St. Cloud City Council Member Jeff Johnson submitted a resolution calling for a temporary ban on resettlement of refugees in St. Cloud. This move appears to be in accord with President Trump’s plans to cap refugee admissions to the United States at 45,000 over the next year. Johnson’s resolution is an action associated with the anti-Muslim speakers who have been touring Minnesota and have recently held an anti-Muslim session at Granite City Baptist Church.
The racial composition of St. Cloud, with a population of 68,000, 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. A few Blacks lived in St. Cloud before the Civil War when St. Cloud’s first mayor, Sylvanus Lowry, held them as slaves in 1856. But the Black community did not emerge until the 1980s when a small group of Black Americans settled in the city.
I am a Black university professor who has lived in St. Cloud for over 28 years. I was part of that early small Black wave in the 1980s, 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.”
I believe that Jeff Johnson’s resolution calling for a temporary ban on resettlement of refugees in St. Cloud is aimed at Somalis who are under attack in St. Cloud because of their race (they are Black), their religion (they are Muslims), and their immigration/refugee status (they are perceived to be untrustworthy aliens).
The City of St. Cloud, historically a very conservative White town, has only recently become home to a significant population of about 6,000 Somalis who represented about eight percent of St. Cloud’s population of 68,000 people in 2013. There has been a series of hateful attacks against the growing Somali community since they began arriving here in the 1990s.
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. We should keep in mind that the attacks began before the tragedy of September 11, 2001, when America’s anti-Islamic fervor reached hysterical levels. In November 2002, the Somali Center, a local headquarters for Somali culture, was vandalized. A racist message was spray-painted on a newly opened Somali market, a mosque, and a community center in south St. Cloud. Furthermore, Somalis have been stigmatized as terrorists, pirates, religious fanatics, and bad neighbors. This historical background will help us understand the racial undercurrents of Johnson’s planned resolution.
The animosity against Somalis reflects the sentiments of a significant segment of conservative White residents in the city of St. Cloud whose views were politically expressed by their right-wing extremist ex-congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, who represented Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District from 2007 to 2015. Bachmann was a staunch advocate of barriers against immigrants and their culture. Her voting record on anti-immigration legislation is graded A+.
The point is that racism and religious intolerance are deeply rooted and still prevalent in St. Cloud. We need to make our demand for justice and human rights a top priority of city government. We can do that by lobbying and pushing city government officials to provide resources to support our refugee neighbors.
The mayor and city council should take positive action to deal with the toxic anti-Somali climate and institutional racism and address the legitimate grievances of the Somali community instead of pretending that systemic racial problems are aberrations. City officials need to develop a strategic plan based on genuine diversity and social justice; one that is dedicated to systemically advocating, building and maintaining respectful, collaborative and reciprocal relationships.
A good strategic plan can help dismantle racism in the city. The reality of the growing Somali population and the accompanying racial tensions will eventually compel city officials to make 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?”
Dr. Luke Tripp is a professor of Department of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University