Racial Justice: Trickling Down From the Top

Jul 29, 2009 9:16 am

by Daniel LeClaire

It only makes sense that big changes should start up here at the top of the world.

Similar thinking must have been at work at the American Civil Liberties Union-MN (ACLU) five years ago when it decided to open a pilot program in Bemidji called the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project (RJP) to address persistent complaints about law enforcement and the administration of justice in communities shared by Native American citizens residing in and around three reservations here and the majority culture.

It is here in the heart of the Anishinaabe Nation that the continent divides. Water tables deliver their contents to Hudson Bay to the north as well as feeding into the headwaters of the largest freshwater artery of North America flowing south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Map makers put the continent’s geographic center just to the west of this place. Geologists describe the area as the most stable on all of Turtle Island. Others note it as the storehouse of a wide array of essential natural foods and medicines, as well as being the repository of ancient, sacred texts of the indigenous people of this land.

It is also the site of the last battle of Native people with uniformed soldiers of the U.S. government a little more than 100 years ago.

What better place, then, than north central Minnesota to keep the battle for education and racial justice reform percolating.

The RJP takes as its goal the elimination of disparities and injustices in Greater Minnesota. Located in the old warehouse district of Bemidji, county seat of Beltrami County, RJP officers and volunteers have used their energies over the past five years to launch a campaign of education, court monitoring, voter registration and advocacy services to reveal the substance and source of the ongoing racism imbedded within the systems and psyches of influence today.

Now the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken notice.

At the request of RJP director Audrey Thayer, the acting regional director of the DOJ, Ken Bergeron, and conciliation specialist Justin Lock, made their second trip last week to Bemidji to talk about solutions to the statistical data that supports claims of racial disparity in the justice system, not only in Beltrami, but significantly in Cass County and to varying degrees in the seven counties touched by the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations.

In June, the two DOJ officials moderated a discussion among tribal and county court representatives, social workers from a variety of disciplines and regular citizens about the glaring discrepancies in policing and incarceration rates, as well as social, educational and economic factors that contribute to continued perceptions racism. Those perceptions and the denial of their validity is a part of the day to day reality and disconnect for many walking simultaneously in Indian Country and the institutions of our dominant culture.

To be sure, progress is being made. That’s thanks in large part to the efforts of Thayer and the largely volunteer staff at RJP.

“There was a huge blip in the five county area, particularly in Beltrami,” said director of ACLU-MN Chuck Samuelson last week, as he gave a history of the inception of the ACLU’s pilot branch office. It’s existence stems from a claim by an Edina couple and subsequent investigation just seven years ago that their handyman was “run out of Park Rapids” ultimately for being Native American. After satisfying the validity of those claims, it was decided to attack this long-standing issue by trying “something that had never been done before,” with the side benefit of perhaps setting a precedent that the rest of the nation could follow.

“We’re halfway towards home,” Samuelson said, noting a reduction in the Beltrami County jail population from 85% Native Americans to just under 50%. Native Americans comprise less than 20% of the county’s total population.

The project’s aim, he said, is to reach a point where “everyone is treated, at least statistically, equal.”

The extent of current discrepancies point to a systemic problem. The solution, according to many around the table at the recent DOJ discussions, indicate a need for education.

Its not just a local problem either. In Minnesota, RJP numbers show 24 counties – a quarter of the state’s total – reflect arrest rates for Native Americans in excess of their representative populations.

Nationally it seems the time is ripe for change, as well. According to Bergeron, the election of the Obama administration to the white house has led to an influx of affirmative action cases to address long-overdue issues of racial injustice.

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of work were doing,” he said, “now that we have a president of color.”

Though many have been blind to the dual factors of privilege and prejudice as they reveal themselves in unchallenged opportunity and exclusionary practices, others have been acutely aware of that reality for generations. Facing those perceptions and realities squarely is a challenge that not only needs to play out on community, state and national levels, but perhaps most importantly on personal ones.

At last month’s initial DOJ meeting, one of the more tell-tale revelations came in the restrained comments of a popular local elected leader. In his only contribution to the discussion as he exited halfway through the morning, he bemoaned the lack of “personal responsibility” noted during the litany of examples from participants citing racial profiling and targeting some of the city’s retailers.

Promoting a common “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, he offered examples from his own life of overcoming a need for food stamps and understanding discrimination through his personal experience as a child attending a private religious elementary school and being made to wait with his classmates to be served lunch each day at the local public school.

Yet, many in this area of enduring natural beauty and resources, in this bastion of cultural heritage and traditions, are working from both sides of the racial divide to educate and promote understanding of the unequal footing which affects members of all races so differently.

Historical trauma has become a buzzword, here and nationally, as conferences concerning a condition most commonly attributed to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust are held increasingly across the U.S. Speakers there describe the toll of hundreds of years of governmental policies to assimilate or alternatively destroy the varied indigenous cultures of this land – some 500 strong – during the establishment of the dominant culture’s current status on the continent.

