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Duluth NAACP President's View: Northland falling short on making real changes

From the column: "Throughout the past year, the Duluth NAACP worked to enact very real changes in the region, particularly in areas of law enforcement, health equity, and education."

MLK editorial cartoon
Guy Parsons/Cagle Cartoons

As I write, communities across the country are preparing to celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At the same time, I end my first year as president of the Duluth NAACP. I can’t help but reflect on parallels between our organization’s work and Dr. King’s message.

Too often, remembrances of Dr. King go only as far as recounting his idyllic vision of a free and equal society, with an absurd notion of Black communities suddenly rising up out of discrimination and poverty and being fully welcomed to the table by white society. While he envisioned a world where all are equal, Dr. King also understood that the work is complicated. Justice is about more than just broad actions like ending Jim Crow or desegregating schools. It requires radical changes at all levels of government and society.

Throughout the past year, the Duluth NAACP worked to enact very real changes in the region, particularly in areas of law enforcement, health equity, and education.

First, the high-profile killings of Black people by police over the past decade have brought racial disparities in policing into the public eye. But the issue is not new. In his “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. King repeatedly called out the problem of police brutality against Black people and noted the toll it takes on Black bodies and Black communities. He explained the system itself must be radically transformed if such practices are to end.

Nearly 60 years later, the system remains fundamentally unchanged. In Duluth, the NAACP has been working with the Duluth Police Department to address racial disproportionalities in traffic stops, arrests, incarceration, and use of force. This work has been similarly symbolic, as our local government pays lip service to our demands for justice but has been generally unwilling to enact any real policy change. We need to be impatient with racism.

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Racial disparity in health care is another issue often addressed by Dr. King. In 1967, he declared that, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” He knew that without equitable health care, Black communities would not be able to thrive. Today, racial disparities are still rampant in prenatal care, the treatment of chronic illness, pain management, preventative medicine, and more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention itself explains that the current pandemic “has highlighted that health equity is still not a reality, as COVID-19 has unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.”

Locally, the NAACP has advocated for changes to health care practices in both hospital systems, local medical clinics, and jails and prisons throughout the state. Again, we have seen little effort by these institutions to make any real changes.

Regarding education, Dr. King was clear that token desegregation was not enough. While the optics of Black and white students learning together was appealing, it did not address the underlying discrimination in housing, employment, transportation access, and more that kept Black communities from full engagement in equitable schooling.

The Duluth NAACP recognizes similar problems in our own Twin Ports schools, with glaring racial disparities in academic achievement and behavioral interventions, coupled with persistent inequities in housing, employment, transportation, and political representation. We continue to push for changes to ensure restorative justice practices and to ensure that all schools throughout the district receive equal access to financial and human resources. Once again, we have seen little commitment to make this happen.

In short, Dr. King believed, as we know today, that true equality can only be achieved through deep and transformative social change. Our nation is literally built on the genocide of Indigenous people and the forced labor of enslaved Africans, which means that surface-level changes are not enough.

Dr. King also believed, as we know today, that the burden is put on the shoulders of oppressed people to transform their own situations. In his final book, he wrote that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” Dr. King also wrote that, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

In that spirit, I implore everyone reading this, particularly white people, to commit to the hard work of making real change in our society — so that Dr. King’s dream may someday come true. It’s not just Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's a commitment.

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Classie Dudley is president of the Duluth Branch of the NAACP. She wrote this at the invitation of the News Tribune Opinion page.

Classie Dudley.jpg
Classie Dudley

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