Color is not a crime

Racial inequities that have long existed in the U.S. are being more fully exposed in the wake of COVID-19 and the death of a Black man while under arrest in Minneapolis. (Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

As COVID-19 cases continue to mount, both local and national statistics show that the impact of the pandemic is being felt particularly acutely among immigrants and people of color.

According to Deb Purfeerst at the Rice County Department of Health, just 23% of individuals with confirmed COVID-19 cases in Rice County were white, even though the 2010 Census showed that 86% of county residents are white. Although Steele County hasn’t been hit as hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, its more limited statistics provide a similar tale. While the county is overwhelmingly white, it’s Black Steele County residents who have faced the brunt of COVID-19.

Recently released numbers show that the trend is nationwide. According to an analysis of data from 640,000 confirmed cases released by the New York Times on Sunday, Black and Latino individuals have contracted the virus at three times the rate of white Americans.

According to the Times’ reporting, the disparity can be seen in rural, urban and suburban areas alike, and among all age groups. However, people of color and immigrant communities have been hit particularly hard in Minnesota even in comparison to other states.

That’s hardly surprising considering that despite its inclusive reputation, Minnesota is among the most unequal states when it comes to disparities in educational attainment as well as key economic indicators.

Working hard

During the pandemic, many local people of color and immigrants have continued to work hard, filling essential jobs at local factories and stores. Repeated outbreaks at meat processing plants in rural areas of the state have hammered immigrant communities.

Local factories have had their own share of issues, which at one point led Rice County’s case count to be among the fastest growing in the nation. Northfield activist and artist George Zuccolotto said that he isn't particularly surprised by the outbreaks among the immigrant communities.

“People in a lower socioeconomic bracket because we can’t afford to take a week or two off work,” he said. “We don’t have the pleasure of taking work home or the ability to take a few weeks off.”

Zuccolotto is seeking a seat on the Northfield City Council as a first-time candidate. He said that he was motivated to run because he believes that city government doesn’t include nearly enough representation of low-income and immigrant communities. He believes that this lack of diversity in leadership was reflected in the way the city approached the COVID-19 pandemic. He criticized its response for placing far too little focus on the needs of low-income and marginalized people.

Over the years, he said that city policy has led to a de facto segregation for Northfield. Affordable housing developments are mostly concentrated on the north side of town, which has a very different socioeconomic profile than the rest of the college city.

Zuccolotto said that economics have helped to drive the division, but he also expressed frustration with city leadership that he sees as unwilling to tackle the structural issues that allow the inequality to persist.

“People love to show support and say Black lives matter… but when it comes to actually doing the work, it feels like they don’t want to be bothered to change anything,” he said.

Mar Valdecantos, who serves as vice chair of the Northfield Human Rights Commission and Director of Neighbors United in Northfield, said that too often, companies don’t take enough measures to protect their workers.

“Now, it’s up to every business to do what they deemed necessary,” she said. “Unfortunately, most are not doing a great job of making sure there’s a great distance between workers.”

Ways to help?

One measure that could save lives and prevent the spread of COVID is requiring that everyone wear a mask. According to the University of Washington, near-universal wearing of masks could save anywhere from 17,000 to 28,000 lives between now and Oct. 1.

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has endorsed a mask requirement, which has already been implemented in some states, and the cities of Edina, Mankato and Rochester. However, Gov. Tim Walz has yet to take action.

In addition, Minnesota has one of the largest gaps in homeownership rates in the nation. 77% of non-Hispanic whites have their own home, compared to less than half of Hispanic households and less than a quarter of black households.

Communal living can increase the risk of contracting COVID. While the risk can be reduced if proper procedures are followed, the virus can survive in the air for hours and on surfaces such as door knobs for days.

A lack of affordable single-family homes throughout the state, and affordable housing in general, has helped to pack more people into tighter spaces. Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, has worked extensively on that issue.

Draheim, who owns a Weichert Realtors branch in Mankato along with other businesses, was tapped to chair the Senate Select Committee on Home Ownership last spring. Out of that committee came a series of bipartisan bills designed to make homeownership more affordable.

Draheim has said that reducing regulation is important. He says that Minnesota’s - is among the strictest in the nation, and that by loosening it the state can open up the door for more people to benefit from homeownership.

