The challenges facing Minnesota's black community sounded daunting and expensive to fix as U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar hosted a group of colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus around Minneapolis on Friday.
"Isn't it sad, in 2019, that we still have these challenges?" Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas, said at a morning session in downtown Minneapolis to discuss gaps in educational outcomes between whites and blacks in Minnesota. She also decried a lack of access to early-childhood programs.
A long-serving House Democrat from Houston, Jackson Lee suggested an all-encompassing response to shrink documented disparities — not just in education, but also in the criminal justice system, public health, home and business ownership, access to credit and capital, and in other areas: reparations for slavery.
"We are saying that the nation benefited from 250 years of free labor," Jackson Lee said at Loews Minneapolis Hotel.
As the lead sponsor of legislation that would create a federal commission "to be able to discern what the exact response should be," Jackson Lee said that a commission could steer reparations dollars to "child care and child care workers, teaching children of color, historically black colleges, ending the lack of access to credit" and other programs meant to erase disparities.
In recent months, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have been visiting U.S. cities to talk about the real-world impact of racial disparities and to spread a message that there are still federal solutions to some of these problems.
Omar said she invited her CBC colleagues to her turf in Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District because the state, despite its strong performance in many quality-of-life measures, also suffers some of the worst disparities between its white majority and its residents of color.
"As many of you know, Minnesota makes the list on the best of everything for a lot of things," Omar said. "Except when it comes to black people. We are always on the list of the highest disparities when it comes to black and people of color here in Minnesota."
At the morning education forum, Omar and her colleagues learned that teachers in Minnesota public schools are 96% white even though the overall student population is 34% students of color. Ahead of a subsequent visit to the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center, they were reminded that statistics say that one in three black men born today in the U.S. can expect to serve time in jail.
At an afternoon forum on the North Side of Minneapolis on economic opportunities for black Minnesotans, they learned that less than 10% of Minnesota small businesses are minority-owned.
The lawmakers noted that the U.S. House, with Democrats now holding the majority, has passed some legislation with a goal of reducing racial disparities in business and education. But the current alignment in Washington, with Republicans controlling the Senate and White House, has stalled those efforts, they said.
"For true change to take place, we know '45' needs to be retired," said Rep. Karen Bass of California, chairwoman of the CBC, in a reference to President Donald Trump.
It also would take a major political realignment in Washington to push ahead on reparations for slavery. Jackson Lee's bill has 114 cosponsors, all Democrats. The proposal has prompted debate among Democratic presidential candidates, with many, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, expressing support for Jackson Lee's proposal to create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals.
Omar is the only member of the Minnesota delegation so far to sign on as a cosponsor to Jackson Lee's bill.