Friday, October 23, 2015

A Day in the Life of Black Minnesota: What Black Lives Matters Minnesota Wants to Say But is Not Being Heard

Do Black lives matter in Minnesota?  Despite being a state with a progressive, tolerant, and egalitarian reputation, the group Black Lives Matter (BLM) has repeatedly demonstrated to highlight the racial disparities and discrimination in Minnesota.  Their demonstrations deserve attention yet it is not so clear that their message is being heard by policy makers and voters.
            A generation ago political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.  It documented an America divided racially, pointing not just to the housing and educational segregation between Blacks and Whites, but also to how this divide affected the many other ways the two races experience life, including the way they experience the criminal justice system and pop culture.  Blacks and whites live in different worlds, consume different foods, watch different television shows, movies, and music.  They also interact with the government and policy makers in very different ways.  This is true in Minnesota too.
            A range of studies point to the different ways Blacks and Whites live in Minnesota.  For Whites, the economy is generally good, home ownership high, the schools among the best in the country, and the police professional and respectful.  White students in Minnesota have among the best SATs in the country, living up to the myth of Lake Wobegon where all of them are above average.  Unemployment for Whites is among the lowest in the country, incomes among the highest.  Yet for Blacks, it is a tale of two cities; it is another or different Minnesota in which they live.
            Consider first education and housing.  Nationally almost 30 years ago American Apartheid  by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton  described a nation as segregated as the Jim Crow era. More recently Myron Orfield’s Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity 2015 report “Why are Twin Cities so Segregated” points to a persistent residential and educational segregation  patterns in the seven county metro area.  Blacks live in high or concentrated poverty neighborhoods in Minneapolis or St Paul and in a few inner ring suburbs.  These are areas with high crime, high and persistent unemployment, few services, and weak schools.  Yet there is nothing really new in this report: Twenty years earlier studies by the Institute on Race and Poverty pointed to the same conditions, finding the Twin Cities to be among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.  But the power of the Orfield study is documenting how a generation later, despite policies of open enrollment and charter schools, little has changed the educational segregation.  Moreover the report points to a retreat from fair share housing, and the political pressures from the housing and educational community that have exacerbated segregation.
            Now look at education specifically.  Minnesota Department of Education data point to Blacks and other students of color scoring 30 points or more lower on achievement tests compared to whites.  US Department of Education data demonstrates Minnesota near the bottom of the list in on-time high school graduation rates for Blacks, with an overall 67% graduation for Black males (compared to 90% for White Males) according to the 2015 Schott Foundation for Public Education report.  The Black White male graduation gap is one of the highest in the country.  Finally, a 2014 study found Black students ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled from Minneapolis schools than White students.
            Third, look at income and unemployment.  A 2013  Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found the unemployment gap for Blacks to be three times that of Whites.  A 2015 report by the Center for Popular Democracy found the report to be nearly four times, second worst among states in the nation, only behind Wisconsin.  And 2015 US Census data point to Minnesota as having one of the highest Black White gaps in medium family income in the nation.
            Finally, consider how Blacks experience the criminal justice system.  Nationally Nina Moore’s 2015 book The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice describes the existence of two criminal justice systems in America–one for Whites and one for Blacks.  The criminal justice system Blacks experience is one where they are more likely to be stopped, detained, searched, shot, and imprisoned than whites.  This is the reality that BLM Minnesota has sought to highlight. Marie Gottschalk’s Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics evidences Minnesota as having the worst Black-White incarceration ratio in the nation. Michael Tonry at the University of Minnesota has reached similar conclusions.
            The picture is not pretty for Blacks in Minnesota.  Blacks and Whites dwell in separate worlds in Minnesota and experience schools, housing, education, the economy, and the criminal justice system differently.  Their worlds are separate and unequal.  This is the sobering message that BLM Minnesota wants to articulate, yet how effective have they been?
            BLM Minnesota takes it tactics from a page in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From the  Birmingham Jail.”  There he writes of the power of use of nonviolent direct action to create a ”crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue of discrimination.”  For King, direct action creates a crisis that opens the door to negotiation–it forces White policy makers to act.  This means protests at Mall of America, the State Fair, or seeking to shut down the TC Marathon, with the aiming of forcing a crises and bringing white privilege to the bargaining table.  It’s a great theory, and it worked once, but it is no longer so clear that such a strategy will work.
            For one, so far BLM Minnesota has not brought policy makers to the table. Yes Governor  Dayton and Mayor Coleman have met with them but no policy commitments.  There is also no evidence that state legislators are moving.  Second, as Randall Kennedy’s recent “Lifting as We Climb” essay in Harper’s Magazine suggested, the tactics being used by Black activists today departs dramatically from those 50 or more years ago, and instead of gaining attention of White America, it is alienating them.  The media and public reaction to the State Fair and TC Marathon protests reveal how the BLM protests overshadowed their message.
            But second, Nina Moore points to how even if one reaches policy makers and forces them to the negotiation table, public attitudes and electoral strategies create disincentives for policy makers to dismantle racially discriminatory policies.  Instead, protests such as at the Fair or Marathon reinforce a get tough on crime strategy that only makes matters worse racially.  Needed instead are electoral strategies to change the political incentives.

            Finally, even King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” noted how perhaps the greatest impediment to civil rights reform is the white moderate who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”  It is the white moderate, here the vast majority of white Minnesotans, who pose the biggest challenge to BLM Minnesota.  They are the ones who need to be won over.  It is they who need to pressure the policy makers to negotiate and change, but so far BLM Minnesota has failed to craft a message and set of tactics to sway them.  Instead, arguably they have done little to succeed with them, raising serious doubt that they have even begun to succeed in making the case for why Black lives should matter in Minnesota.

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