Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.

Do Black Lives Matter in Our Community?

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds under Society, Crime, Violence, Politics Updated: August 13, 2014 - 2:46 AM

I'll admit, I had to take a breather after my last post on the crisis facing black boys in Minneapolis Public Schools. It was important for me to take a step back to process the disturbing events that have impacted our community over the last few weeks. For one, there were a number of shootings that occurred in Minneapolis in some of our most economically-impoverished neighborhoods, along with the obligatory outcries to "stop the violence." Then, community activist, Al Flowers was allegedly beaten by an officer in the Minneapolis Police Department in his South Minneapolis home, followed by press conferences and a public outcry for justice. Situations like these are becoming all too common in the Twin Cities and demonstrate the need to move beyond rhetoric and to work towards real, concrete solutions that address root causes of violence and deteriorating police/community relations.

Racial wounds continue to be reopened

On a national level we have had to grapple with the opening and reopening of deep wounds stemming from our unreconciled racial history in the aftermath of the murder of unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by law enforcement.

Indeed, Mike Brown appears to be the latest victim in an unfolding saga of issues at the intersection of race, privilege, power, and perception. The debate on social media surrounding his death is reminiscent of the stinging debate that occurred in the aftermath of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black male teen who was gunned down in a gated community in Florida by a neighborhood watchman. It was said of Trayvon Martin that he was "suspicious" and looked as though he was "up to no good." Negative images of Trayvon were plastered across the media which had the effect of diminishing public empathy for Trayvon and reinforcing the notion that he was a menacing character who got what he deserved. When his killer was acquitted, it seemed to reinforce the deleterious message that black lives don't matter in the USA. This message of the lack of worth of black lives is implicit in many public policy debates, the lack of equity in our social, educational, political, and economic systems, and the uneven ways in which our laws are enforced-- benefiting some and disenfranchising others.

Impact of media portrayals and negative stereotyping

Sadly, time and time again when African Americans become victims of crime, the message is transmitted that their "negative" conduct was the sole contributing factor to their deaths. In such circumstances, even when African Americans are victims, they are often racially stereotyped and negative perceptions about them may be used as a justification for why they were murdered. Mainstream media plays a key role in perpetuating negative stereotypes and images about African Americans in the way that they dress, who their friends are, how they speak, and the neighborhoods in which they reside.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown

In Mike Brown's case, media outlets posted a photo that depicted Mike Brown wearing a sports jersey, headphones, and holding up what looked like a sideways peace sign. The photo of Mike Brown was arguably used to send an implicit message that he was a thug who, though unarmed, was shot because he allegedly fought with police. The media portrayal of Mike Brown set Black Twitter ablaze with a social media campaign denouncing racial stereotypes and negative media portrayals through the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, Which picture would these use? The hashtag was replete with images of African Americans posing in attire such as military uniforms, suits, casual clothing or in graduation gowns juxtaposed next to pictures in which they could be depicted as gangsters or thugs by the media. In other words, if any of the individuals were shot, they are calling the question as to how they might be portrayed in the media as a way of justifying their murder. Posted below is my own example of two images of me taken at different times that could be interpreted by the public in different ways. These images provide an illustrative example of how a simple change in appearance could potentially be used to justify harm being done to me as a so-called threat to public safety: (Never mind the fact that I asked my daughter to take the first picture of me for this blog post and the fact that the “bandana” around my mouth is actually a scarf that goes with my business suits. The t-shirt I am wearing is in protest of GangNet, a gang database that was used to racially profile thousands of people of color in Minnesota. The second photo is of me speaking at the Convening on Racial Equity that recently occurred in Minneapolis by the Governmental Alliance on Race and Equity.)

As you can see from the photos above, it is easy to make judgments about a person's character based upon the way that they look and dress and how they might be depicted in a photo. These preconceived notions and stereotypes become dangerous when they are used to justify maltreatment or harm of a person or a group of persons in our society. Unfortunately, scores of young African American men (and in some cases women) have been murdered as a result of racial stereotypes and negative assumptions about their character on the basis of how they looked and dressed.

