Let me be clear: The five senior black police officers who sued the city of Minneapolis for race discrimination may have a meritorious case. They may be entitled to every penny of the $2 million settlement being proposed.
But there's a devil lurking in that settlement's details. In one respect, it is eerily reminiscent of a previous well-intended agreement that has arguably fanned the flames of racial animosity in Minneapolis.
The City Council has not yet voted on the settlement in the black officers' case, so details remain fuzzy. But in its current form, it would require an independent audit of the police department's diversity efforts and create a police force unit to oversee race and diversity issues, according to sources familiar with the litigation.
Sounds innocent enough. It sounded good last time around, too, in 2003.
That's when a federal mediator brokered what the Star Tribune called "a historic agreement" between the department and minority communities after police killed a machete-wielding Somali man and another police shooting sparked a riot in north Minneapolis.
The independent oversight group formed then -- the Police Community Relations Council -- included both cops and citizens. Its members negotiated a lengthy agreement with more than 100 "action items" on issues such as the use of force and police recruitment, and sought to make them a reality.
Initially, hopes were high for the PCRC. John Delmonico of the police union and activist Spike Moss hugged and raised their hands in victory in the City Council chambers.
But the hugfest didn't last.
Here, for example, is how the Star Tribune described a PCRC meeting in February 2008:
"At yet another volatile meeting of [the PCRC], longtime activist Spike Moss shot up out of his chair and faced off with another veteran community leader, Ron Edwards," according to the article. "The group was debating whether Edwards and American Indian activist Clyde Bellecourt should be ousted as co-chairs.
"With his voice rising, Moss accused Edwards of withholding information and not supporting the group's platform," the article continued. "Finally, he screamed, 'You're not going to stab us in the back and be a chair.'"
This shouting match, while an extreme case, wasn't an isolated instance of strains on the council. Over the years, the PCRC's 18 community members -- ironically known as the Unity team -- have bickered, pointed fingers and discouraged participation by more moderate voices. Only about half of its goals have been accomplished.
'Here we go again'
"When I first saw the proposal [in the potential settlement of the black officers' suit], I thought, here we go again with another police/community relations-type thing," said Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council and an African American leader. "The PCRC seems to many to have become a distraction. It has set up a parallel structure that interferes with the ability of the mayor and police to do their job. I don't hear anyone arguing that it's been a success in reducing crime."
Why is the PRCR so ineffective?
The group is heavy on longtime community activists, an Old Guard that has adopted a permanent posture of grievance. Their philosophy is an outdated, '60s-style civil rights paradigm that views racial discrimination as the source of almost all the black community's problems.
The PCRC's most vocal members can be counted on to shout every time a tragic incident occurs between police officers and a black citizen, and there's a TV camera in the vicinity. But too often they are silent about the plague of black-on-black crime that is ravaging low-income neighborhoods.
Today in Minneapolis, we're in the process of moving beyond that one-dimensional vision.
Bell puts it this way: "People are starting to question whether there is a civil rights solution to every issue. The cure to many problems in the African-American community does not just lie in more affirmative action or quotas, in hiring more black police officers or teachers, or in diversity training for white people. African-American leaders should challenge the community to take full advantage of the opportunities that do exist, and should also be willing to challenge it when its members engage in inappropriate, destructive behavior."
The conversation about race is changing not only in Minnesota, but across the nation. In a 2004 speech to the NAACP, comedian Bill Cosby urged black Americans to look inward and take responsibility for their own futures. Juan Williams, a liberal National Public Radio commentator, followed Cosby's clarion call with his 2006 book, "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It."
Working below the radar
In Minneapolis, black leaders who share this constructive vision are stepping to the fore. They don't claim to speak for the entire black community, and many are working below the radar. In leading by doing, they are making a productive difference in their community life.
In north Minneapolis, for example, exciting economic development initiatives are underway. In the Minneapolis public schools, innovative plans for new, more accountable schools are on the table.
A new generation of African-American leadership is on the rise. Let's hope that any settlement in the current police discrimination suit does not revive the Old Guard, whose legacy is more racial animosity, not less.