It’s time to take action together

How did you react to that March 30, 2016 press conference announcement?

No charges will be filed against Minneapolis police officers for the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, in North Minneapolis on Nov. 15.

That announcement prompted fresh protests and for some of us, rekindled old traumas.

MEDA CEO Gary Cunningham
MEDA CEO Gary Cunningham

Living on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis in 1967, I remember watching the police beat black people with billy clubs. I watched National Guard troops herding groups of young black men into police vehicles. As a 9-year-old boy, I remember being very scared that they were going to come and get my family and me.

The injustice I witnessed looking out that window at the riots in 1967 left an indelible mark on me. So it didn’t surprise me that 50 years later on the same block, almost in the exact spot, police officers shot and killed Jamar Clark.

In 50 years, we have come full circle. And what a hauntingly familiar circle it is. Once again many African Americans and their allies have taken to the streets of Minneapolis to demand justice and an end to police misconduct. Once again, the protests have succeeded chiefly as fierce outcries over the painful costs of African Americans’ exclusion from the hallways of prosperity and power.

To break out of this vicious circle, to honor families that have suffered injustice, to honor Jamar Clark, we can take steps. One is to see police violence and mass incarceration as symptoms of much deeper issues.

Race matters

Is the Twin Cities a great place to live? Broadly speaking, it depends on the color of your skin.

If you’re white, the Twin Cities metropolitan region is indeed one of the best places in the country. The Twin Cities is ranked as the fittest, cleanest, best for finding a job. The list goes on.

However, if you’re a person of color, particularly African American, your family’s experiences are likely to be far worse. In fact, the Metropolitan Council found that “the Twin Cities metro’s disparities between African Americans and white, non-Latinos … are the largest among the [the nation’s] top 25 metro[politan areas].” These disparities range across educational attainment, employment, poverty rates and homeownership.

According to the Metropolitan Council: “Currently, residents of color make up almost one-quarter of the metro’s population; by 2040, their share in the region’s total will be 40 percent. The Twin Cities region cannot and will not continue to thrive if disparities hold back a growing share of its population.”

Since the 1960s, these racial disparities have stayed stubbornly entrenched. Poverty’s conditions and underlying causes have remained the same.

The conditions include inadequate housing and homelessness, significant gaps in financial, emotional, and physical wellbeing as well as gaps in justice, employment, and educational achievement.

The causes, meanwhile, include the combined impact of racial segregation, legal injustice, unequal public policies, limited opportunities, and weakened family support systems.

Federal and local housing policies shaped our present-day geographic areas of racially concentrated urban poverty. These policies have been reinforced by complex systems that have maintained racial and ethnic inequalities in our metropolitan area.

No easy answers

Within the Twin Cities, people of goodwill have been working for decades to address the wickedest aspects of racial disparities. However, the problem of racialized intergenerational poverty persists.

Moving beyond this costly dilemma can start with our recognizing we all want the same things: good schools, safety, decent affordable housing, employment with livable wages, and good health care. We call those good things opportunity.

If we were in a mall and the goal is to get everybody up to opportunity on the third floor, some would take the escalator, others the stairs. However, if you were in a wheelchair, you would need to use the elevator. We accept the fact that different people need different strategies to access the goal of opportunity.

The same is true for forging equitable communities. If we want to ensure everyone has access to the same opportunities, then we need to develop different, targeted strategies based on what different people need to move up in society.

We must push for these new strategies — guiding updated systems of opportunities — in order for the Twin Cities to become a great place to live for everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity or zip code.

For too long, we’ve been asleep at the wheel of racial justice and equity.

It is the time to wake up, to not just admit we have a problem but to name it and own it together. It’s time to start a new chapter, one whose targeted strategies spell out exactly how we can move forward together.

Gary Cunningham is president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), an organization that supports minority entrepreneurs. This column is part of a larger piece that ran in the Poverty and Race Research Action Council newsletter.