Somalis are under attack in St. Cloud because of their race (they are Black), their religion (they are Muslims), and their immigration/refugee status (they are perceived to be untrustworthy aliens).
In the 1990s Somalis began to trickle into the city, and now they are probably the largest Black ethnic group, surpassing the number of Black Americans. Like Black Americans, they also experience intense racial and cultural animus. As compared with the White population, Somalis are sharply different in four categories: race (White European vs. Black African), religion (Christian vs. Muslim), citizenship (American vs. refugee/immigrant), and culture (Eurocentric vs. Afro-Islamic).
This is a very volatile social mix. The Somali community continues to suffer numerous attacks at various levels and in all areas of social life including schools, stores, workplaces, housing, and the media. The first Somali market, mosque and community center in south St. Cloud was vandalized in 2002.
Furthermore, Somalis have been stigmatized as terrorists, pirates, religious fanatics, and bad neighbors. This historical background will help us understand the major systemic issues of the protest rally by St. Cloud Technical High Somali students on March 18, 2015.
In May 2004, students, parents, and members of the community gathered to discuss several incidents that were racially motivated at Technical High School in St. Cloud. The school’s principal, Roger Ziemann, said the fights were between Somali students and others at school and off campus.
The fights grew out of frustration. Somali kids were tired of being told to go back where they came from. St. Cloud police were called to Tech or the area 69 times in 2002 as compared with 128 times for all of 2003. They had been called to Apollo High School or nearby 71 times in 2002 and 138 times in 2003.
The basic issue that the rally and the Somali community are calling attention to is the systemic and continuous failure of the administration and board to seriously address the toxic anti-Somali climate and institutional racism in the school system. School administrators seem to view the complaints as issues of misbehavior of a few individual students. But the racial incidents are merely symptoms of institutional racism.
The schools were designed to educate and socialize White, Christian, American-born youth. With the recent influx of many Somali students who are Black, Muslim and African-born (or children of African-born parents), the schools are facing a clash of cultures. Many administrators and staff members and some board members do not seem to grasp the significance of the social transformation of their school system.
The biggest problem is the backwardness and ineptness of the leadership. The school board and the superintendent have not demonstrated a genuine commitment to the district’s five core values (excellence, learning, leadership, partnership and respect). And it is quite evident that they have done little in-depth strategic thinking about how to transform their school system to prepare their students for the profound changes in cultural diversity. This filters down to some culturally incompetent teachers who do not know how to deal with the changing cultural environment.
Their failure to properly educate our youth has dire consequences. One measure of the failure is the exceedingly high suspension rate of Black students. Minnesota Department of Education data showed that the St. Cloud school district suspended 1,125 students in the 2013-2014 school year, a 59.6 percent year-over-year increase. For Black students, the increase was 107 percent last year.
American society tends to stigmatize Black youth as young criminals, and many educators perceive them as disruptive, disrespectful, and prone towards violence. They believe these traits are endemic to Black youth, who are subsequently regarded as inherently pathological.
Suspensions rip the fabric of relationships among students, caregivers, and educators, resulting in distrust and compromising future interactions. They cause distrust at the level of family-school relationships that hinders the schools’ ability to educate students.
Educators who lack cultural knowledge can misinterpret Black youth behavior as maladaptive or disordered. The misattribution of negative labels to normative Black youth behaviors fosters an environment wherein Black youth identities are criminalized and punished.
The school system operates on White cultural norms, which are reinforced by a White standard code of student conduct. The conduct rules are enforced in a racially biased way to exclude many Black youth from the public school system.
Educators would benefit from the painful realization that Black youth are socialized in an oppressive society, and that dismantling prejudicial beliefs and actions is key to dealing with conflicts that result in suspensions, which feeds into the pipeline of juvenile detention centers to prisons.
Instead of denying that systemic racial problems exist, the board and administrators must act on the legitimate grievances of the Somali community and develop a strategic plan based on genuine diversity and social justice, and dedicated to systemically advocating, building and maintaining respectful, collaborative and reciprocal relationships.
Dr. Luke Tripp is a professor in the department of ethnic and women’s studies at St. Cloud State University. He welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.