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.
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 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.