Nearly 100 years before George Floyd was murdered, three African American circus workers were lynched by a white mob after they were falsely accused of raping a white woman, Irene Tusken, in Duluth. An infamous postcard from the scene of the lynchings shows proud white men posing with the bodies of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton and Isaac McGhie.
The photo, however, does not show every character. A white priest, William Powers, climbed the light pole that night and attempted to stop the lynchings, per Michael Fedo's book "The Lynchings in Duluth." That remains the choice for white Minnesotans today: complicity or empathy.
Whenever I hear someone say, "George Floyd changed us," I wonder whom they're referencing.
Because his murder one year ago did not change Black people's understanding of our place in this state or this country. We've always known systemic racism could kill our dreams and end our lives.
But I do believe Floyd's murder challenged white people in Minnesota to make a decision about who they want to be. It is not the first time. White people here have always had an opportunity to address the damage created by their privilege and power. In a difficult year for all, however, I've learned this exercise is futile unless we offer one another room for growth — albeit time-sensitive growth.
After everything white Minnesotans have read and discussed and digested over the last year, I am left with one question: What will white people do now? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said true freedom would not materialize "until there is a committed empathy on the part of the white man of this country." That's the first ingredient for equity in Minnesota, too.
"Some of us have to convince our white colleagues that there really is systemic racism," said Rick King, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, "and we really do need to fix this."
To discuss the next steps, I contacted some of the area's most powerful white leaders a year after Floyd's murder: Commissioner King; Gov. Tim Walz; Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey; Dr. Penny Wheeler, CEO of Allina Health; Glen Gunderson, president of the YMCA of the North; University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel and General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening.
I wanted to interrogate their intentions and know more about their choices, changes and decisions during this painful year, beyond the news releases and talking points.
Acknowledge our humanity
Over the last year, Wheeler has endured a difficult chapter. She and her partner, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich, suffered the loss of their 21-year-old daughter, Olivia Chutich, in February. It was their daughter who first mentioned the video of Derek Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck.
"Yeah, that moment won't ever be forgotten," Wheeler told me. "It's all the more salient now for me, personally, because she isn't here any longer."
Wheeler said there is a collection of energized individuals who want to change the perception of Minnesota as a broken place for nonwhite folks. She said she has spent the last year listening to a diverse pool of individuals at her company and focusing on the disparities within the health care system, magnified by COVID-19's disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Wheeler, a female executive in a same-sex marriage and a mother of a daughter who was born in Guatemala, is not ignorant to discriminatory practices. But the past year challenged her perspectives and ideas around race and the experiences of those who are not white in Minnesota.
"I didn't know, for example, that many in my own organization couldn't feel like they could show up fully when they entered a room, couldn't be their whole self," she said. "If they were Black, they had to act a little more white to be accepted."
I value her transparency. People of color in Minnesota go through a series of white checkpoints each day via our supervisors, corporate policies, laws and neighbors. The greatest challenge in those interactions is the belief that whiteness is both the most effective and efficient way to live here. I believe that's what some of Wheeler's employees referenced in their encounters with her. The "Why can't you be more like us?" philosophy dilutes our value and asks us to compromise our identities.
Therefore, the request over the last year is no different from the hope for any group: acknowledge our humanity. Because that begets a sense of security and belonging, both lacking for the state's marginalized communities.
That's why I asked the governor if Black people are safe in the state he leads.
"I don't think it's for me to answer," he said. "If Black people tell me they're not, then they're not. I believe them. I hear them. I'm proud of what this state does. And this is, again, that intersection of both my individual, how I see things, and then recognize that being governor makes you a manifestation of the state. That I do have to accept that this state has a long way to go."
That's the foundation of empathy. It's saying, "How are you?" and meaning it, while also vowing to understand that individual's or community's pain.
But Walz also told me, "I also feel defensive and I feel ashamed" about criticisms of the state. That's a hurdle for white Minnesotans in our collective dialogue about systemic racism. It not only minimizes our truth about what being a member of a marginalized community in Minnesota means to us, but it also centers the white experience over our own. I think white people here, if they want, can understand racism's power and recognize the overt disparities. Too often, however, their perspectives only consider their emotions. But feeling guilty about systemic racism is a lot different from being killed by it.
The value of listening, learning
Gunderson, the CEO of YMCA of the North, learned more about the concerns within his organization last summer when the board at the Douglas Dayton YMCA in downtown Minneapolis accused his organization of "deep seated and systemic racism." A series of anonymous allegations also arrived through an Instagram account aimed at the group led by Gunderson, who called the claims "an incredible soul punch." He said he resolved to alter the perception of the YMCA and validate those within his organization who seek more support.