Young black men die slow deaths in this country

More commonly, young African American men are forced to die a slow death when they routinely experience racial discrimination, are denied equal access to a quality education, healthcare, and access to employment opportunities that pay a living wage. These young men are also disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and marginalized within our society. Sadly, most of us have been conditioned to turn a blind eye to their plight and we attempt to look at individual circumstances, rather than the collective impacts of historical trauma and structural and institutional racism on their ability to thrive. In essence, the daily dehumanizing treatment that black men and boys experience does not often make headlines, but has the cumulative effect of robbing them of a decent quality of life and serving as visible reminders of the badges and incidents of slavery that have never been abolished.

The Crisis Facing Black Boys in Minneapolis Public Schools

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds under Society, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: July 2, 2014 - 7:18 AM

Public education debates in Minnesota frequently center on disputes between those who want to reform education and those who support the position of teachers’ unions. As those heated debates continue to swirl, important aspects of the discussion tend to fall by the wayside. One key example is the current crisis facing African American boys within the Minneapolis public school system. Sadly, black boys are often excluded from classrooms, placed in special education at alarming rates, subjected to administrative transfers, and are graduating at dismally low rates. They are also routinely subjected to harsh discipline for minor infractions and in many cases even criminalized and brought into the juvenile justice system through the use of school resource officers.

Black boys face racially-hostile school settings

As a civil rights attorney, I have learned of black boys as young as six and seven years old that have been arrested in public school settings and hauled away in the back of squad cars. I have also been made aware of black boys who have been charged with disorderly conduct for non-violent offenses, thereby opening the door for future involvement in the criminal justice system. The cumulative effects of unevenly-applied school policies and practices upon black boys have arguably created a racially-hostile environment that makes learning difficult to impossible. It is a continual affront to the human dignity of black boys to be treated as second class citizens within the public school system and made to feel as though they are not welcome in mainstream classroom settings.

Is Jim Crow still alive?

Moreover, the current treatment of black boys in public schools cannot be divorced from the oppressive and inhumane treatment black people have experienced throughout their history in this country and in our state. The signs reminiscent of the Jim Crow era may no longer be visible on school house doors, yet the sentiments have somehow seeped into policies and practices that deny opportunity to some of our youngest, most vulnerable citizens, with untold consequences to boot.

In response to the myriad challenges and obstacles that black boys face within the district, Minneapolis Public Schools has resolved to create an Office for Black Male Student Achievement. While the specific plans for the office have yet to be unveiled, there seems to be a great deal of public support for such an effort and some would say that it is long overdue. Many would also say that given the magnitude of the problems that black boys are experiencing, the district must begin to act with a greater sense of urgency and commit to making a sufficient investment if it is serious about addressing the challenges that exist.

The district's response to the crisis is inadequate

A major concern that has surfaced in recent weeks is the fact that in determining expenditures in its most recent budget, the district has opted to earmark a mere $200,000 toward establishing the Office of Black Male Achievement. As one might imagine, the amount that is being allocated is a paltry sum in the grand scheme of things, which amounts to just $28.00 per African American boy. For many concerned parents and community members, this feels like a slap in the face, given the district's enormous budget of over $700 million (http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2014/06/asking-minneapolis-public-schools-what-are-we-worth). Although the district claims that the $200,000 investment is initial seed money, many see it is an indication of the level of seriousness, or lack thereof, of the district's prioritization of this issue.

In response to these concerns, a coalition of 13 community-based organizations and civil rights groups sent a joint letter (http://aalf.us/sites/default/files/2014-6-20_mps_obma_letter.pdf) to district leadership requesting a reconsideration of the amount that has been allocated to this effort and a community meeting that will allow for greater levels of collaboration and input by concerned members of the public. As one of the signers of the letter, I feel that it is important that the district begins to honor the voices of parents, students, and community members who want to ensure that the crisis facing black boys is taken seriously by district leadership.

Solutions must include community voices

Too often our voices are shut out of the process of providing input, critical feedback, and diverse perspectives that will ensure that the district is moving forward in a way that puts the interests of children, and particularly vulnerable populations, at the center of its decision-making. Ensuring public involvement would also increase the likelihood that there is proper accountability and balance in how the district prioritizes limited resources. Instead of quickly hiring someone to lead the Office of Black Male Achievement, as the district has indicated that it will do, district leadership should be willing to take a step back and allow for a community process before things move forward. Involving the community in a strategic way will help to begin rebuilding public trust and confidence in the district and will usher in a paradigm of collaboration and cooperation that will benefit all stakeholders, and especially the children who are most in need of our support.

