘dirt­-poor’ upbringing still had the privilege of whiteness. So to say to someone 'I did it, what is your problem?' is to first disregard issues of race and privilege and also to disregard the opinion that you have even ‘made it.’ Given Cornish’s poor viewpoint and logic, I am inclined to think we ought to at least require some college for politicians, at the very least some classes in logic.”

Others … some … have Cornish’s back. “I applaud Cornish on his letter,” says Dana Isaacson of Bloomington, “We finally have someone not willing to sugarcoat the issues and have a common­sense approach on what our officers have to deal with on a daily basis. I assume that Tony is one of the thinking conservatives, and perhaps a run for governor should be in his future.”

Cornish’s “thinking” aside for a moment, the media point to be made, or defended, is the Strib’s decision not just to run Cornish’s letter but give it top­-of-­the-­letters placement, with a graphic no less, to draw even more reader eyeballs.

KMSP-­TV ​covered the flap​ over Cornish and collected a handful of reader reactions from various on­line venues.

Among them are these:

Again, my suspicion is that this represents a small percentage of the crowd following the Cornish matter. But it’s worth noting and worth saying that the Strib does reader­citizens appalled by the thought processes (or lack thereof) of people like Tony Cornish ​a favor by printing letters like his.

For ​ThinkProgress, Aaron Rupar​, familiar to (some) readers for his former work with City Pages, contacted the Strib’s man in charge of letters, David Banks, for an explanation of why something like Cornish wrote gets printed in a big-city daily.

Said Banks, in part:

Whatever one may think of the Cornish letter, it reflects a point [of] view that is shared by a proportion of the people who write to us. Cornish’s leadership role is a factor, too — one I believe is especially pertinent for those who may disagree with his stance. Whether one is trying to develop a point of view or defend an existing one, isn’t it better to be aware of all of the sentiments that may influence public policy?

We fully anticipate publishing responses to the Cornish letter in the coming days. As always, our intent is to facilitate a full debate.

Facilitating a full debate should be obvious to anyone with a grasp of the essential qualities of a democracy, especially in the context of Cornish’s “leadership role” (i.e. he’s an elected public official). Big public news organization should, as a part of their civic responsibilities, facilitate a full debate. Too much “debate” in today’s highly fragmented media is siloed, with partisans raging amongst themselves with little or no exposure to (or risk of) contradiction.

Cornish’s kind of thinking informs decisions he makes routinely in the Legislature. Therefore, since more information is better than less, it is far better that his thoughts on minorities in conflict with police — a serious, potent topic — gets as much visibility as possible so the court of public opinion has an opportunity to judge the merits of his argument.

And as I say, that judgment pretty clearly is not running in Cornish’s favor.

In an ideal media environment, every major news outlet would have a public forum like a newspaper’s letters/opinion pages. Sadly, local television news finds every excuse imaginable to avoid potentially “divisive” topics and the rare radio news operation trading in actual news, as opposed to partisan hysteria­mongering, demonstrates only limited interest in the kind of free­wheeling vox populi that draws in “leaders” like Cornish.

What Cornish wrote, retrograde white paternalism to “most,” was not like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. What it was was the specific-­to-­peculiar view of a career government employee that doubtlessly represents the thinking of hundreds if not thousands of other Minnesotans, some also perhaps in “leadership roles.”

The publication of his thinking, with responses across all forms of social as well as in the Strib, might … might … give some of them reason to re-evaluate their thinking on minority/police interaction, or more likely, avoid being caught saying anything similar out in public.

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Comments (12)

What the Letter Will Really End Up Saying

The substance and tone of Rep. Cornish's letter are not particularly surprising. There are two types of reactions that will say more than the letter ever could.

First, there will be his defenders. They will loudly deny that there is anything racist about what was said. Defenders will point to the fact that Rep. Cornish does not come out and say, in so many words, that he is talking about African Americans (He is not, for example, calling Black Lives Matter a "terrorist" group). If there is no overt language, how can anyone complain? These readers are failing to acknowledge the many coded ways racism is transmitted. This failure may be willful. It may also come from the fact that it is harder to see racism looking at it from the outside.

The second set of reactions will come from the "buts." These people will start with a denial, then negate it. "I'm not racist, but . . ." Alternately, "I've always been pretty liberal, but . . ." They will gyrate mightily to prove that they are not racist. Things have changed, they will tell you. They don't mean "all" African Americans, just the ones the choose to see. It may stem from the general American discomfort with discussing race ("People who talk about race are the real racists!"). It may just be latent bigotry that pops up when the issues become real life, and not abstractions. You don't have to dig very far to get there.

