Community leaders outline agenda for addressing racial gaps

A coalition of black leaders unveiled a legislative agenda Wednesday with a long list of ways to tackle the state’s racial disparities, including $75 million in startup capital for black businesses.

The United Black Legislative Agenda includes several criminal justice reforms and economic development initiatives.

Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said addressing the state’s racial gaps should be a top priority for legislators this session just like the Real ID issue and extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers on the Iron Range.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $100 million in his supplemental budget for racial equity efforts.

“We are at a pivotal moment in this state, both with some of the largest racial disparities in the country, and in a movement when black people from communities across the state are demanding not only equal treatment but equal opportunity and equal investment,” Newby said.

Jeff Hassan, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, said black Minnesotans were the one demographic group to see incomes drop between 2013 and 2014. Median income for black households in the state dropped from $31,500 to $27,000, according to the U.S. Census.

“That was a wake-up call for all of us,” he said.

As for economic priorities, the agenda calls for the creation of a $75 million business capital fund to support African and African American businesses. Hassan said black-owned businesses hire people of color at higher rates than other businesses.

It also seeks more support for summer jobs program for youth of color who experience unemployment at much higher rates than white youth and family friendly workplace policies that offer flexible work schedules and paid sick time.

On criminal justice, the agenda seeks a ban on grand juries for police-involved shootings, a ban on private prisons, sentencing reform addressing the mass incarceration of people of color, voting rights restoration for people who have served their time, and body camera policies that emphasize policy accountability.

Asha Long of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis said the state needs to stop the “criminalization of black people.”

“Our communities need economic investment and opportunity, not prisons. We need policies that will hold the police accountable, not allow them to escape responsibility,” she said.

The agenda also calls for an increase in hate crime penalties to address the increase in Islamophobia throughout the state and more investments in job training and education for Somali youth.

House DFL Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said it’s time for legislators to take action.

“We must listen. And more importantly, we must act,” he said. “Because it’s not enough to merely acknowledge that racial disparities in our state are a problem. We must follow through with real solutions that create opportunity and economic security for Minnesotans of color who are being squeezed in an unbalanced economy that favors the wealthy few. With the clock ticking on the 2016 session, we call on the House Republican Majority to get serious and get moving on this vitally important priority for Minnesotan’s future.”