The treatment of black boys in Minneapolis public schools has been unconscionable. Rather than continue down a similar path, it is time to reverse course and make critical investments in the lives of black boys. They deserve the chance to reach their full potential in life.

As the Battle for Equity Heats Up, Scapegoats are Caught in the Crossfire

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds under Society, Crime, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: June 20, 2014 - 4:29 AM

It's a crying shame that getting people to talk candidly about racial justice and equity in Minnesota is like pulling teeth. To be frank, not only is it difficult to broach the subject of race and our need to address socio-economic disparities for people of color, but those who do show courage and speak the truth are often targeted by those who disagree.

For those who have been reading my blog, you know that I have been writing about white privilege, racial injustice, and equity for the last several weeks. My goal is to increase awareness of the issues at hand and to awaken our appetites for justice and equality in our state. Although some have been inspired by my writings, others have been enraged by what I have to say. Indeed, I have received disturbing emails filled with venom from those who believe that people of color experience higher rates of poverty and social isolation due to laziness, a lack of values, and/or a poor work ethic. Here is an excerpt from one of the emails I received: "Your article represents the usual black whining about the evil whitey.  In the last 50 years whites have bent over backwards to help blacks, in many cases to the detriment of their own children and grandchildren.  No good deed goes unpunished - and we all know the results because we see them every day - laziness, crime, violence, aggression, out of control ghetto breeding, refusal to take responsibility. Of course all this is the whitey's fault. "

Sadly, such attitudes are widely -and I would venture to say secretly- held by a certain segment of our society who is unwilling to entertain evidence that bias, and institutional and structural racism work to perpetually limit access to opportunity for people of color and aid in producing many of the negative outcomes that occur. Rather than show intellectual curiosity for uncovering the truth, these individuals tend to stereotype people of color and sit behind a computer screen and spew vitriol that they would never have the audacity to utter in public. It's what some people call "Minnesota Nice."

There’s a shift away from real issues

Another form of Minnesota Nice that I have seen play out in recent weeks is related to public discussions surrounding an equity agenda in the City of Minneapolis and the resources being devoted to that issue by the Department of Civil Rights. The media has been ablaze with stories that reflect growing tension between a couple of members of the city council and Velma Korbel, the Director of the Civil Rights Department, who happens to be an African American woman. Disturbingly, Ms. Korbel has been berated in public and called to the carpet to explain the amount of time and resources being expended by her office to promote equity within the City. In this instance, Minnesota Nice is rearing its ugly head by shifting attention away from the real issues at the intersection of race and inequality and focusing the attention on Ms. Korbel through attacks on her character and even her management style.

From my perspective, in light of the fact that Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities between blacks and whites in poverty, unemployment, criminal justice, and high school graduation rates in our state and probably the country, it should be a no-brainer to focus on equity and to aggressively implement the racial equity agenda that is being developed. Indeed, many of the problems that plague the poorest communities in Minneapolis would dissipate through an urgent focus on equity and economic justice that opens doors to affordable housing, home ownership, high quality education, and most importantly JOBS for those who desire to work.

We must ask the right questions

And yet, despite these challenges, it is painful to see the mask that Minnesota Nice wears in an effort to impede progress towards equity in the City of Minneapolis. As concerned citizens, we need to be asking the right questions of our elected officials such as: What are you specifically doing to create jobs for those who are locked out of access to economic opportunity; especially African American men? How will you ensure that those with criminal histories are given a second chance? Does the City's workforce adequately reflect the diversity contained within the City? If not, are you using an equity toolkit to ensure more diversity within government hiring? Will the City continue to pay out millions of dollars to settle police brutality claims while simultaneously raising concerns about the resources being spent on an agenda that promotes equity? Who is providing political cover for those like Ms. Korbel, whose office is tackling the issue of equity head-on? Will you allow Ms. Korbel to be used as a scapegoat on this issue while the status quo is allowed to remain in place? And my personal favorite: Who among you is willing to spend down political capital to protect the interests of the poor and take a stand for justice and equality?

If Hubert H. Humphrey had not taken a similar stand many moons ago, we might not be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act this year. Because of the courage of Humphrey and so many others, that means at a base level that I can go to any restaurant and hotel in the City and drink from any water fountain I choose, without being denied access because of my skin color. However, in spite of the gains that have been made, there is still much work to be done.

