Racial disparity runs deep; work toward equity has begunRacial disparity is broad, systemic, historic and persistent in Duluth, but an array of efforts are under way to bring more equity to people of color.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Racial disparity is broad, systemic, historic and persistent in Duluth, but an array of efforts are under way to bring more equity to people of color.
That was the message Thursday night at Duluth’s Peace Church as about 150 community leaders, organizers and officials gathered to compare notes and continue the push to reduce race disparities.
The event was part of the monthly People’s Summit: A Big View Community Conversation series sponsored by Community Action Duluth. It included overviews on efforts to boost high school graduation rates for minorities, reduce the number of juveniles in detention facilities, reduce pretrial incarceration rates, increase access to housing and health care, and improve relations between police and people of color.
“The public gets this information piecemeal, over time, so they see all these ‘little’ race issues,” said Bob Grytdahl, the city’s human rights officer. “This kind of event brings it together for a bigger picture that shows there isn’t any place where there is racial equality. The disparity is in our prisons, our schools, our health-care system, in income … it’s everywhere.”
Integration specialists for the Duluth school district talked about a four-pronged effort to increase on-time graduation for people of color, now sitting at 34 percent for Indians and 49 percent for blacks compared to 80 percent for white students. The newest effort centers on involving parents, improving behavior, bolstering grades and better attendance – even if the specialists have to go to students’ homes to haul them into class.
“If our youth are not performing well, our economy is not going to lift up,” said Nandini Bhowmick, who is analyzing Duluth schools’ achievement gaps between whites and people of color and who called the graduation rate of minorities “alarmingly low.”
Others said the current disparities are rooted in larger, deeper problems that have not been solved as some might believe.
“Racial disparities exist because of historic exclusion,” said Julia Cheng of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial board, noting that problems of today have their roots in long-term racism and policies. One success, Cheng noted, is that the story of the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie lynchings of 1920 now is being taught as part of curriculum in Duluth schools.
Claudie Washington, director of the Duluth NAACP, said universities need to teach teachers about minority history. Without studying and understanding the history behind the disparity between whites and people of color, “then nothing changes.”
Fred Friedman, chief public defender for Northeastern Minnesota, noted St. Louis County has one of four national grants from the American Bar Association to reduce the number of people awaiting trial who remain stuck in jail.
“These are people who are presumed innocent. This is all pretrial,” Friedman said. “The problem is, in Minnesota, we’ve turned over the keys to our jailhouses to the bail-bondsmen. ... It’s not a matter of guilt or innocence. It’s whether you can afford a bond. White people, too, but especially for people of color.”
Grytdahl, the city’s human rights officer and a former police officer, has for more than five years worked with a task force to create a citizen’s review board to field complaints and questions from the community on actions of Duluth police. The effort was spurred by charges of abuse of an Indian during an arrest. But Grytdahl said progress has been made, and an ordinance creating that citizens board could be going to the City Council within months.
“This race toward peace and justice is not given to be swift,” said Sharon Witherspoon a community activist. “It is given to all of us who endure to the end.”
Meanwhile Thursday, officials with the Un-Fair campaign said their one-month contract for billboards across Duluth has ended and that the billboards are now down. Ellen O’Neill, executive director of the Duluth YWCA, a partner in the group, said a new billboard campaign with a different message on racism is being considered for later this year but hasn’t been decided.