City educates businesses on duty to stop discrimination

The Frank Theatre production “Citizen” at Intermedia Arts explores the manifestations of racism today. Photo by Tony Nelson

The city of Minneapolis is stepping up efforts to prevent discrimination. The Civil Rights Department is reaching out to businesses to talk about their responsibilities under city law.

Staff will spend more time investigating charges of bias, eventually sending diverse “testers” out to businesses to document their treatment.

“What we’re really trying to do is be proactive, particularly given the atmosphere that’s presented itself around the country since the [presidential] campaign,” said Danielle Shelton-Walczak, director of the Civil Rights Complaint Investigations Division. “…We’ve seen things on a national level where individuals have felt more emboldened to single out particular individuals because of their race or gender.”

She said the Civil Rights Dept. hasn’t seen any recent increase in complaints, however.

In a 2016 Minneapolis resident survey, 15 percent of respondents said they had experienced discrimination. Of those respondents, 44 percent said they experienced discrimination while dealing with police. Thirteen percent of respondents said in a 2012 survey they experienced discrimination in public stores and restaurants.

Council Member Abdi Warsame authored a resolution last fall calling for more civil rights education and enforcement.

“The reason that we brought this up is to highlight that we have these laws,” he said.

“Public accommodation” venues like restaurants, theaters, hotels and retailers can’t refuse entry or services to someone based on their color, sexual orientation or other protected class. The businesses can’t turn away people who dress in a manner consistent with their protected class, and must ensure people are free from harassment and derogatory comments by staff and other customers.

At a meeting of the Whittier Alliance Business Association in February, a Civil Rights Dept. senior investigator said employers have a responsibility to stop discrimination when they see it. Business owners at the meeting asked questions about liability. A customer might not take kindly to being called racist, said one representative. And if staff choose to stop serving alcohol to someone who is over-served, the customer could throw all kinds of angry charges at the employee, said another owner.

Shelton-Walczak said the department isn’t focused on a “gotcha” mentality. Simple letters sent to businesses can have a big impact, she said. One landlord reached out to staff after rumblings that the company was trying to change lease terms based on a protected class status.

“Our office is open to anybody … but also to businesses to ask those questions,” Shelton-Walczak said. “They can course correct if they need to.”

Discrimination can be overt, as when a business declines to serve the LGBT community, but more often today it’s subtle, Shelton-Walczak said. She said it can involve slow or nonexistent service, following someone through a store, or differing dress code enforcement.

“…There has been intense social media conversation over Facebook and Yelp about Minneapolis bars using seemingly innocuous dress code policies to discriminate against people of color,” states a city staff report.

The Civil Rights Dept. is also fielding informal allegations of discrimination at Uber and Lyft, according to the report, with growing accusations of race-based discrimination in pickups and some refusals to drop off people in certain neighborhoods. Online profiles of passengers and drivers, complete with photos and subjective user ratings, can lead to discrimination in the service, states the report. Uber and Lyft policies prohibit discrimination. The companies did not immediately respond for comment.

The Civil Rights Dept. is researching a strategy to send out testers that will look for bias. Testers haven’t been deployed yet, and they haven’t chosen any businesses to target.

“How that enforcement looks at this point, we haven’t worked out yet, but ultimately people will be held responsible for discriminatory behavior,” Shelton-Walczak said. “…But we want to give them an opportunity ahead of time to be educated about it, and to be able to look and assess within their organization or business whether these problems are happening and give them an opportunity to address them before we get to those points.”

Businesses that do not cease discriminatory practices can be subject to fines, prolonged monitoring and ultimately license revocation.

The Civil Rights Dept. most often handles cases involving alleged discrimination in employment. In the area of public accommodation, the department closed out eight cases in 2016, and the venues in question included a homeless shelter, an event center and a storage unit company. One mediated case produced an apology, rather than monetary payment.

One of the complaints involved an African American music promoter who was assisting a musician at a downtown nightclub. According to the complaint: After introducing himself and entering and exiting the business with relative ease, the man refused to undergo a security pat-down later in the evening. When he tried to force his way past security, he was restrained and pepper sprayed. He related the experience to the club owner the next day, and the owner reportedly told the man he was trespassing and called him a “monkey.” The Civil Rights Dept. determined the complainant could not prove the pat-down was discriminatory, in part because the man couldn’t prove he was treated worse than others outside his protected class.

Discrimination charges are difficult to prove, Shelton-Walczak said.

“The person who is claiming discrimination, they bear the burden at almost every stage to show the discrimination happened,” she said.

If a defendant can offer a nondiscriminatory reason for what happened, the burden then shifts to the complainant to show why that reason is a pretext for discrimination. Complainants who see success with charges typically have documentation, witnesses and clear examples of others getting preferential treatment, Shelton-Walczak said.

The Minneapolis Civil Rights Ordinance has long been one of the most comprehensive in the nation, according to a city account. The city has more protected classes in public accommodation than the state and federal government, going beyond race, color and national origin to include creed, ancestry, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, marital status and public assistance status. City officials are currently mulling a vote on new protections for Section 8 voucher holders, so landlords could not bar renters solely based on subsidized rent vouchers.

Additional Civil Rights Dept. funding will pay for a new position to investigate hate speech and hate crimes in coordination with other city departments.

Mayor Betsy Hodges said at a recent mayoral forum that she put more money into the Civil Rights Dept. “knowing that more discrimination is happening, knowing that hate crimes are happening.”

The University of Minnesota has documented an increase in bias reports in the past year, according to the Minnesota Daily, with the largest monthly tally, 18, reported in February. The Daily said reports ranged from a swastika on the football field to a poor grade thought to be motivated by bias.

The Industrial Workers of the World Twin Cities General Defense Committee, a group that calls itself anti-fascist, said it rallied outside the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Feb. 25 to disrupt a purported “White Lives Matter” rally. A web post by the group AltRight MN rejected the label neo-Nazi, and said they were only gathering to meet a few new faces and enjoy the art.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said Temple Israel has been tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti in the past, but hasn’t received any threatening calls or tags recently.

“We in the Jewish community are always aware that anti-Semitism is a potential reality,” she said. “We’re supporting each other more.”

She said fear can be isolating, so aside from focusing on security, they try to focus on relationships. She recalled interfaith clergy’s joint newspaper ad in 2015 in support of Muslims, which stated that no faith tradition, including Islam, condones injury toward others.

“That’s why interfaith dialogue is so important. When anyone is suffering we come to their aid,” she said.

The current Frank Theatre production “Citizen” explores subtle ways bias shows up in society: Where people sit on public transit, how sports commentators react to tennis pro Serena Williams, or what happens when a black man is pulled over.

“And you are not the guy, and still you fit the description, because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description,” states an actor.

The play is based on the book by Claudia Rankine.

“One of the things, in ‘Citizen,’ that I was trying to circle around is that sense that there is an odd reality where people feel that ‘that’s not my problem,'” Rankine told The New Yorker in 2014. “And in fact, it is your problem, because you can see it, because we all live it.”

The production runs through thru April 2 at Intermedia Arts.

The Frank Theatre production “Citizen,” now playing at Intermedia Arts, explores contemporary racism. At one point in the show, actors reflect on images of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Tony Nelson
The Frank Theatre production “Citizen,” now playing at Intermedia Arts, explores contemporary racism. At one point in the show, actors reflect on Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Tony Nelson

Rights of individuals in Minneapolis

— The right to not be refused entry, participation or services as part of a protected class, whether it be race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status, or status with regard to public assistance.

— The right to dress in a manner consistent with a protected class.

— The right to be free from harassment and derogatory comments based on a protected class.

Source: City of Minneapolis