OPINION | Building a bridge to race equity


I was recently sitting in a room with an older group of white farmers, academics, and restaurateurs all affiliated with the Land Stewardship Project. They brought me in to be a part of a panel discussion titled “The Times They Are A Changing.” My role was to talk about both the changes in the demographic make up of Minnesota and the transformation of media. For them this conversation was critical in helping inform them of the future changes that they as an organization would have to make to adapt to a rapidly evolving world. Much of the context of this conversation was driven by the current intersection between the economic and environmental crisis, and although our financial situation is bleak, our conversation uncovered much opportunity. One person in the room commented, “I wish I was 20 years younger,” making note that these are truly interesting times to be living in.

As a state, the face of Minnesota is changing. By the year 2035 one in four Minnesotans will be a person of color or American Indian. This growth will not be concentrated simply in the urban core but as we’ve seen in the last 10 years with the Latino community, our growth is occurring in rural parts of the state as well. In the next 15 years, Latinos and African Americans will be on par as the largest “minorities” in the state. It’s clear that the future prosperity of Minnesota is tied to communities of color and American Indian communities.

Yet today Minnesota’s racial disparities are among the worst in the nation across issues like education, civil rights, health care, and economic equity. Issues which can be systematically addressed through public policy but which require the explicit attention and leadership on the part of our elected officials.

That’s why the Organizing Apprenticeship Project recently released the 2008 Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity. The goal of the report is to track the Minnesota Legislature’s progress and leadership on enacting public policy which addresses racial disparities or in some cases makes them worse. Grades are given out to individual lawmakers but the legislator and Governor as a whole also receive a collective grade.

This year’s report card according to the author Jermaine Toney, “showed some signs of hope.” More individual legislators received better grades, but collectively the state legislature and Governor received an “F” grade down from a “D” a year ago. To read the report in its entirety visit www.oaproject.org.

But in the midst of this progress we find ourselves in the middle of an economic crisis. Economic downtimes have not been kind to communities of color, and serve to undermine any limited progress we’ve made up until this point. The typical “scorched earth” approach to financial budgets, which has historically hit communities of color first through job losses and cutbacks in funding to public schools, would set up the state of Minnesota to fail.

Toney says it best, “We’re not asking for the stars and the moon,” indeed what we’re demanding is a responsible government that puts race at the forefront of policy and budget decisions. In an effort to be proactive, the Organizing Apprenticeship Project also released a “Pocket Guide for Budget Proposals” which outlines 5-key questions that all Legislators should ask themselves to determine the racial impact of any potential piece of legislation or budget proposal. The pocket guide is also available for download at www.oaproject.org

The future of Minnesota depends on leadership today that cannot allow decisions to be made that further exacerbate racial disparities. To do so would be to threaten the economic and social prosperity of all Minnesotans. In the same way that road projects, green jobs, and housing developments are laying the infrastructure for a future population, our public officials in all levels of government must look beyond our current demographics and plan for the future of Minnesota which is intrinsically tied to communities of color.