It’s a pivotal time for interest in racial equity — one that should be seized upon to make progress on narrowing Minnesota’s persistent race-based gaps.
Last week, state lawmakers heard six hours of testimony on the subject to help guide the work of a joint House-Senate racial disparities work group. Along with Gov. Mark Dayton, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have issued calls to action around stubbornly entrenched disparities in education, employment, income, health, housing, justice and more.
In separate efforts, the Minneapolis and St. Paul city governments have launched systemwide efforts to evaluate and improve equity in city operations. Officials from 13 Minnesota government agencies, including a few cities and counties, met for the first time earlier this month to discuss systemic inequities. In that spirit, on Wednesday the Twin Cities United Way is convening a major forum on race and equity to share ideas and discuss solutions.
To be sure, some of the approaches being discussed are not new. Under other names — multiculturalism, diversity and affirmative action — we have been here before. Yet what is most encouraging about this latest surge of attention is that city, county and state business can and should be conducted with racial equity in mind. In many cases, state and federal laws require it.
It’s not just about a single training effort here or an after-school initiative there. Government can make intentional, effective changes to narrow Minnesota’s glaring gaps between white residents and those of color.
For example, when St. Paul’s Fire Department recognized that some potential recruits of color lacked certain prerequisites, it developed a way to certify female and minority applicants as paramedics, a first step toward becoming a firefighter. The St. Paul Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Academy is an intensive, tuition-free program designed for low-income, minority and female residents. The academy’s latest class has 28 students.
In Minneapolis, the city’s STEP-UP internship program has helped hundreds of hardworking young people of color get started in careers. Sometimes all it takes is a start. When the public and private sectors work together in coordinated efforts like STEP-UP, the results are powerful.
City hiring also must reflect the growing diversity of the two cities. The St. Paul City Council recently signed off on a group of 32 law enforcement officials and community members to help select the city’s next police chief. “We wanted it to be really racially diverse and culturally diverse,” Council President Russ Stark said of the group.
Diversity efforts have critics, of course. Officials in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have heard from current city employees who worry that hiring more people of color means firing or somehow excluding whites. But that isn’t the goal, nor will it be the result. Rather, policies that provide more opportunities for a broader swath of Minnesotans who are willing to take personal responsibility for their futures if given a fair chance will build a stronger, more prosperous state for everyone.
The late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone might have said it best: “We all do better when we all do better.’’