As a side note, the letter revealed a real authoritarian streak to Rep. Cornish. Don't "flap your jaws" when the police confront you. Be obedient, and complain later (because we all know that citizen complaints against the police result in just, fair results, and officers are eager to ferret out their bad colleagues).

Tony Cornish Letter

Not only is it appropriate for the Star Tribune to print the letter, but it's almost required for a couple reasons. First, the letters section is a forum for all viewpoints, even ones we don't agree with or consider offensive. Second, it reveals the thinking of many people like Tony Cornish who grew up in small town and rural homogeneous white areas who don't have the faintest idea of what it's like to be treated negatively and assumed to be criminals just because of the color of your skin and where you live.

Tony Cornish doesn't need to be yelled at and condemned as a racist. That just drives him further away and narrows the lens through which he already views the world. He's just a product of his own life experiences and the inability to imagine what it's like to walk in another person's shoes. What he and others like him need is to be educated, not berated.

If the Star Tribune doesn't print his letter, we lose the opportunity to educate him and we lose the opportunity for a broader conversation about race and injustice.

I really need enlightenment

Thug

Per Merriam Webster - a brutal ruffian or assassin

Per Oxford Dictionary - a violent person, especially a criminal

Per Cambridge Dictionary - a man who acts violently, esp. a criminal

Per Dictionary.com - 1. a cruel or vicious ruffian, robber, or murderer. 2.(sometimes initial capital letter) one of a former group of professional robbers and murderers in India who strangled their victims.

So when did the definition of Thug become a term exclusive applied to African Americans? Who made that decision? Is everyone automatically a racist, sexist, (pick whatever -ist term you want) when using a word, as defined, in the common English dictionaries? I really need to understand how this happens to a word so I, too, don't become labeled.

Good question

I don't know the answer but my educated guess is that "thug" became perceived as racially coded after Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed. I found this link:

http://reverbpress.com/features/thug-evolution-racist-code-word/

This was also about the time in 2015 when you began seeing comparisons on the net about how white people who were rioting were not called "thugs" but black people were.

I understand in our current political-racial environment how people might be sensitized to being depicted and the language used. Just like how it's changed since the 1950's. Then, polite white people referred to African-Americans as "colored" or "Negroes." That changed in the 1960's when we learned that "black is beautiful" and "colored" and "Negro" became passe, if not racially coded terms themselves.

Language is always evolving with the culture. I predict that "thug" having been identified as a racially charged word will simply become disused from fear of offending someone. I believe this is what happened to a certain word that meant "stingy" or "miserly" but began with "nigg" (not the "N" word"). It had nothing to do with describing black people or race. This word was used commonly in literature through the 1950's and maybe into the 1970's. It has since fallen into disuse because a few complained and the public heard.

And now we don our gay

And now we don our gay apparel for a dinner party, because when we're with the Flintstone's, you know we'll have a gay old time.

Word meaning in subcultures can evolve more rapidly too. "Bro" currently (loosely) means "fratty white guy," whereas a few decades ago it pretty much meant a polar demographic.

Context (in particular the person saying a word) makes a big difference. Words that are slurs when made by outsiders are often used as terms of endearment within that group.

Words spoken by a decisionmaker in state government can take on a different meaning based on that person's history and affiliations.

Well....

"So when did the definition of Thug become a term exclusive applied to African Americans? Who made that decision?"

Google "Thug", click Images and see that over 40 of the top 50 images returned are African Americans.

Given how the Google works, apparently we all did.

Actually

I think that Rep. Cornish was trying to educate you, and you, and you, and you...
As a reader of the Strib I am regularly tortured by the opinions of others but bear with the letters and commentaries because it is important to hear all sides of an issue. I can't wait until at least ONE complaining letter or tweet actually refutes any of the individual assertions on their merits and doesn't resort to name calling (you Trump haters look in the mirror!).
Now that's dope!

If, in the Process of "Growing Up Dirt Poor," Rep. Cornish,

The experiences to which you now attribute your success,...

have caused you to lose a SUBSTANTIAL part of your original personality,...

i.e. you've had the ability to experience and express the empathy and compassion necessary to being able to see others as REAL people,...

who have had experiences and lives different from your own,...

beaten out of you (literally or figuratively),...

and your innate sense of strength and security so damaged,...

that you now require a gun in your own possession to fill in for those missing parts of yourself,...

I don't think you can consider yourself to be living a successful life.