"I remember the first time that we saw some of that feedback, I could sense the team getting defensive," Gunderson said. "And I said, 'This is such an important reckoning for the broad community and for the YMCA. This is an important collective voice and we just need to listen.' There is no need to be defensive."
Frey said he listened over the last year, too. He said he'd recognized disparities for communities of color in his city before Floyd's murder. But the killing challenged him and others.
"It's not like I didn't know they existed, but the acute nature through which this murder was experienced made it, I think in a good way, made it unavoidable for white people," he said, "and in the process, unavoidable for me."
Our conversation turned to policing in the city. He said, with his role, he can address use-of-force measures and traffic stops, acts that unnecessarily and routinely place people of color in harm's way. He also said he needs more power to fire officers accused of wrongdoing, which is disrupted by the arbitration process.
"When you think back to watching that video [of Floyd's murder], the first thing that occurred to me is the absolute lack of humanity," he told me. "It was this lack of understanding from Chauvin that this other person that he was kneeling on was a human being."
I don't think the scenario Frey described is complete. I don't think Chauvin, or any other officer who commits an inhumane act against an individual, wrestles with understanding. I think Chauvin felt empowered in his refusal to consider Floyd's humanity, much like the white mob that lynched the three Black men in Duluth nearly 100 years ago, because they believed white people would support them the way they had in other acts of brutality against Black bodies.
And that's the danger within any conversation about moving forward a year after Floyd's killing.
I know words will never mature into equity until there is a collective agreement among white people to commit to the empathy necessary to unravel systemic racism. Without it, this place will be ripe for more horror.
"It is relatively easy to make statements and it's relatively easy to write checks and to try to make things go away that way," said General Mills' Harmening. "But in the end, we're only going to be judged by our actions."
What will they say about Minnesota's white leaders in the future?
Gabel, the U's president, recognized the value of empathy backed by action when she decided, days after Floyd was murdered, to end her university's contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department for large events and specialized services after conversations with a variety of groups.
"If something like what happened happens a few blocks down the road from us, and we just say, 'What a tragedy,' then it's not enough," she told me. "What can we actually do within the authority that we have? That's how the decision was made."
Gabel, who grew up in Atlanta, was working as an administrator in Missouri when Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson in 2014, and she was working in South Carolina a year later when nine Black members of a church in Charleston were executed by a white gunman. She said those experiences shaped her perspective before a challenging first year at the University of Minnesota. They also taught her she has more to learn.
"I think one of the biggest lessons I learned that has been, I think, helpful and also humbling is that I didn't learn everything I needed to know in Atlanta," she said. "And I didn't learn everything I needed to know in Missouri. Even after I lived through the tragedy of the Mike Brown shooting, I didn't learn everything I needed to know. In South Carolina, even after the 'Emanuel Nine,' I still didn't learn everything I needed to know, but I'm learning a little more each time."
As I spoke with some of Minnesota's top leaders, I kept thinking about that postcard from the Duluth lynchings almost 100 years ago. It is difficult to grapple with these issues in real time. But we can all relate to legacy. Just like with those white men in that photo in Duluth, Minnesotans will one day discuss our choices and decisions after another great tragedy.
I asked each white leader how they hope to be remembered when this period is analyzed in the future.
Walz paused before he answered.
"I hope they say that he had a shared humanity with us, that he did the best of his ability in that moment to make sure that every single Minnesotan was valued," he said. "I don't think a lot about legacy but I do think about this: If I don't serve this community well and I don't serve trying to move the needle on systemic racism, I would consider that to be the greatest failure of my life."
Harmening said he hopes people will say "he didn't waste the opportunity to make a difference." King said he's spent the last year reading and researching. The MAC chair said he has read his copy of the New York Times' "1619 Project" multiple times. The conclusion he's reached? He didn't know more about America's dark history because he had not made an effort to know. In 100 years, he told me, he hopes he's remembered as someone who was "always seeking to understand."
For Wheeler, however, the question was personal. The Duluth postcard was not just a tragic piece of history for her and her family.
"That's where my father grew up," she told me. "And he was just a few years old at the time that the lynchings happened. But when I looked at those horrible, horrible pictures, I looked to see, gosh, was my grandfather there? Was he one of the ones trying to stop it? Or was he one of the ones validating it as the right thing to do?"
Future generations will ask the same questions of us. And they will talk about us in their conversations, their classrooms, their books, their living rooms, their barbershops and their documentaries. They might even hang our pictures on their walls.
A year after George Floyd's murder, white Minnesotans must choose the proper lens.