In addition to potentially reducing the rate of COVID spread, efforts to meet the growing demand for affordable single family homes have numerous other benefits, helping families to build sustainable wealth and stable communities.

Timely discussion

The issue of deep racial inequity in Minnesota was brought to the fore at the end of May, when Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin sparked an international conversation about race.

Soon after Floyd’s death, some protests turned violent, drawing condemnations across the political spectrum and forcing Gov. Walz to call in the Army National Guard. According to the city of Minneapolis, more than 700 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Nonetheless, Floyd’s death evidently proved a flashpoint for many Americans, drawing attention to long festering racial inequalities. Nearly overnight, public opinion on the “Black Lives Matter” movement shifted substantially. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly two-thirds of Americans now say they support Black Lives Matter, and even more say they’ve had meaningful conversations with family, friends or neighbors in the past month about race.

Those conversations have extended to the state legislature, with the “POCI” (People of Color and Indigenous) caucus, composed of 19 DFL members of the State House and State Senate, at the center of the debate.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, said that he’s listened to the concerns of members of the POCI caucus as well as people of color in his own district, and has found them to be raising many of the same concerns.

“I’m hearing from my colleagues who are people of color that Minnesota is one of the best states to live if you’re white and it’s one of the worst states to live in if you’re Black,” he said. “That’s a result of policy choices that we’ve made in our state, and the work of this next election and next decade is about how we close those racial and economic disparities.”

Education and Health

Closing racial disparities in education is a crucial and necessary part of the state’s strategy to boost educational achievement — which business leaders say is needed to ensure that Minnesota’s workforce continues to be competitive in the global economy.

In 2015, lawmakers set a goal to increase the number of Minnesotans age 25-44 with some sort of postsecondary education to 70% by 2025. Four years in, the proportion has only increased modestly, from 58% to 61%. A major factor weighing down the overall educational achievement of the state’s workforce is racial inequality. While two thirds of white Minnesotans have some sort of postsecondary credential, only about a quarter of Latino and Native American Minnesotans do.

To meet its goal, Commissioner Dennis Olson of the Office of Higher Education has said that more than two-thirds of the 120,000 credentials the state still needs to issue will likely need to be earned by people of color.

Locally, HealthFinders Collaborative has been at the forefront of conversations around racial inequality for some time. Since 2005, the nonprofit organization has provided basic services for low-income residents.

Many of HealthFinders’s patients are low-income immigrants from Somalia or Latin America. Most of its donors are from Northfield, but most of its patients are in Faribault, and the nonprofit recently moved into a large new clinic to accommodate its growing number of patients there.

HealthFinders Director Charlie Mandile said that too often, immigrants don’t seek the treatment they need for a variety of reasons. In addition to cost, immigrants may be concerned about their immigration status or may be unable to fluently communicate in English with a provider. To help ensure that immigrants feel comfortable seeking care, HealthFinders has assembled a mostly volunteer team of providers, nurses and staff, some of whom are fluent in Somali or Spanish as well as English.

Even after a decade on the job, Mandile said he’s still astonished at the disparities that exist between people of color and whites. He said that while de jure segregation may be off the books, de facto segregation remains a fact of life in many Minnesota communities.

“I think that structural barriers have made it easy for white people in Minnesota to live a happy and prosperous life while people of color have been challenged to do the same,” Mandile said. “We didn’t create these policies, but we have a responsibility to fix them.”

HealthFinders Director of Operations Daisy Sanchez has played a crucial role in putting together that community outreach as well as organizing training sessions surrounding the issues of racial and cultural sensitivity.

Sanchez said that it’s important for people to be cognizant of the fact that immigrants and people of color face specific challenges. By boosting their cultural awareness, Sanchez said that white Minnesotans can make sure they are being truly inclusive to all people.

Sanchez lamented that while Minnesotans often profess to support inclusivity, the needs and issues of people of color are often rarely discussed. By contrast, she said that HealthFinders has managed to successfully integrate an intrinsic cultural diversity into its operations.

“We want to have these conversations with everyone in Rice County,” she said. ”By opening up hearts, we can make positive change in the community.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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