All of us are qualified to speak up on race relations

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Reflections from my Notebook

I received a somewhat cryptic email earlier this month from a person claiming he was a producer with C-SPAN television in Washington, D.C. I’ve received emails before from supposed Washington, D.C., officials, such as the FBI director who notified me of how to handle my millions of dollars in winnings, so I was skeptical.

However, the message seemed legitimate as the producer knew my name and referenced a column I had written on race relations, so I didn’t delete the email and move on as I do with the emails announcing my impending fortune. However, the email showed up right in the middle of moving our Spring Valley office, so I was preoccupied with other things and didn’t respond.

Eventually, the producer called to tell me he had found one of my columns on race interesting and wanted me to appear via Skype on the C-SPAN show “Washington Journal” to talk about race relations in Minnesota Sunday, Aug. 12, which is the year anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalists incident that brought the subject of race to the surface across the United States.

My first thought was television? I can keep words flowing on the keyboard tucked into the privacy of my office, but I‘m far from a confident on-screen talker.

My second, and more unnerving thought, was a spokesperson for race relations in Minnesota? I’m a white person living in a community where at least 95 percent of the residents are just like me. My initial feeling was that I’m not qualified to judge the state of race relations in the state.

As I contemplated the proposed assignment, I looked up the column because I wasn’t even sure which column he was talking about. It turns out it was one I wrote around Martin Luther King Day about the good, bad and ugly in race relations over the history of our state.

The ugly were incidents such as the lynching of circus workers in Duluth. 

Although Minnesota was rare in that it granted suffrage to black people by popular vote, an Augsburg College professor still found bad behavior in the state where racism has been subtle, rather than spoken directly, thus not always showing up in our history books.

The good things included incidents such as the pride Rushford area residents are finding in uncovering the history of the Underground Railroad that was tied to the area.

Still, this made me far from an expert, so I asked Wykoff resident Eva Barr, who has stage presence and is leading a forum on race at the Spring Valley Public Library. We finally decided I should do it since my column attracted his attention and there was just too short of a time slot available for two people.

However, between the interruptions of moving and the indecision on my part, we just ran out of time and the producer got another guest — an African-American University of Minnesota professor.

The professor did a good job coming more from a political angle, which is appropriate to the format of the show, talking about the wide disparities in income, employment and other factors between blacks and whites in the state, which has one of the greatest divides in the United States. The approximate two-year anniversary of the shooting death of Philando Castille during a traffic stop in the Twin Cities was also brought up.

The disparities are cause for concern, but still somewhat of a mystery as to the cause. Public officials appear to be concerned and public policy, obviously, is a factor, but pinpointing precise cures to fix the problem is murky.

Perhaps the answer is there just is more racism in progressive Minnesota than people would think.

My columns on race have looked at the personal level, rather than the institutional level, and I come away a bit more optimistic than the professor, but then I live a more sheltered life in rural Minnesota, which is largely homogenous.

Political correctness gets a bad rap because it can be overdone, but it also is a way to keep things civil and stop bad behavior before it gets out of hand. Minnesota is a very politically correct state and that has put a stop to some of the overt racism that has plagued other states.

Some of those personal examples I referenced in other columns included someone using the n-word to a staff person at a local facility being informed that wasn’t acceptable by a bystander deciding to step in. In another incident I wrote about, an area man who flew a confederate flag on a public vehicle in a patriotic parade was quickly condemned and disciplined.

I’m not naive enough to believe that we are people living in perfect harmony, but there seems to be a broad, conscious effort to condemn blatant racism in Minnesota. Now, whether that is enough is rightly up for debate since there are societal disparities proven by data and, as the black professor noted, people like him don’t always feel welcome even if no blatant racism is exhibited.

The key is that there really are no experts in race relations because it is a complex issue with outlooks shaped by life experiences, emotions, unconscious biases and so many other factors. None of us on our own are qualified to give an overall assessment on race relations in the state because we each come from a different viewpoint.

However, all of our voices, even if we don’t feel like we have a handle on the issue, can contribute to a conversation that seems to be desperately needed in this country. And that conversation can help us understand each other a little better, an important step since we all need to live together.

Note: If you are interested in discussing race and racial diversity, a dialogue is held at the Spring Valley Public Library at 6 p.m. on the first and fourth Thursday of the month under the direction of Barr and the Rev. Loel Wessel. All are welcome.