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.

Posts about Crime

Do Black Lives Matter in Our Community?

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds 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.

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

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds 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.

If We're Serious About Equity, Job Creation Must Become a Priority

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: May 6, 2014 - 2:01 AM

In recent months, I have attended numerous events and meetings throughout the Twin Cities in which the focus is on achieving equity. I have also heard speeches from politicians and heads of organizations about the need to ensure that equity is a priority in closing persistent and intolerable gaps in Minnesota across areas such as health, wealth, education, and employment. Although I'm sure that many of these individuals and organizations mean well in emphasizing the need for equity, there comes a point in time in which good intentions are not good enough. Talk becomes cheap and without a true demonstration of equity in action, the feeling emerges that we have identified a new buzzword of the moment with little accountability for living out its meaning. This is particularly dangerous in a landscape in which African Americans and Native Americans in Minnesota have some of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation as shown here and here.

Time to Create Good Jobs
Thus, we must be willing to dig deeper and not only reflect upon the meaning of equity, but what its application should look like in practice in our region. From my perspective, the true meaning of equity is all about leveling the playing field. It is about coming to the realization that the racial gaps in key areas of quality of life will never close without a focus on creating jobs in our most under-resourced communities. And not just any type of jobs--but jobs that pay a living wage and that provide a pathway to upward mobility within our community. Sadly, all too often when we see families and children in crisis, we tend to think about addressing their immediate short-term needs, without taking a longer view of the problem and looking toward root causes of the circumstances they face. What is often at the root of the problems is difficulty in finding a good job that will keep a family in stable housing, with food in their refrigerator, money to pay utilities, and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Short-Term Fixes Don't Solve Long-Term Problems
I recognize that in a crisis, there is often a need for a short-term fix. However, when the problems are systemic and cyclical, taking an approach which emphasizes primarily the short-term will arguably result in more problems in the long run and will merely serve to maintain and reinforce the status quo. When poor families are forced to visit local agencies and charitable organizations for support time and time again, this merely creates a cycle of dependency and makes it difficult for families to strive towards upward mobility. As Dr. King once said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

I would argue that we have an over-flowing abundance of organizations in the Twin Cities that offer short-term fixes to problems, when what we really need are business leaders, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs (with full support of government) to venture into our poorest communities and help develop jobs that pay a living wage and restore the dignity of the poor. This will not only vastly improve the quality of life for residents, but will reduce the need for spending on criminal justice (currently over $400 million annually in our state) and social welfare programs. Beyond that, increasing access to job opportunities for the under-served will contribute to the health of our economy and will strengthen our regional economic competitiveness now and in the future.

The reality is that many folks who have been marginalized throughout their lives face tremendous barriers to finding and maintaining employment in some of our largest corporations. On the one hand, we must remove the barriers that exist, and on the other hand, we must find alternative solutions. If we can't get the people to the jobs that they need, then we must get the jobs to the people by creating them within their communities. I'm talking about jobs that are within walking distance, and that will allow them to grow and work their way into management-- jobs in which they feel are designed with them in mind-- and that give them a sense of pride and purpose.

We Must Rise to the Challenge
In order for us to overcome, we must look critically at the problems facing the poor, our current response to the problems, and then resolve to rise to the challenge of implementing creative solutions that will force us to think outside the box and invest in the people who need it most. If we continue to do what we have always done, then we will continue to get what we have always had. I posit that it is time for a new thing, a shift from a heavy focus on charity to a more balanced focus on economic justice and job creation, with affordable housing as a complementary priority.

So for anyone claiming to be serious about achieving equity, I challenge you to prove it. Show me the money. Show me the jobs that you are creating in our most under-served communities to truly level the playing field for those in need.
 

      

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