Kurt Strazdins, KRT

Minnesota education: It's progress to say it's not just racism

  • Article by: Mitch Pearlstein
  • June 25, 2013 - 7:34 PM


Dane Smith has been my worthy counterpart at Minnesota’s major progressive think tank, Growth & Justice, since he assumed the presidency there six years ago. Long before that, he was my colleague at the Pioneer Press in the 1980s. And before that, I knew him (at least I think I did) when I worked for Gov. Al Quie.

In the same way he generously has written approvingly about some things I’ve written in recent years, I’m pleased to write approvingly about a recent commentary of his in the Star Tribune on academic, employment, homeownership and other racially demarcated gaps in the Twin Cities (“The employment gap: The ‘why’ and ‘what to do,’ ” June 16).

Rest assured that his kind comments haven’t been without a critique or two, just as I have a disagreement or two with him here. But I appreciate what he wrote and I’m happy to thank him — although passing up on this simply golden chance for male bonding jabs is very difficult.

What do I like about Smith’s column?

While I would argue that he still overstates the role of racial bias in fueling various gaps, he explicitly parts company with those on the left who believe (as he puts it) that “white Minnesotans are actually worse than the stereotypical racists in southern states, where for 300 years oppression was imposed through brutal economic exploitation, culture and law.” The dissimilarities between Minnesota and the Old South would seem pretty self-evident, but I guess not with everyone.

More accurately than is the case with many liberals in the state — as well as many Minnesota establishment types — Smith goes on to write:

“A case can be made that larger-than-average gaps exist here in part for distinct historic and demographic reasons, rather than some sort of pervasive, passive-aggressive racial animosity in the North Star State. White Minnesotans have for decades been better off economically, and more educated, than whites in other states, accentuating the gaps. And our distinctive newcomer blend — coming from some particularly distressed regions in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and impoverished industrial centers in the industrial Midwest — [has] tended to be starting from scratch, with fewer assets than the minority composite in other metro areas.”

The most welcomed portion of this passage is the part about how disproportionate numbers of Americans who have moved to the Twin Cities in recent decades have been troubled to start. I have been arguing for years that the mixing of a heavy influx of low-income and poorly educated people (on the one hand) with one of the smallest middle-class minority communities of any major metropolitan area in the country (on the other hand) has had an enormous amount to do with the overall poor performance of African-Americans in particular on a wide range of measures.

In making this case, no one has ever refuted me. But then, again, not too many people have ever agreed with me out loud, either. Smith may not concur with the exact way I just framed matters, but by my lights, our points are close enough. His interpretation is a contribution to progress. As is his earlier comment in the column that “accepting complexity and contradictions behind the ‘why’ [of gaps] is advisable.”

Needless to say, I agree with his good words about education, especially his reference to community colleges and to a number of strong education and training programs I know a bit about, including Summit Academy, Twin Cities Rise!, Project for Pride in Living and the Jeremiah Program. I recognize there’s never space in a single column to touch every base, so I’m not critical of his not saying anything about K-12.

But if he were to say something about elementary and secondary education, I would hope he would acknowledge that as long as graduating high school on time is essentially a 50/50 proposition for African-Americans and Hispanics, not just in Minnesota but across much of the country, the kinds of changes routinely championed on the left just won’t cut it, as witnessed by the recently concluded legislative session in which little that might make much of a difference was even debated, much less passed. Also add the way in which the teachers union Education Minnesota has been doing everything it possibly can to kick Teach for America out of the state.

Do I hold out hope that Smith may someday leap out of the voucher closet, preferably in another Sunday Star Tribune commentary, and come out for real educational freedom? Sure, but I trust he has Sunday comical plans for me, too. What I more realistically hope for, and no joking here at all, is that he and his allies might come to better acknowledge — publicly and frequently — that as long as 84 percent of all African-American babies in Hennepin County come into this world outside of marriage, every good idea both he and I might offer will remain severely compromised.

In sum, my worthy ideological opponent wrote a good and helpful piece, and I figure that my saying so is just the right thing to do.



Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

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