This is the first of a multi-part conversation on the state of Black Minnesota and the impact of systemic legal, socio-economic and racial disparities.
Although Minnesota has traditionally been viewed as a progressive state, African Americans experience a reality that is both separate and unequal in comparison to our White counterparts. African Americans represent roughly eight percent of Minnesota’s population, yet are overrepresented amongst those who are unemployed, underemployed, imprisoned and experience mental health impacts, as well as face higher arrest rates and lower educational attainment.
We also are more likely to live in communities with poorer air quality and higher rates of asthma, and we experience higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health effects.
Over the last few months, I have attended at least five funerals and a community gathering in honor of someone who died too young. All six people who passed away were African American. Only one was an elder who died of natural causes, while the other five were young people in their teens, 20s, or early 30s.
One of the young men died at the hands of Minneapolis police, one tragically took his own life, another died under mysterious circumstances, and still, another was killed near a kickball tournament; while another died of an overdose at the homeless encampment on Hiawatha and Cedar avenues.
The deaths of each of these beloved individuals have resulted in a great and incalculable loss to their families and our entire community. The grief and trauma experienced by the loved ones of those who passed will remain, likely throughout our lifetimes.
I am struck by the fact that five of the six people I am referencing seemingly died too soon. It begs the question of whether the environment that we are living in is killing us?
Yes. It is killing us.
As older adults, we can become conditioned to experiencing a lower quality of life than we deserve and accepting of the gross inequalities that we experience. This conditioning and acceptance of an inferior status over time may make our minds dull to the harsh realities that we experience. This results in us failing to fight back and apply pressure to the systems that are harming us and wreaking havoc in our lives and communities. Or worse, we become afraid to fight back out of fear of the repercussions of challenging injustice.
I can imagine that Rosa Parks felt conflicted on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a White man in Montgomery, Alabama during the era of Jim Crow segregation and the reign of White terror against African American men, women, and children. I can imagine that Parks was tired of being treated as a second-class citizen under law and being denied equal access to opportunity and Constitutional protections.
I can imagine Parks also perhaps being afraid of the consequences of putting a White man in his place by refusing to give in to his demands. Yet, even in spite of the laws being stacked against her with no real protections for African Americans, she made the courageous decision to take a stand. For her act of heroism, Parks was arrested.
Thankfully, her courage inspired an entire community to fight back against legally-sanctioned segregation by boycotting the transit system for over a year. African Americans walked, carpooled, took taxis, and whatever else they had to do to avoid riding buses and patronizing a system that did not respect their humanity.
The power of the community standing together and opposing Jim Crow segregation brought that system to a screeching halt and paved the way for the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
The challenges that we face in Minnesota are not exactly the same as what Parks and others experienced in Montgomery, but there are parallels that we must not ignore.
As a civil rights attorney, I routinely receive calls from African Americans in Minnesota reporting and alleging employment discrimination, police abuse and racial profiling, harassment and abuse while riding Metro transit buses and trains, unfair discipline in schools, and good old-fashioned racism while patronizing businesses and retail stores.
The time has come for us to wake up to the harsh reality that we are living in an oppressive environment. We must make the decision whether we are going to accept it or fight back. Some key ways to fight back are calling public attention to the issues that we experience, participating in protests and demonstrations, demanding change in the halls of power, and at the polls on November 6, where we have the opportunity to vote for new leadership; including bold people of color. There are many pathways to change. Which will you choose?
Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney, former law professor, activist, legal scholar, and national racial justice expert. She is the founder and owner of Levy Armstrong, PLLC Law Firm & Black Pearl, LLC Consulting. In 2017, she was named 100 People to Know by Twin Cities Business. In 2016, she received the Distinguished Service Award from the Governor’s Commission on Martin Luther King Day. In 2015, she was named one of “40 Under 40” by Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. In 2014, she was named a “Minnesota Attorney of the Year” by Minnesota Lawyer and recognized as one of “50 Under 50 Most Influential Law Professors of Color in the Country” by Lawyers of Color Magazine.