Rosenblum: There’s still a lot of work left to fulfill MLK’s equality dream

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2014 - 9:07 PM

Celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy were barely winding down on Monday when we were slammed with reminders of work unfinished.

Arizona State University has suspended fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon, after Instagram photos circulated of members and guests at an MLK party posing with gang signs and drinking from watermelon cups.

In Duluth, a contrite store owner was trying to explain her “25-percent off everything black!” sign in the window of Global Village, which sells clothes and handcrafted items from around the world.

On the equally dismal receiving end, a Shakopee High School student from Saudi Arabia used a one-act play to share her frustration about being stereotyped. And a “microaggression” photo show, inspired by a fed-up student of color at Fordham University in New York, comes to the University of St. Thomas in February.

While many of us are shaking our heads in disbelief — this is 2014! — Anita Patel sees all of these examples as opportunities to take action.

“It would be my hope that these stories never occur,” said Patel, vice president of racial justice and public policy at the <URL destination="">YWCA<PARAGRAPH style="$ID/[No paragraph style]">cq

“The reality, unfortunately, is that they come across all the time, although maybe they get more attention in a week like this.

“It’s so important to pause and have a reflective conversation. Too often, we yell at each other. We shut each other down. There has to be time to reflect.”

So, no yelling? No shaming?

Not if we want to see real change on personal and systemic levels.

While Minnesota’s racial disparities remain among the worst in the country, Patel has seen heartening shifts in attitudes and policies among people willing to be less reactive and more reflective.

A dozen years ago, the YWCA created “It’s Time to Talk” forums, inviting people from the corporate and nonprofit worlds, as well as professional athletes, students and others to talk about race. That the forum has grown from a few hundred people to 1,300 in 2013 demonstrates, she said, “how hungry people are to have honest conversations, in a safe environment.”

Patel was happy to see ASU leadership take quick action, emphasizing, in part, “that the university will not tolerate this kind of behavior.” But she hopes they don’t stop there.

To affect change in the students requires bringing them into the conversation. And often, she said, the best conversations begin with a question:

Why did you choose to do that? What motivated you? What was the thinking behind it?

“If the frat members said, ‘We thought we were being funny,’ I could link to history and say, ‘Please try to understand the impact of the symbolism of what you were doing,’ ” Patel said. “I’d ask, ‘What do you want to stand for? Does this reflect that?’ ”

In Duluth, Global Village owner Rachel Mock posted a pained apology on Facebook, in which she voiced “a deep commitment to Martin Luther King,” Patel noted.

Shaming might only shut her down, Patel said. “Instead, she might be directed to workshops and learning to give her tools to help her live in a way that reflects her intentions.”

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