Hennepin mural

A mural on Hennepin Avenue South. (Photo by Hannah Black/Minnesota Reformer)

Minnesota earned yet another dubious racial distinction last week: Failing to pass significant police reform legislation, just weeks after a police officer with a troubled history kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for nearly eight minutes, killing him.

The Legislature adjourned its one-week special session with no agreement on policing and criminal justice reforms despite the prominence of Minnesota’s role in unleashing the great racial reckoning of 2020.

To outsiders, the state seems like an unlikely place to have sparked the worst civil unrest in a quarter-century, spawning thousands of sustained and ongoing demonstrations across the country and throughout the world.

It is, after all, a state with a tradition of liberal values embodied by the likes of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone. And it has an innovative, thriving Twin Cities economy, that regularly places the two cities on best places to live lists.

But for the state’s Black population, it is a different story. Minnesota has long suffered from some of the starkest racial disparities in education, income, housing and health. Last year, the financial news service 24/7 ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul the fourth worst place in America for Black people to live in.

As more white Minnesotans become aware of that disparity and join the fight against racial inequality, some Black Minnesotans are baffled.

“Some of that is infuriating to hear,” said Acooa Ellis, senior vice president at Greater Twin Cities United Way. “People who want to pretend to be surprised — to me that means you have not been paying attention, or you ignored or dismissed Black people around you. It’s infuriating to me. It’s like willful negligence.”

Still, advocates and civic leaders hope this highly charged moment will drive change in the state’s private and public sectors, achieving the kind of quick resolution to a contentious issue that arose during the gay marriage debate a decade ago.

“I don’t blame people for being pessimistic about changing something that’s deeply rooted in society, especially in a state that isn’t that diverse,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which includes the state’s Fortune 500 and other large employers. “But I would say, just watch us.”

There’s reason to be skeptical that progress will come quickly.

Until very recently, Black Minnesotans have been mostly shut out of the tight-knit political power structure in Minnesota. As recently as 2016, out of 201 lawmakers only three were Black.

The state Senate has yet to see its first Black female member, though at least three are vying to win a seat in the often stodgy, 162-year-old institution where the average age nears 60.

As a result, Capitol power brokers, legislative staff and lobbyists usually have experiences that are vastly different than the lived realities of Black, Indigenous and Minnesotans of color.

At the state Capitol in recent weeks, Floyd’s killing received universal condemnation, including from Senate Republicans who have called for the officers to be held accountable.

But his death also comes during a critical presidential election that also has all 201 Minnesota legislative seats on the ballot. The highly polarized, partisan divide in Minnesota — the only state in the country with a divided Legislature —further complicates the legislative landscape and prospects for comprehensive criminal justice and police reform.

To some, what’s baffling is that these problems have been known — and even worked on — for decades. Countless nonprofit organizations, from small and grassroots to the most well-heeled philanthropies have tried to tackle it.

Minnesota has the second-lowest high school graduation rate for Black students in the nation, with just 67% of students earning their diploma.

In the Twin Cities metro, the Black home ownership rate of 22% trailed the non-Black rate by 51% points, the biggest gap in the country. Black Minnesotans also face disparities in 15 of 17 health indicators, including diabetes, heart disease, preterm births and HIV infection rates, according to a Minnesota Department of Health report.

“We have known and communities of color have known for years,” said Sean Kershaw, vice president of the Wilder Foundation, a St. Paul nonprofit. “We’ve admired the problem,” he said, using a grim, knowing joke about the issue, one often heard in Minnesota nonprofits and government circles.

But Kershaw sees progress, and perhaps more recognition of the problem in the past three months — or even three weeks — than in his previous three decades here. He said he’s never seen seen the shift on race he’s seeing now. The shift began under duress as the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the health challenges of communities of color, which are facing higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death.

School disruptions caused by cancelling in-person classes have hurt students of color most, advocates are reporting, threatening to reverse incremental gains made in Minnesota education in recent years.

“The opportunity we’re seeing here is that this huge issue of systemic racism and prejudice plays out in institutions where people actually can have an impact. What I hope happens after people are done being in the streets, they look at what they can do inside their own organization,” Kershaw said.

For many, the most vital work begins with the criminal justice system. As the Marshall Project reported recently Derek Chauvin, the since fired Minneapolis Police Department charged with Floyd’s murder, was the subject of a dozen complaints but received no discipline, city records show. Even when police are fired across Minnesota, arbitrators reinstate them nearly half the time. Black residents of Minneapolis are subject to use of force incidents at seven times the rate of whites. And once imprisoned, they are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement.

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, a former state senator and police chief, defended the work he and Attorney General Keith Ellision did on a police reform task force that spent months developing policy recommendations unveiled in February, before Floyd’s killing. The effort included four hearings.

“The attorney general and I had made a promise that this document was not simply going to be another report that somebody was going to stick on a shelf,” said Harrington, referring to the fate of countless reports on racial issues before this one. “It was going to be a living, breathing work in progress that we were going to remake the world of public safety.”

But change — especially in policing and the criminal justice system — is unlikely without legislative action. Given the reluctance of the GOP-majority Senate to move quickly, reformers could come away this year with nothing.

During an emotional Senate debate last week on policing reforms, state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, urged Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, to see the issue of policing through the lens of Black senators like he and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.

“Why don’t we stop looking at this issue through your eyes, Senator? And start looking at it through my eyes?” Hayden said. “I’ve been dealing with this all my life.”

The GOP-controlled Senate passed a modest set of policing changes — like a ban on most chokeholds — before adjourning and leaving town. The DFL House majority and Gov. Tim Walz said the proposals did not go far enough, and as of now even these modest changes will not become law.

If only because of images of police beating, macing and driving cruisers through crowds of peaceful demonstrators, the public appears to have come around to seeing the world through the eyes of Black men like Hayden. Polling shows the Black Lives Matter movement now has more public support than ever before. Which gives hope to racial justice advocates that perhaps this time, Minnesota may seize the opportunity to enact transformative change.

A June 2 Monmouth University poll found that 57% of Americans believe police officers are more likely to use excessive force in a difficult or dangerous situation if the culprit is Black, which is up from just 34% in 2016. A majority of Americans also believe the anger behind the protests over police killings of Black people are justified.

Hopeful Minnesotans draw a parallel with the gay marriage battle, which started with the defeat of a constitutional amendment in 2012 followed by full legalization by the Legislature the following year.

There are key differences, however. Same-sex marriage is a much narrower issue, and proponents of the marriage equality campaign in Minnesota included many prominent, wealthy backers. Black Minnesotans have never achieved the intergenerational wealth that has given white Minnesotans one of the highest standards of living in America.

Weaver, who heads up the Minnesota Business Partnership, said he sees a long battle ahead similar to the same-sex marriage campaign, which took place over two years.

“I don’t dismiss the skepticism,” said Weaver, whose group released a detailed proposal for police reform that follows the lead of the Harrington and Ellison task force.

But even Weaver’s presence in the debate signifies change may be afoot. He’s a former commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and chief of staff to former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Republican to win statewide office here.

“Do I believe, do our members believe that every person in Minnesota is racist? No,” Weaver said. “Are there other systems and structures that can become inherently racist? Absolutely. Is there an unconscious bias that, especially those of us in Minnesota may have, who grew up in a state that is mostly white? No doubt about it.”

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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