ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
I am among many white Americans, and a much smaller percentage of Minnesotans, with an actual slave-owning ancestor.
I know of at least one, Welcome Williams Chandler and his wife, Sarah, who “founded” Brown County, deep in the heart of Texas, in the 1850s. He and his truculent Anglo-American Protestant horde displaced Native Americans and Mexican people, killed them when they resisted, and held African-Americans in violent, involuntary bondage. Census records show Chandler owning 1,000 head of cattle, 100 horses and seven slaves.
To protect this dominance that they had secured by force, my ancestors then tried to render our United States asunder. Sarah, the grandmother of my great-grandmother, sewed the first Confederate flag in Brown County.
The descendants of these white tribes, in gradually declining degrees, continued the persecution or benefited from their historic and unfair advantage. Valiant efforts by oppressed groups to persuade white Americans to live by their own sacred founding principles gradually began to take hold. And it was white Yankees and liberals — including Minnesota soldiers at Gettysburg in July 1863 and then a century later through Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale’s leadership in the civil rights movement — who fought to gradually lessen the worst of that oppression and inequality.
Minnesota has hardly been blameless, from Indian treaty violations and the largest mass execution in U.S. history; to a history of anti-Semitism; to the lynchings of blacks in Duluth; to today’s yawning racial gaps in income and wealth, health outcomes and educational attainment.
There can be no doubt that white Minnesotans continue to be advantaged by their race, to the very degree that others in our midst are born and remain disadvantaged. On all the important socioeconomic measurements, adults and children of color in Minnesota lag behind their white sisters and brothers, on average. The gap on some school testing standards is as wide as it is in the Deep South.
The argument that we should not have individual legal culpability or financial liability for the sins of our forefathers, even though those injustices continue to this day, makes some sense. This theory is particularly attractive to those of us with the worst aggressor ancestors.
But the notion that there is zero inherited advantage as a result of those sins, and that we can do little about it, is absurd. If one set of people is disadvantaged, then the others are advantaged. White privilege exists. To borrow a phrase from Bob Dole, “You know it, I know it, and the American people know it.”
We know it but we don’t talk about it, if we can avoid it. We take pride in the fact that an African-American family lives in the White House and that a few people of color have risen to the pinnacles of wealth and power, creating at least an illusion of inclusion. And race and privilege only becomes a white-hot issue in flashes, when Trayvon Martin is killed or when the Amy Senser case raises issues of white privilege in our judicial system.
In this uncomfortable space, Minnesota’s Facing Race initiative, and its Ambassador Awards held last week, fills a vital role. Facing Race, with the sub-theme “We’re all in this together,” promotes research and communications around the subject, conducts training, and holds an annual event recognizing exemplary Minnesota contributors to racial understanding and justice.
This year’s top honorees included Steve Pederson, a white farmer from central Minnesota, and Mahmoud El-Kati, a writer, activist and professor emeritus of history at Macalester College.
Pederson, 43, said he first witnessed racism in the bullying of the few children of color in his elementary school. He was alarmed to see them bullied and treated as “less than” because of the color of their skin. He is inspired by his two adopted children, both African-American, to continue his commitment to anti-racism work. Pederson is a key member of the Diversity Resource Action Alliance in Alexandria and is among many younger state leaders embracing the increasing diversity in rural Minnesota.
El-Kati, 75, maintains a vigorous presence as a writer and commentator on racial justice, and his speech at the awards ceremony was a masterpiece of scholarly erudition and plainspoken bluntness. Among my favorites: “You can’t get past the past, Jack.” And: “Nothing can be solved that can’t be faced … Racism is a public evil that causes private pain.”
More Minnesotans need to get eyeball-to-eyeball with this reality — think about it, talk about it and do everything we can to advance greater equity and true equality of opportunity. We really have no choice. While only 3 percent of our population over the age of 85 are people of color, about 30 percent of our children younger than 5 are nonwhite.
Minnesota by mid-century will look like much more like the world at large. And this new face for Minnesota will be a huge asset and competitive advantage, if we do it right and create a more inclusive and equitable society. If our children of color can reach their full potential, our communities will prosper and all our grandchildren will be better off.
As Pederson told Star Tribune writer Gail Rosenblum, “This is not a zero sum game. With true inclusion, the world looks a lot richer.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the Saint Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, May 2, 2012.