By Luke Tripp
The City of St. Cloud is unfriendly to people of color. It is located in Minnesota’s sixth congressional district, which is represented by Michele Bachman, one of the prominent leaders of the Tea Party movement. As an elected politician, her views (which are extremely hostile to the interests of people of color) largely reflect those of a large segment of her constituents in St. Cloud.
The racial composition of St. Cloud, with a population of 67,000, is about 84 percent White (largely Catholic), eight percent Black (mostly Somali), four percent Asian, three percent Latino, two percent mixed race, and one percent Native American. Although a few Blacks lived in St. Cloud before the Civil War when St. Cloud’s first mayor, Sylvanus Lowy held them as slaves in 1856, the Black community did not emerge until the 1980s when a small group of Black Americans settled in the city.
I was part of that small wave, which encountered strong anti-Black hostility. We were generally treated as intruders and threats to Whites’ safety and quality of life. I witnessed and experienced how St. Cloud earned the dubious reputation of “White Cloud.”
In the 1990s Somalis began to trickle into the city, and now they are probably the largest Black ethnic group, surpassing the number of Black Americans. Like Black Americans they also experience intense racial and cultural animus. As compared with the White population, Somalis are sharply different in four categories: race (White European vs. Black African), religion (Christian vs. Muslim), citizenship (American vs. refugee/immigrant), and culture (Eurocentric vs. Afro-Islamic). This is a very volatile social mix.
The Somali community continues to suffer numerous attacks at various levels and in all areas of social life including schools, stores, workplaces, housing, and the media. The first Somali market, mosque and community center in south St. Cloud was vandalized in 2002. Furthermore, Somalis have been stigmatized as terrorists, pirates, religious fanatics, and bad neighbors.
This historical background will help us understand what transpired at a recent city council meeting held on Monday, October 7, 2013. On the council agenda was a proposal for a multi-unit Islamic Center. An estimated 500 people attended the racially tense public hearing.
Somali leaders proposed a scaled-down version of their original project, which included office space, a restaurant and retail space, two double-unit residential dwellings, a mosque, a religious school and a community building. The Planning Commission had voted to recommend only the construction of the mosque and religious school.
The city officials should enthusiastically support the proposal for the Islamic Center of St. Cloud. It will empower the Somali community to provide its members with social, economic, and psychological assets to support their integration into the city. By providing youth services and supporting families seeking guidance for solving problems, the center would serve as an agent to spawn solutions to pressing social needs.
It can also help dismantle racism in the city. The reality of the growing Somali population and the accompanying racial tensions will eventually compel some accommodation. However, without progressive political leadership, racial tensions will continue to fester, thus undermining the vision of a vibrant multicultural city. Will the city officials work to change the image of the city from “White Cloud” to “Rainbow Community?”
The White Council member’s opposition to the Islamic Center was strong and rigid. They and some White residents contended that the project would cause parking problems, traffic congestion, and lower property values. They were also critical of the size and location of the proposed Islamic Center of St. Cloud; the project is too large for the site.
Their argument was used to obscure, confuse and mislead the public. And it worked to a great extent because the predicted impact of the project on the area seemed reasonable. Thus their concerns seemed legitimate and unbiased. But their underlying opposition to the project reflects the deep-seated racism endemic to U.S. society.
The ideology of White superiority provides the political and social glue of White solidarity and domination. I think that the city council fears that the establishment of a thriving Islamic center would be a concrete manifestation of an irreversible racial/cultural change in the city that would diminish St. Cloud’s national image as a model all-American city.
The city council rendered race and religion irrelevant to the controversy. Note that the White council framed the issue in non-racial terms. The sociological context of the project was ignored. In fact, any reference to race and culture, let alone racism and Islam phobia, was banned.
Council President Jeff Goerger admonished speakers not to bring up race or religion in the controversy, which he framed as strictly a zoning issue. He sternly warned them numerous times to keep emotion out of the comments, and he abruptly cut off speakers who had exceeded their time limit.
The council’s refusal to engage in a discussion of the racial and religious dimensions of the issue is tantamount to perpetuating the racial status quo, in which racial discrimination is ubiquitous.
I surmise that their rejection of the proposal mostly reflected their anxieties about Blacks and Muslims and the challenge the project posed to White Christian hegemony. The struggle continues.
Dr. Luke Tripp is Interim Chair and Professor of the Department of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University.