In reality, the highest crime neighborhoods of the Twin Cities Metro area are also those which have the most guns per capita -

the very DREAM that Rep. Cornish and his NRA friends wish to bring to reality for EVERY neighborhood.

Their delusion is revealed by their tendency to blame the victims of all of those guns for the violence those guns amplify and exacerbate,...

and ignore the reality that, without the guns, those neighborhoods would be far more peaceful places.

Amen

…to all of the above. Well, almost all. I totally agree that the 1st Amendment is wasted words, and frankly, unnecessary, if the only opinions published in the 'Strib (or on MinnPost, or in the PiPress, or in The Conservative, or in The Nation, etc., etc., ad nauseum) are those with which we all agree. I admit to some naivete in this regard, but it's always seemed to me, a non-journalist, that one of the key functions of a newspaper has been to provide the public with genuinely diverse points of view.

Brian's point about local TV is well-taken. Avoiding controversy, which might alienate viewers, thus reducing advertising revenue, thus hurting the bottom line of station ownership, is one of the commandments of local TV news. When a candidate lies, you can't call it a lie because someone will object. Instead, run a story about puppies, or, if the news director decides some sort of alternate has to be aired in order to be "fair," you present a sound byte from another viewpoint, so that "viewers can decide" between the outright falsehood and a vague statement from someone else that contradicts it, but without the knowledge that the outright falsehood is, in fact, a lie.

Mr. Cornish, as others have suggested here and in the 'Strib, reveals a narrow worldview common among people without much education or experience outside their own little universe. It's too bad that he's able to affect state policy and legislation with that worldview, but having been elected, it's quite possible that his narrow horizon is in sync with the equally narrow horizon of his constituents. Those things happen in a democracy. If his constituents think his worldview is too narrow, they should elect someone else.

At the same time – minus his use of dog-whistle terminology – there's nothing very extraordinary about what he wrote. Don't misbehave, or be a smart-aleck, and you won't have any trouble with the police. Unfortunately, people – especially youthful males of every race and culture – misbehave with some frequency. Sadly, the implied assumption that the police who respond to that misbehavior are paragons of virtue isn't very accurate, but that, too, is a function of someone whose view of a former occupation tends to be through rose-colored glasses.

His position in the Legislature

As chair of the House Committee on Public Safety and Crime Prevention Representative Cornish acts as the gatekeeper - and sometime impenetrable wall - on all proposals dealing with police and crime. On numerous occasions this year he failed to even allow bills to be introduced that he didn’t like. In the past he has been condescending, insulting and bullying to people who were testifying on various proposals. Now that his party is in control he sits smirking in the seat of control and blocks anything he doesn’t personally like.

It is a good thing that the Strib has done because it has allowed people across the state to see what and who this man really is.

A different point of view

Who should be advising young black men how to behave when dealing with police? The most desirable choice is one of their parents. Second, is probably another adult member of their community, perhaps a relative, minister, teacher, coach or neighbor. Third choice is perhaps a black community leader, although leaders are sometimes interested that bigger issues that what happens to individuals.

The behavior of youth is primarily a concern of their family, friend and community. These people can provide many examples of when these youth-police encounters go badly, and tips for not letting that happening. Also, if the police cross the line, they can support the individual.

When that happens, people like Cornish can focus on other things, such as the use of guns to carry out violence in the white community. It is very easy to be critical of another group as a way to deflect attention from problems in your own.

Why?

Why is it when we have a health crisis we seek out the "best and the brightest" at places like the Mayo clinic to help us?

When we have a potential life changing legal issue? Same thing, we seek out the "best and the brightest".

When we have a gifted child with opportunities to go to their school of choice almost all (insert picture of Ted Cruz in Harvard sweater here) will gravitate towards a "best and brightest" school that gained that reputation through faculty known as the "best and brightest". Schools that produces the doctors and lawyers noted above.

If, when seeking out that great doctor, skilled lawyer or expert teacher, we run into someone who tells us: "never went to school for any of this stuff, just picked it up here and there" We likely would take our needs and move quickly on.

And yet when it comes to politics and picking those that will lead our nation, establish laws, collect and spend almost 40% of everything we earn, and make decisions that will have effect on multiple generations, it's suddenly not only OK to be proudly uneducated; but, a mark of desired distinction to some.

Sorry, its' not. It's one of the sources of our political dysfunction:

Want to be a great doctor lawyer, college professor? Work hard, study long, prove yourself over years of practice.

Want to be a politician? get lucky once in a 6 month election cycle and get elected. Next thing you know you have won the Iowa Presidential Straw Poll....