The Minnesota racial disparities story is old — too old. But at a packed legislative hearing last Friday, we sensed something new. Call it a quickening of collective desire to do something about persistent race-based differences in health, education, income, criminal justice and more.
The purported aim of the joint House-Senate racial disparities working group is to identify a few quick-fix measures the Legislature might adopt in a special session next month or early in the regular session, set to convene March 8. No consensus was reached Friday. But the hearing was far from a failure.
An overflow crowd demonstrated how deeply and widely Minnesotans care about securing equal opportunity. More than six hours of testimony described many small and midsize efforts already being made to narrow socioeconomic gaps and pleaded for resources to allow for more. The shoulder-to-shoulder appearance of Minneapolis and St. Paul Chambers of Commerce leaders with their respective mayors attested to the high priority employers attach to the issue.
Strong turnout and attention among legislators signaled what may be newfound resolve to act. Ideas for action surfaced from both the House Republican and Senate DFL majorities.
House Republicans asked that a tax credit for educational expenses be expanded so that more families might afford private schools — an idea with merit but limited reach. Senate DFLers advanced a more comprehensive package that would beef up workforce training programs, make more capital available to minority-owned businesses and shore up staffing in the state agency that investigates racial discrimination complaints.
Were it not for the new spirit of urgency surrounding this issue, that difference in approaches might portend gridlock and inaction. That ought not be the result this time. Racial disparities are not a small irritation for this state. They’re a prosperity-threatening disorder. Minnesota is now home to more than 1 million people of color. They comprise the fastest-growing segment of the state’s 5.5 million total population and an even faster growing share of the working-age population. If they don’t reach their full potential, the entire state will be poorer for it.
If Minnesotans think like other Americans, their appetite for government action to close racial gaps is also growing. A Pew Center survey released in August found that 6 in 10 Americans say the country needs to make more changes to achieve racial equality.
Only a third think that mission has already been accomplished. Previous surveys found public opinion much more closely divided.
Legislative leaders ought to unlink the racial disparities working group from a possible special session and give it a broader charge. It ought to function as a standing committee through the 2016 session and bring forward recommendations for both this year and the future. A despairing sense that Minnesota can do nothing meaningful about “the gaps” is lifting. That makes this a lawmaking moment not to be wasted.