It started with a video of a black man being handcuffed by an Edina police officer.
The clip, shot on Xerxes Avenue in fall 2016, was viewed more than a million times online and picked up by national news outlets. Many were disturbed by what they saw as unnecessarily rough treatment by the officer.
The episode — and the public meetings and protests that followed — proved to be a wake-up call to Edina officials that racial discrimination was an issue in their educated, upper-class and predominantly white suburb.
“It certainly served as a catalyst to be more intentional about [race] and more focused about it,” Council Member Kevin Staunton said. “It didn’t have the sense of urgency until we were the center of the universe for a couple of weeks.”
The City Council subsequently launched a Race and Equity Initiative to reach out to residents, workers and visitors to get their take on race in Edina.
This month, members of the initiative and its task force released a draft report summarizing input from 550 to 600 people, according to one leader. In May, the initiative is expected to share its recommendations on what the City Council should do to address racial equity.
Comments and anecdotes interspersed throughout the report paint a picture of a city where some people of color feel unwelcome or excluded.
“Most experiences with racism are not direct,” one online survey-taker responded. “It’s much more subtle, yet pervasive. It’s ingrained in the culture here, like an intrinsic sense of superiority.”
“As I am white, I feel I belong everywhere,” wrote another. “I’m not so sure about people of color.”
Others described their ambivalence on whether to report racial discrimination that they had witnessed or experienced.
“I probably wish I would have been able to contact someone within the city to relate the incident, but frankly I felt that nothing would happen even if I did, and I might be labeled as a ‘troublemaker’ rather than a good citizen,” someone wrote.
Staunton represents Edina with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network that the city joined last year. Since then he’s heard stories of people of color drawing disparaging comments at restaurants or from neighbors.
He said it’s time to raise awareness — his own included — of what people of color have felt and experienced in Edina.
“The Edina I know is a welcoming and inclusive place,” Staunton said. “To hear, after years and years of being involved in this community … [that] some people authentically feel like they’re not welcome, to me is a tragedy.”
Many suburbs have begun to look at their policies through the lenses of race and equity in the past few years.
Several of Edina’s neighbors have joined GARE, and Hopkins and Brooklyn Park have been touted for their efforts. St. Louis Park recently announced it had hired someone to coordinate its own racial equity efforts.
A predominantly white city
Twin Cities suburbs are largely made up of white residents, and Edina is whiter than most. About 85 percent of the city’s population is white, about 10 percent higher than the rest of the metro area, according to 2015 estimates. Only 2 percent are black, about a quarter of the greater metro’s rate.
The city’s history helps explain that makeup. Some Edina neighborhoods had racially restrictive deed covenants in the early 20th century, including the Country Club neighborhood where the sale or lease of land to anyone “other than one of the white or Caucasian race” was prohibited.
“We’re all stuck with this, and we have a long history of it. We just have to figure out how to slog our way through it,” Staunton said. “And the best way to do that is to start to talk to each other about it.”
James Pierce, a senior IT director at Cargill who serves as co-chairman of the initiative’s task force, said the decision to form the group was more than just a bureaucratic response.
“The simple fact that the City Council stood up and said, ‘We want to have our community leaders come together and face into this space,’ I think that is a very positive step,” he said.
The initiative is made up of about 30 volunteers who live or work in Edina, including city employees, school board members and police officers. They are represented by a task force and guided by the Citizens League, a St. Paul-based policymaking nonprofit.
Members have met throughout the year and hosted public meetings to discuss race in Edina — discrimination they’ve seen or experienced, places where they felt unwelcome, things they’d like to see the council do.
They spent about $48,000 of a total budget of $120,000, with money left over for this year, according to city officials.
While Pierce said that just talking about race is itself a step toward equity, Edina has a long way to go to make lasting change and move on what he called the “advocacy curve.”
“I personally believe Edina is still on the lower end of that curve,” he said. That’s the case across the country, he added.
‘Segregated by design’
The initiative will use the new report to draft recommendations for the City Council, which could range from improving the experience people have at City Hall to increasing community policing efforts, Pierce said.
Some who responded to the survey felt racial discrimination in Edina was nonexistent.
“You’re trying to fix something that isn’t a problem!” one wrote. A dozen people asked the city not to waste time or money on the issue; another dozen said they had experienced “reverse racism.”
Janet Kitui, an Edina resident originally from Kenya, attended one of the public conversations hosted by the initiative last month. She said she had heard stories about how students of color were treated in and out of school, and recounted how a neighbor once called the police on her daughter’s friend after he was dropped off near his home.
“Somebody thought that was a suspicious activity,” she said.
“It is nice that we are having a dialogue, but the real heavy lifting really will take political will on [the part of] the politicians,” Kitui said. “Because the truth is, we are segregated by design. It wasn’t by accident.”