The fatal police shooting of Philando Castile is emerging as the latest test of Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration as it publicly grapples with racial tensions and disparities around Minnesota.

Within hours of the fatal shooting, Dayton forcefully declared that Castile would not have been killed if he were white — a dramatic assertion immediately criticized by law enforcement groups locally and around the country. Dayton doubled down the next day, jeopardizing what has been strong support by police, who backed him early in 2010 during his first run for governor.

To some black activists and prominent black leaders, Dayton’s words reverberated deeply, as he gave voice to a message that activists, both young and old, have struggled to get across in Minnesota and across the country.

“A lot of us were in tears,” said Stan Alleyne, a consultant and a former Minneapolis Public Schools official. “I remember watching the news conference, and I know my mouth was open wide because I’m thinking: He’s going in a place where a lot of us talk about this in the barbershop. We talk about this in our homes. And we talk about this among ourselves. But for a white man of his stature to say those words, when he didn’t have to, it does mean a lot. It gives him credibility.”

Dayton’s remarks also reflect an evolution, at least publicly, in the 69-year-old governor’s views on the role racial bias plays in policing.

“I am forced to confront, I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront, that this kind of racism exists,” said Dayton, who is not seeking re-election and has pledged to be “unbound” in his final years in office.

“To the extent that anyone is treated differently because of their race or religion or creed is a violation of state law,” Dayton said. “It’s a violation of the values of this society, and it is something I will do everything I possibly can to eradicate.”

The governor’s assessment has drawn strong criticism from those who back law enforcement authorities. State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the House’s public safety committee, said Dayton is merely trying to appease people of color whom DFLers are courting for support.

Dayton’s outreach evolves

The governor’s swift and strong response in the past week contrasts starkly with some previous comments.

When Black Lives Matter planned to protest at the Minnesota State Fair last year, Dayton called it “inappropriate,” which drew intense criticism from some corners of the black community.

Moreover, his administration struggled initially to respond to alarming census data that showed an economic decline among black Minnesota residents from 2013 to 2014 when no other racial groups saw a similar economic deterioration.

The governor is surrounding himself with more diverse voices as he has filled his administration with more people of color and as state officials have forged deeper relationships with black activists, particularly younger members.

And the outreach that followed the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark last year in Minneapolis also provided valuable lessons evident in how immediately Dayton and his senior staff members mobilized in the hours after Castile was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop, members of the administration said.

The governor said he conferred with black leaders within hours after the July 6 shooting and that they shared stories about times when they felt racially profiled or treated unfairly based on their race.

In public appearances, Dayton repeatedly credited those conversations with shaping his impressions of race relations in Minnesota.

Taking time to listen

Dayton also met with protesters who have set up an encampment outside his Summit Avenue residence, assuring them — as well as members of Castile’s family — that justice will be served.

And he has allowed demonstrators to remain outside of his home, even enduring hostile interactions where protesters have called the administration and authorities “white supremacists.”

“We have a governor that has sought to amplify voices that haven’t felt heard before and who has really taken the time to listen and allow them to impact him,” said Melvin Carter III, who works for the administration advocating for policies and programs to benefit Minnesota children.

The governor’s efforts haven’t been limited to reacting after police shootings and other tragic incidents.

Dayton opened the year with a coordinated and broad response to the state’s long-standing racial disparities.

He proposed $100 million in one-time funding to pay for various programs aimed at easing racial disparities in housing, employment and education. Even amid a rancorous legislative session, Dayton and DFL legislators secured $35 million in ongoing funding for the proposals.

Administration’s diversity

The effort to diversify Dayton’s cabinet began in the governor’s first term, said state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.

Hayden said he and other black legislators urged the newly elected governor to reach outside of the usual DFL circles, arguing that Minnesota’s rapidly evolving racial demographics called for better representation in state government.

Dayton listened.

He appointed Minneapolis native and longtime educator Brenda Cassellius to lead the Department of Education in 2010. He named Kevin Lindsey, a veteran Ramsey County civil litigation attorney, to head the Department of Human Rights.

Since early 2015, Dayton’s core circle of advisers has grown to include Shawntera Hardy, who served as a deputy chief of staff. Dayton selected Hardy in April to head the state’s jobs and economic development agency, a post he held in the late 1970s. Kim Holmes became Dayton’s general counsel late last year, and James Burroughs, an attorney and diversity consultant from Detroit, was hired for the new post of chief inclusion officer. Carter, a former St. Paul City Council member, also has played a role in the response to Castile’s death.

Some of these advisers are the “various distinguished African-American men and women” Dayton said he heard from in the hours after Castile’s death. Dayton said they “have recounted to me how they’ve been pulled over, singled out and treated very differently because of their race.”

Sarah Walker, a lobbyist at the Capitol who is deeply involved in racial and criminal justice issues, said Dayton “is someone who can be moved on the issues.”

Walker added that Dayton “is motivated by doing the right thing for people and is willing to compromise on those sorts of issues. That’s been demonstrated from the beginning of his administration.”