Minnesota nice must go

Thus, it's time that we pull the mask off of Minnesota Nice and demand change on behalf of those whose interests are constantly being ignored or pushed to the back burner for the sake of political expediency. We are allowing too many distracting forces to stand in the way of what is right and true and just. The time for equity is now. The future of Minneapolis and our state depend upon it.

In the Spirit of Wellstone, We Must Champion Equity

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds under People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Society, Government, Politics, Transportation Updated: June 3, 2014 - 5:19 AM

Last weekend the DFL and the GOP each held state conventions to determine which candidates would receive endorsements for positions ranging from governor to U.S. Senator. While it is clear that both political parties considered everything from electability, to fundraising ability, to maturity and experience, what is not clear is the degree to which a candidate's commitment to equity was factored into the equation.

“We all do better when we all do better”
As someone who has participated in a political convention in the past, I found it disturbing that issues of racial and economic justice were either not on the table at all or were seen as issues of marginal importance in the grand scheme of electoral politics. The practice of relegating issues that are important to poor folk and communities of color to the sidelines is detrimental to the health and well-being not only of those groups, but to all Minnesotans. Seemingly gone are the days in which we openly declare and act upon the sage reminder that Senator Paul Wellstone made years ago that, "We all do better when we all do better."

Since moving to Minnesota in the summer of 2003, I, like many other newcomers to the state, have been left to piece together his message and his hope for more equitable outcomes for folks in rural communities, people of color, immigrants, the working poor, and laborers to name a few. I have learned that not only was Wellstone a man of the people, but he used his power, influence, and position to fight for the rights of those who experienced oppression, inequality, and economic injustice. I was also inspired to learn recently from Dane Smith of Growth & Justice that Wellstone even opened his campaign at Sabathani Community Center as a way of demonstrating his connection to everyday people and showing that his election would not be 'business as usual.'

We must run the next leg of Wellstone’s race for equity & justice
In reading Wellstone's words and learning about the courage he exhibited in the fight for social justice and equality, I am left with a desire to see a revitalization of his legacy and the realization of his hopes for our state.  In light of Minnesota's rapidly-changing demographics and unprecedented levels of racial and ethnic diversity, there has arguably never been a more important time to pick up the torch he left behind and to run the next leg of the race in championing the cause of equity and justice. It's a sad fact that too many of our poorest residents do not have the basic resources they need to live a decent quality of life. Too often they are struggling to find affordable housing, even temporary shelter, access to quality health care and mental health services, and jobs that are accessible through public transportation and that pay a living wage (as was the discussion at a recent community meeting about equity and transit referenced here in Finance & Commerce). These are tough battles to win, but necessary battles to fight. For as Paul Wellstone said, "If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them."

So what do we really stand for and what do the people we elect stand for?

In this day and age, it's relatively easy for politicians to craft messages that will appeal to the masses or to get volunteers to knock on doors to secure pledges to vote. This happens far too often in economically-disenfranchised communities in which politicians begin appearing within months of an election and then disappear after the votes are cast; thereby creating a negative cycle in which communities of color come to expect broken promises and ultimately lose faith in the political system as a result of failing to see any real change in their communities over the long haul. Sadly, after most elections the poor remain poor and locked out of access to economic opportunity, their voices are rarely heard, and they are often seen as pawns in the electoral process rather than as assets who can positively contribute to the well-being of our state.

Use the Power of the Ballot for Equity
Thus, during the next election cycle, I would urge us all to carefully consider where each candidate for political office stands on matters of equity before casting a vote. I am taking cues from the work of Dr. Bruce Corrie, who in the spirit of justice is encouraging communities of color and their allies to vote for candidates who agree to help develop a plan that promotes equity and asset-building within communities of color. (See www.alanaassets.org). Regardless of where one stands politically, it’s important to take ownership for advancing the cause of equity in our state and not leaving it up to others to do the work. By taking ownership and holding leaders accountable, we may not be able to change the whole world, but at least we can begin to shift the paradigm in Minnesota. In the words of Paul Wellstone, "Sometimes the only realists are the dreamers."
 

