I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard a sitting governor say race might explain why a black person was killed in an officer-involved shooting. Or was denied housing, or was rejected from a job. But on July 7, responding to the fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said: “Would this have happened if those passengers were white? I don’t think it would’ve. So I’m forced to confront, and I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront, [that] this kind of racism exists.”
And I couldn’t have been prouder of him.
I knew he would be attacked for saying it. I knew some folks who might agree with his candor might not appreciate that he said it. I got a little worried for him. Honesty makes you vulnerable.
I know why our society systematically churns out different racial outcomes: race. I was born knowing it, and everything I have seen, heard and experienced in my 52 years has confirmed it. But rarely do powerful white men admit it. It’s just not done. But every now again you get a Thaddeus Stevens, a William Lloyd Garrison, a Hubert Humphrey, a Bobby Kennedy and a Mark Dayton.
Some things about privilege and power just aren’t supposed to be talked about. That’s one of the things that makes what Dayton said so powerful.
The governor wasn’t saying that officer Jeronimo Yanez had racial hatred in his heart. He wasn’t saying the officer doesn’t deserve all of his due-process rights. He was saying that institutional racism, unconscious bias and our national legacy of racial subordination conspired to make Castile a more likely victim of an officer-involved shooting than he might have been had he been white.
This might be an uncomfortable truth, but it’s still the truth. After 246 years of black slavery, another 100 years of Jim Crow segregation and 50 years of racism, Dayton’s candid reflection should be a no-brainer.
Context makes it a big deal. In Congress, even today some say the American Civil War (or “War of Yankee Aggression,” as Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., called it on the House floor) wasn’t about slavery, but states’ rights. We have debates in the House of Representatives about whether the Confederate flag represents heritage or racism — one member of Congress still displays it in his office. One of Minneapolis’ most popular lakes is named after a famous slave-owning racist, John C. Calhoun (many of us now use the original Dakota name for the lake: Bde Maka Ska).
And we forget that our own cities were planned and zoned to be segregated — with north Minneapolis labeled a “Negro Slum” in a map dating from 1935.
The rhetoric about the black community today is just as bad as the erasure of our history. We hear that folks are unemployed because we’re lazy. We hear blacks are overrepresented in the criminal-justice system because we are criminally inclined. We hear slavery was a long, long time ago, and it’s not relevant to anything now, especially poverty.
And when a black man like Castile is shot and killed, we aren’t supposed to ask if it was because he was black. Castile was pulled over 52 times by the police over the last 14 years. Maybe he was a really bad driver. Maybe he was driving while black.
We’re supposed to ask what he did to provoke his killing. We’re supposed to dig into his records until we find something that might justify what happened. Something other than his race.
Did he ever smoke marijuana? Did he wear a hoodie? Did he ever shoplift? Did he talk back? Did he have a record? Was he suspected of being suspicious? And so on.
We’re not supposed to consider the context — like the ACLU’s finding that blacks in the Twin Cities are nine times more likely to be arrested for the same low-level crime as whites. Or that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, black drivers nationally are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.
Dayton went off-script. He didn’t maintain the comfortable myth. You know the one: white innocence — black guilt.
What if this time, instead of attacking the truth-teller, we actually took the observation seriously? What if we examined it and allowed ourselves to feel a little of the discomfort that comes with challenging the myths we’re all taught? What if churches, mosques and synagogues engaged their members in a community dialogue?
A little candor won’t hurt us. It might just free us. If we can name it and face it, we can change it. But first we have to defend the truth-teller. When myths prevail, stating the obvious is a radical act. And it takes guts.
Thank you, Gov. Dayton.
Keith Ellison, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House.