ST. CLOUD – In the first of several tours to learn more about what the state can do to reduce racial disparities, Gov. Mark Dayton caught an earful.
At a community forum, residents of the St. Cloud region peppered him with questions — and suggestions — on what his administration can do to address racial disparities plaguing black Minnesotans.
Attendees asked about how Minnesota will close its achievement gap, add manufacturing jobs and reduce racial harassment on college campuses.
The forum grew testy at times, but Dayton said later he thought it remained “respectful.” The audience included Somali immigrants, nonprofit organizers, older white residents and college students.
In one instance, an attendee asked “leaders of Somali culture” whether immigrants had done enough to assimilate. Another accused a Somali man of working for an organization that he said had ties to terrorism groups, later urging those around him to “Google it” when the man denied the accusation.
Dayton denounced “bigots” and said those with racist attitudes do not belong in Minnesota. He said he would not tolerate racial discrimination, adding, “If you can’t accept that, find another state.”
To immigrants, Dayton said: “You have every right to be here.” The event, organized by the central Minnesota chapter of the NAACP, was an effort to start discussion on racial disparities in housing, jobs and education.
Afterward, Dayton called the conversation constructive and said he appreciated “people’s tolerance.”
He added: “I intend to have more of these around the state. I think it’s very important and sheds the light on … what the problems are and makes other leaders aware of the importance of these issues.”
Dayton has in recent days vowed to “double down” on efforts to better educate minority children, who he said will be key to the state’s economic growth. He highlighted trends that show immigrants will join the state’s workforce at a faster rate than white Minnesotans.
The forum comes on the heels of efforts by Dayton’s administration to reverse a plunge in household income for black Minnesotans, according to recent census data.
He announced on Sunday the creation of the Office of Career and Business Opportunity within the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The new office will “identify and help break down barriers to employment and business opportunities of color across Minnesota,” according to a statement.
He also called Tuesday for increased funding for satellite offices of the state’s Department of Human Rights, an agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws.
Dayton was among a handful of panelists on Tuesday who included state Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud; St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis; St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson, and other area leaders.
Knoblach said he was “disturbed” by census figures showing a drop in black household income, and said, “We really need to get to the bottom of that.”