In MN, state leaders are ‘back to being comfortable with disparities’
On May 2, the National Urban League released its annual “State of Black America” report. Its Equality Index of Black America (2016-2017) looked at progress or decline on issues including civic engagement, economics, education, health and social justice. While African Americans scored high and remained high in civic engagement (100.6 percent) between 2016 and 2017, there were little to no gains in all other categories, including economics.
Of the 71 metro areas included in the report, Minneapolis/St. Paul was at the bottom of the list on income equity. Though Black Minnesotans experienced an increase in median income (from $27,500 in 2015 to $31,672 in 2016), it is still far less than the average median household income of White income of $76,581.
“If you want that in concrete terms, for every dollar of average White income, Blacks earn 41 cents,” said Steve Belton, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League. Cities where the Black/White income gap is narrower than the Twin Cities include St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland. Belton says the biggest contributor to the problem is unemployment, where the Twin Cities ranked 56 on the list of 71.
“We cannot rely on a traditional media. We cannot rely on social media. We cannot rely on anybody outside of ourselves to define what’s going on in our community.” — Steve Belton
“We have very high and very stubborn unemployment,” he says. Though the state’s unemployment rate for Blacks is currently at around 8.4 percent, “You have places like in North Minneapolis where you have several zip codes where the unemployment rate is much higher than that, like at 50 percent.”
Also, when Blacks are hired, they are generally hired in low-level jobs. Though many large employers tout their increase in “minority” employment, “The top tier of these organizations — both in the city and the state and in the private sector — are populated by Whites and by Asians,” explains Belton.
“The low-tier jobs, the hourly wage jobs, the $15-an-hour jobs, those are populated by African Americans, and so we still have persistent pockets of racism. We have institutional racism that prohibits us from being able to move forward, and we have a lack of public will and public policy that is directed toward changing this.”
In 2016, of the $100 million of the state’s surplus, $35 million of the governor’s proposed $99 million and the senate’s proposed $90 million was appropriated for funding equity initiatives. The funding came primarily as a result of U.S. census data in 2015 revealing wide economic disparities between Blacks and Whites, larger than most everywhere else in the country, including cities in the historically segregated South.
“It wasn’t [because of disparities] between the disable community, or the Native American community, or the Latino community — all of which are important [and] have disparities. They are not the same as the African American experience, and the African American disparities [are] what drove this,” says Belton.
“And so riding on the back of that, all of these other programs lined up, got funding, and of that $35 million that was appropriated, less than half of that actually went to African-led organizations. But it is still a significant change and a significant allocation.”
This year, Belton says, with proposals to defund the initiatives, he urges African Americans to look neither to the State Capitol nor the White House for solutions to their economic woes in the near future.
“To put it plainly…the Minnesotans in their leadership positions are very comfortable having the worst income disparities in the country,” says Belton. “And the only time they are uncomfortable about it is when the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or some national publication draws a spotlight on this.” Currently, he says, “they are back to being comfortable about these disparities.”
While most with political power place Blacks at the bottom of their priority list, what can the average Black Minnesotan do to improve their own economic situation? Belton says the Urban League, Sabathani Community Center, StairStep Foundation, Emerge, and Minneapolis Public Schools have formed Unity Opportunity, a collaborative funded by the Minnesota State Legislature’s equity dollars.
At the Urban League this includes a tech jobs program, an eight-week training with the only prerequisite being a GED or high school diploma. It prepares a person for a career at either a help desk or a Geek Squad. At Sabathani, there is training to become a forklift operator and for careers in the healthcare industry.
“We have a variety of different pathways,” Belton says. “Really, all you have to do is show up at these various organization and say, ‘I want to work,’ or ‘I’m interested in getting a better, stronger career… I’m kind of stuck in a job making $11, $12 an hour or minimum wage, and I want to be able to get up into the $15 to $18 to $25 dollar-an-hour range and beyond.’”
Belton also says that African Americans need to control their own narrative. “We cannot rely on a traditional media. We cannot rely on social media. We cannot rely on anybody outside of ourselves to define what’s going on in our community. And the fact is that we have a very strong and asset-based culture and community that we allow others to twist.
“Everybody in this community can point to more people who are productive citizens, who are working every day, who have two-parent families, who are going to church on Sunday, who are cutting the grass in their yard. And if we don’t allow that narrative, we fall into the trap of simply defining ourselves by the bad things that happen.”
Belton says, “We are proudly and unapologetically an African American, African parent-centered organization. Our cultural base is African heritage people.” He adds, however, that “We serve anybody; our data show that.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.