The Naked, White Truth
If we could somehow erase the demographic differences between whites and blacks in the Twin Cities, could a 24-year-old black male expect to have the same chances for success in life as a 24-year-old white male? A report published this month by the Metropolitan Council says no. The report titled Diving Deeper: Understanding Disparities between Black and White Residents in the Twin Cities Regions asserts that,
“If Black residents had the same
- age distribution
- immigration profile
- English skills
- gender balance
- migration pattern
- disability status
- level of education
- share of parents with child(ren) under age 6
as White residents… a 9.3 percentage-point [employment] disparity would remain.”
In other words, even if we erase all these non-racial factors that impact employment rates, a significant disparity would still exist. Also, wages for blacks would still be 15.9% lower than for whites. And a 27.6% disparity in home ownership rates would still exist.
When you hear this, what does it mean to you? Does it mean that systemic racism is real and must be addressed? Or does it mean something else must be going on in lives of black and white residents to explain the difference? I believe your answer (and mine too) has more to do with the color of our skin, than our ability to interpret facts, data, and evidence. Because the color of our skin, and the story of our lives, cannot be separated. And it is the story of our lives that gives meaning to the facts, data, and evidence we encounter every day.
On March 30, 2016, wrapped only in a white towel and my own white skin, I stood for 30 minutes and watched on the locker room TV of my suburban YMCA as another white man, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, methodically explained to us the meaning he made of the 61 seconds before a bullet, fired by a Minneapolis Police Officer, entered the head of 24-year-old black man named Jamar Clark.
In a room full of old naked white guys, it all made sense. It was easy to continue to believe that the life choices of this 24-year-old black man lead up to and caused his death. The police officers involved bore no criminal responsibility for the unfolding of those fateful 61 seconds. I felt assured that a jury seeing the same evidence would clearly come to the same conclusion. No reason to indict. No need for a trial. This was my naked, white, truth.
But standing there, naked, I could not ignore the feeling that the for the older black man quietly getting dressed at the locker behind me, Mike Freeman’s words carried an entirely different meaning.
A KARE 11 article posted later that day quoted Mike Freeman as saying, “In this case Ringgenberg subjectively believed that Clark had or was in the process of obtaining control of his weapon and that were Clark able to remove the weapon from its holster, both Ringgenberg and Schwarze would likely be shot.” Even the man responsible for pronouncing the official truth of why Jamar Clark died acknowledges the subjective nature of the facts that support that truth.
As a workforce and career development consultant, I’ve come to believe that white and black Minnesotans, for the most part, inhabit different stories. But these stories don’t break along simple racial lines. In conjunction with race, economic status (the amount of money you have) and cultural identity (expressed as learned and internalized social habits) define the gap between black and white Minnesotans. This is why it seemed completely ordinary for my wife and I to have dinner last weekend at the home of her college roommate, because regardless of fact that around the table we had three black people and three white people, we all, more or less, inhabit the same cultural and economic story.
As I see it, our real problems with race in Minnesota come up whenever characters from stories across the socio-racial-economic divide collide. Like when a freeway gets shut down because a demonstrably and measurably oppressed group demands justice. Or a 24-year-old black man raised in a poor neighborhood in North Minneapolis, who looks perfect on paper, doesn’t get the job because another candidate (perhaps also black, but from a suburban middle class family) seems like a “better cultural fit.” Or when a 24-year-old black man fails to remember his mother’s lessons from his childhood on what to do when the police show up and takes a bullet to the head.
This too is a naked, white truth: in story after story, from education, to jobs, to housing, to policing, to justice, in Minnesota, your chances of success are better if you are white. Until white Minnesotans endeavor to make new stories together with people from across the socio-racial-economic divide in our homes, our schools, our churches, our places of employment, we will never solve the problem of racial disparities in Minnesota.