VOICES | On Black leadership, Kersten and Bell should stay tuned


It has taken me several weeks to respond to a couple of items that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune concerning Black leadership.

The two authors, Katherine Kersten and Peter Bell, are people I like and respect. Katherine and I have colluded on the state of African American academic achievement in the public schools. And, she was responsible for my now-infamous “vote with your feet” quote in the Wall Street Journal several years ago.

Peter Bell is one of the brightest people I have met, and I have watched his career transcend racial boundaries. He has moved from nonprofit service to for-profit business to government service. He serves as somewhat of a role model, even though we don’t necessarily run in the same political circles. I don’t try to advise him on the company that he keeps.

With all that being said, I could not disagree with them more on their recent views of the state of African American leadership in Minneapolis.

Katherine’s perspective was the classic “shoot the messenger” approach as she lambasted the ineffectiveness of the people leading the Police Civilian Review Board. She noted their outdated civil rights tactics and the psychosis of the review board itself as she pitched the notion that this “old guard” was on the verge of extinction as “new” African American leadership emerged.

Strangely enough, the only African American quoted in her column was my other friend from the conservative corner, Peter Bell. What Katherine missed was the fact that most African Americans have no interest in relationships with the police other than “Yes, sir. No, sir. May I go now, sir?” Most of us know that if the police abuse African American policeman, we stand little chance of any type of fair treatment.

So, if someone wants to waste their time watching that whole scenario unfold while the rest of us avoid the police at all costs, more power to them. The record firmly illustrates that the police do what they want to do, and neither the mayor nor the chief of police are interested in real change. The recently debated “lipstick” theory is applicable, if you know what I mean.

Of real concern should be the fact that the behavior of the Minneapolis Police Department and the lack of leadership from the administration could cost the taxpayers over $2 million. This comes at a time when almost 45 percent of the African American population in Minneapolis lives in poverty and 14 percent are unemployed. I wonder what could be done with $2 million to help these people.

As for the state of African American leadership, let’s just say that Katherine and others should stay tuned. Age has brought a wisdom amongst some of us that is yielding small but relevant results.

What’s most impressive is that we are not being defined or “anointed” by elected officials or foundation leaders who have the attention span of my six-year-old. Most of us have been in the trenches for at least two decades, and we have taken our knocks. More importantly, we are still standing while they come and go.

Speaking of knocks, if Peter Bell listened to KMOJ he would hear all of us denouncing violence and the thug mentality that is so pervasive in our community. Our mantra is simple: “Live like citizens or go bond with the police.” And, honestly, he cannot feel our pain as we watch the morning news and pray that it will not feature anyone that we know as either victim or perpetrator.

The life of a freedom fighter is complex in the internet age. While attempting to define our social norms, we must also advocate and struggle with the powers that be for equitable opportunity. On one hand, we are fighting to take back our identity and get back to some of the values we had when we were colored, while at the same time we are tackling the media, social norms, and government systems that continue to oppress African Americans.

My friend Peter helps this fight by posing sharp questions and observations that force us to examine ourselves, our motives, and our methods. Very shortly, though, he will find himself in a position to do more than participate in the debate. As the chairman of the Metropolitan Council, he will have the responsibility to ensure that the economic engine provided by the Central Corridor light rail project is shared by all who are qualified to participate.

I am also asking Mr. Bell to appeal to his friends in government, business and philanthropy to join us in our efforts to address the values that drive the behavior that he criticized in his letter. For some reason, they don’t really listen when we start talking, or they won’t print what we write or broadcast what we say. So, maybe we need a middle man.

At any rate, responsible leadership has to acknowledge that this has not always been the state of the African American community. It used to mean something to be Black. Even if we had no rights, we found a way to “say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.”

Don’t despair, Peter. There are better days ahead.

Louis King is president/CEO of Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis. He welcomes reader responses to ljking@saoic.org.