Chauvin is guilty, and now the real work begins | Column

Rev. Lawrence Richardson of the Linden Hills United Church of Christ (right), offers comfort to Rev. Jia Starr Brown of First Covenant Church (left) at George Floyd Square. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

While expressing joy that a jury had declared that the life of George Floyd mattered, the Rev. Lawrence Richardson of Linden Hills United Church of Christ said it was just a beginning: “I feel like we can finally start doing the work that we need to do.” 

And we have a lot of work to do.

By now you probably know the numbers, but let’s review just in case, with a hat tip to Reformer reporter Rilyn Eischens: 

  • The gap in poverty rates between white and Black Minnesotans is the fourth worst in the nation. 
  • The gap in income between white and Black Minnesotans is the third worst in the nation. 
  • More than half of Black renters are what’s known as “cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than one third of their income in rent. 

Nor are Black Minnesotans able to afford to buy homes. In fact, in our largest city, the Black home ownership rate is just 22%, half the national rate of Black homeownership.

On the criminal justice front, consider this for disparate treatment: An ACLU report found that Black Minnesotans were five-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents. 

Do you think Black people are five-and-a-half times more likely to smoke marijuana than white Minnesotans?

Our education disparities are well known: We have some of the nation’s best schools — for white kids. 

This is particularly distressing if you examine the composition of our student body, which is the future of the North Star State: About 35% of Minnesota students come from communities of color, growing about 1 percentage point per year. 

“We don’t have a choice about diversity. We do have a choice about inclusivity — and that requires action,” Tawanna Black told me last week. She’s the CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion, which she founded here in 2017, as well as a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

I asked Black and Jaboa Lake, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, what we can do to address these disparities, which have only worsened with the pandemic. 

Start with housing. Unstable housing causes immense family distress and catalyzes other crises. Children who move around don’t have the same chance to learn as kids in stable homes. Unstable housing also makes it harder to hold down a steady job. And if you move around a lot, you’re less able to become a participating member of a community.   

“Housing vouchers are life saving for so many people,” Lake said. Housing vouchers cap rent at 30% of income, with the federal government kicking in the rest. But there’s a long wait list. Eliminate it. Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, has proposed doing so. This would cost about $1.1 billion per year, which is about 4% of the state budget. Builders and landlords would benefit immensely from this subsidy, so they can help pay for it. 

We should also build more affordable housing and do it everywhere, not just in the Twin Cities. Doing so would help desegregate our suburbs, and with it, our schools. Affordable housing in high growth suburbs would give people access to good jobs.

On that front, Black cited a recent McKinsey & Company report showing that the yawning wage gap between Black and white workers is concentrated in just a few industries — just 20 occupations and fewer than 4% of all jobs account for more than 60% of the aggregate wage gap.

In other words, if we work to get Black Minnesotans into these higher paying jobs, then we can make big strides when it comes to the wage gap. 

She’s advocating for a venture fund that would identify promising Black-owned businesses and help them grow.  

The status quo, Black told me, is “hurting the entire economy because we continue to be OK with too many Black people in low wage jobs.” 

Besides stable housing near good jobs, Black mentioned two other obstacles to higher wage industries and jobs: transportation and child care.

We could have fare-free transit in the metro area for $100 million, or about 22% of Metro Transit’s budget, according to 2020 reporting in the Star Tribune. That’s less than one half of 1% of the state budget. 

But we’d also need to continue to build the system out so people don’t have to take two buses and 90 minutes each way to get to a higher paying job. 

For some perspective: A few years ago Minnesota spent $235 million for a bridge on the Iron Range.

When it comes to child care, Minnesota has some of the highest costs in the country, especially infant care, according to a 2017 report by Child Care Aware. Funding high quality child care and early education is a win for parents and children both, and the long-term benefits are huge. 

(I’ll talk about education and criminal justice in future columns.)

The child care crisis is perhaps even more acute in greater Minnesota, so this spending would help everyone. And that’s the great thing about spending on housing vouchers and transportation in greater Minnesota, too: Everyone would benefit in nearly every ZIP code in the state. 

I called Richardson, the United Church of Christ pastor, and asked him what he’d be saying Sunday, just days after a historic moment of the first white police officer in Minnesota being held accountable for killing a Black man. He celebrated at George Floyd Square, even as he said the work could only now just begin. 

He told me he would preach John 10:11-18, in which Jesus proclaims that he’s the good shepherd. 

Being a good shepherd is “risky and daring,” like the pursuit of justice, he told me. 

“The process won’t be easy, but it’s so necessary so we can get to the other side and be the more beloved community I know we can be.”

J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.