White Privilege: The Elephant in Minnesota's Living Room

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: May 20, 2014 - 3:26 AM

Let me warn you up front. Many of the folks reading this blog post may not like what I have to say. But that's neither here nor there. I have to get this off my chest. I am tired of attending meetings and events in which folks are having conversations about equity and are delicately skirting around the issue of race. Hardly ever are notions of racial bias and discrimination and just "plain ole racism" part of the conversation. All too often, such issues remain at a surface level, which leads to very safe, comfortable dialogue that does not push us to address the real challenges that are hindering our progress as a state and reinforcing intolerable racial disparities. 

Society is still separate; still unequal

Beyond that, many of these conversations about "equity" consist of white Minnesotans in the upper echelon talking to each other about issues that impact communities of color and yet there are often just one or two "representatives" in the room from those communities. Half the time, I'm one of those two representatives. And when I look around those rooms and observe a sea of predominately white faces, it occurs to me that the lack of diversity around those tables and the relative comfort levels of those in attendance reveals more than any fifty page study ever could about the true state of race relations in Minnesota. Sadly, it appears that 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society is still separate and unequal and unwilling to change anytime soon. (If you don't believe me, please take time to travel to various neighborhoods throughout the Metro area and outstate Minnesota to see the levels of segregation and income inequality firsthand.)

If we are serious about getting to the root of the problems that exist, we must acknowledge the role that white privilege plays in maintaining the status quo and keeping the poor and oppressed locked out of access to economic opportunity. According to Tim Wise, an antiracist essayist, author, and educator, who happens to identify as white, "White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative social mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material ( such as greater opportunities in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which whites had greater opportunity to accumulate wealth than persons of color), social......or psychological (....).

Equity requires more than good intentions

For those who consider themselves to be progressive and are wondering what I mean, I'm referring to the fact that working towards achieving equity requires much more than good conversations and good intentions. It requires a willingness to examine one's own internal beliefs about people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the level of privilege one may have had as a result of race and/or socio-economic status and the benefits that flowed and continue to flow. It also requires a willingness to look at the staff of one's organization or company and conduct an honest assessment of whether or not the staff and management are reflective of the levels of diversity that exist within the Twin Cities, and then to make the necessary changes to practice real equity and inclusion. It still shocks me when I walk into certain offices across the Metro and find that 100% of the employees are white. Many folks in positions of authority talk a good game about wanting to achieve equity, but when the rubber meets the road, few are willing to demonstrate the courage that it takes to go against the grain and radically transform the environment in which they work and play to ensure true equity and inclusion.

Instead, white privilege allows individuals and institutions to place blame on families, cultures, and communities for the challenges they face without ever having to examine the roles that structural and institutional racism have played and do play in shaping public policy, laws, and practices that unfairly harm and exclude those on the margins of society. The reality is that those same marginalized communities that we are taught to demonize and pathologize over and over again do not have adequate access to political capital, social capital, or economic resources to reshape the systems that impact their lives.

The poor are often excluded

In fact, rarely are the poor placed in positions to make decisions that will impact the well-being of their own communities and the lives of their children. Rarely are the poor provided the opportunity to weigh in on city ordinances and laws that are being passed that will affect their quality of life and their ability to walk city streets free from harassment or government interference. And finally, rarely are the poor placed in positions to make hiring decisions that will determine who gains access to jobs that pay a living wage and that may ultimately provide a pathway out of poverty for them and their families. Indeed, when you are a person of color in Minnesota, you are typically at the mercy of white people who overwhelmingly, by sheer force of numbers, control every single system from education, to business, to economics, to government, to higher education, to media, to criminal justice, to the judiciary, to the nonprofit sector, to transportation, to philanthropy, and health care among others. Imagine the cumulative impacts that this has on communities of color over time and what this does to one's psyche and sense of self-determination, not to mention the economic impacts of being unable to control your own destiny.

Thus, it is important to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to provide a balance within these systems and to work rigorously to ensure equitable outcomes for those populations that are in the minority. In order to change things, we must be honest about the role that race plays in shaping lives, families, and communities and to deal with the notion of white privilege openly and honestly (and not just in the comments section of blogs where one can espouse racial prejudices and hide safely behind a computer screen.) White privilege is the elephant in the room and we must acknowledge its presence in order to move things forward in our community and in our state.

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