Bemidji State University has hosted two sessions to describe the affects of the intergenerational trauma, the enthusiasm for such knowledge evidenced by the more than 600 participants who attended the first one last fall. Many of those there struggle daily in their families with the very real ramifications of those policies. All of us, inescapably, live in the wake of those traumas and struggles.

A group called Shared Visions has recently put itself into the fray to engender greater understanding of our reality. An off-shoot of the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council, the grassroots organization recently completed a comprehensive study on perception

s of race relations with telephone, online, and personal surveys as well as four panel discussions facilitated by the Wilder Institute with Native and white citizens in Bemidji and those residing on the three area reservations.

“We hope to be a catalyst to get the whole community involved,” said Shared Visions chair Carolyn Jacobs, noting an early success with getting a local coffee shop to include Anishinaabe Ojibwe signage on its doors as well as on the tables inside. “It’s symbolic, but it’s a first step to mak(ing) Bemidji a more welcoming place.”

Strong voices were heard at the meeting last week for keeping education, not just familiarity, at the forefront in the solution for racial equality. A professor at Leech Lake Tribal College and former mayor of nearby Cass Lake touted the need for grassroots efforts like the consortium that brought a federal Weed and Seed grant to her city to help quell a trend of increased violence born of years of poverty, racial tensions and inequity.

More importantly, however, is an understanding of the history that fostered today’s social ills.

“(Recognition of) culture and spirituality. . .that’s wonderful,” she said. “(But) what needs to be taught in school is history. History is tied to poverty, mental health, substance abuse.”

Many around the table last week agreed. Members of Leech Lake’s tribal attorney’s office described the need to educate public defenders, prosecutors, judges and front line patrol officers on Native citizens’ unique citizenship status. With that knowledge could come the understanding of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system in addressing the needs of the original inhabitants of this land.

“Part of our problem is that no one takes the time to learn what our rights are,” said tribal attorney Frank Bibeau. He cited a change of policy in Wisconsin that grew out of the ugly and violent fights over treaty rights some years ago. “I think they saw it as a blemish on their entire state.”

Today the Native History Act put in place by that state’s legislature requires an annual meeting for all public school teachers to re-learn how to teach a balanced and accurate depiction of history. In Minnesota, it has been suggested that some of the ramifications of “Minnesota Nice” get in the way of a shared understanding of history and the realities of the current racial climate.

In The Sun magazine’s July interview, author Tim Wise (Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male; White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son) suggests that in celebrating diversity, issues of racism often get lost. Wise described a visit he made to speak on diversity at a Minnesota university on “Diversity Day”. The contingent of “white students who picked me up insisted that there was no real racism on campus (because) they had a policy of ‘Minnesota Nice’, which meant you treated people the way you wanted to be treated.”

However, the students of color he spoke to said the policy operated in reality to quiet complaints, so “if they wanted to challenge discrimination or injustice, they were going to viewed as instigators who were creating an issue where there wasn’t one.” Wise, who lives and grew up in the South, goes on to say, that “until society changes privilege will be there regardless of whether or not you’re aware of it. . .One thing I can say about the South is that Southerners know race is an issue, and that’s half the battle. . .it is a subject that were used to talking about.”

Perhaps one of the best actions we can take to combat the injustice of racism, Wise suggests, is resolve to look for it. That, it would seem, is exactly what the RJP is doing.

The solutions offered at last week’s DOJ meeting were many and diverse. Some pushed for reform from the top with legislative help through discussion participants Sen. Mary Olson, and state representative John Persell, or a position paper from the U.S. Attorney to assist prosecutors and judges who wish to derail miscarriages of justice when they appear in the courtroom.

Others insisted on a seat for victims of perceived discrimination or racial profiling at the policy table to insure that ground-level concerns are met. Still others demanded external investigations of complaints, along with a more open and fair complaint reporting process, and more aggressive prosecution of officers found to have abused their power, rather than simply internal reassignment or disciplining.

Bergeron stopped short of committing his office to taking the lead on reforming local systems, but the influence of the DOJ’s participation in the process was promising. He was clear on his power to get representatives of law enforcement agencies to the table and had already scoped out a meeting of sheriff’s throughout the seven county region for early in August. From there, participation from judges, prosecutors and patrol officers in both tribal and county arenas will be necessary.

“They have to school up into this whole initiative we’re trying to do,” he said.

Bergeron also commended the ACLU on its work. As to its reputation for antagonism in the eyes of law enforcement, he commented that if it hadn’t been for the ACLU and the NAACP, countless people over the past decades would have had no redress for violations of their civil rights.

And if it hadn’t been for the efforts of Thayer and the dedicated crew at the RJP, we all might not have this opportunity to heal the racial divisions of the past – a move we increasingly must make to forge a viable future, informed with the collective wisdom of the human race.

That much is clear, from where we stand at the top of our rapidly shrinking planet.