Black Americans and African immigrants, at times divided, see opportunities to work together

By: - May 10, 2021 7:30 am

Rep. Rena Moran (left) and Minneapolis City Council Member Jamal Osman (right). Photos by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

After a year when two unarmed Black men were killed by police and Black communities suffered the brunt of the pandemic, the recession and a rise in violent crime, never before has solidarity been more important for Black Minnesotans. Whether they are descended from enslaved Africans or newer arrivals escaping war and civil chaos in Somalia and other parts of the continent. 

The data on the circumstances of Black life in Minnesota have grown especially bleak during a year when the pandemic created a newfound health and economic crisis. 

Black unemployment is near 9%

Disproportionate numbers of Black Minnesotans have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of infection and hospitalization. About 8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota are among Black people, although roughly 6% of the state’s population is Black. More than 11% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have been Black.

And Black Minnesotans of all origins are concerned about how a police stop for a minor infraction may end, as was so brutally illustrated by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd and the recent killing of Daunte Wright. One in five Minnesotans killed by police since 2013 were Black, according to data from Mapping Police Violence.

“We’re all Black,” said state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, who as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee is one of the Legislature’s two chief budget writers. “When they see a Black person they don’t know if you’re African-American or Liberian or Somali. All they see is your black skin. Your children can and will have those same encounters,” she said. 

Standing in the way of solidarity, however, is a rich and complicated history between African immigrants and those whose ancestors have been here much longer.

Veteran Black activist Al Flowers is complimentary about Somali-American solidarity, “They know how to come together whether they agree with each other, so that the whole group has power,” he said. 

But it’s a backhanded compliment that reveals the tension between the two groups: “(Somalis) have never looked out for anybody but their community. I have seen nothing they advocate for any other group,” he said. 

Incidents have arisen between Black and Somali-American students in schools, most infamously a brawl at Minneapolis’ South High School in 2013 that made local and national news. The 300-person, 15-minute row was reportedly the result of tension between Somali-American and Black students.

Minneapolis City Councilman Jamal Osman said he still remembers attending Arlington High School in St. Paul’s north end, which at the time he estimated was greater than 90% African-American and Asian-American and about 5% Somali-American. “It was challenging. We used to get picked on,” said Osman, who arrived in the United States from Somalia as a teenager who didn’t speak English. 

Now, Osman is in the vanguard of new Somali-American leaders who observers say benefit from the stronger unity of the Somali-American community.  

Alicia D. Smith, executive director at Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, said Osman’s Ward 6 seat in Cedar-Riverside has been “held by a Somali sister or brother the last several years. And oftentimes is seen as being a seat for someone from that community.” 

Housing shortage opens wounds

The most significant point of conflict, however, according to interviews with Minnesotans in both communities, is affordable housing, a steadily decreasing commodity. 

As the Minneapolis 2040 plan noted, more than half of Black households are what’s called “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than one-third of their income on rent. 

“For households of color that are renters that means there are few, if any, housing units that are affordable,” the city noted. 

The perception in the Black community is that Somali-Americans and other East Africans have snapped up affordable units, while African-Americans whose descendants have been here longer face worse prospects. 

Smith of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization says public housing in the Twin Cities is geared toward Somali-Americans at the expense of everyone else. 

“There is preferential treatment in terms of who gets placed in certain public housing units,” she said. “You will see systems and services and processes lifting those brothers and sisters up and continuing to disregard African-American descendants of the slaves. We continue to see some of the worst disparities there are.”

African-American Minnesotans have long memories about what happened at East Village Apartments in Elliot Park, for instance. 

In the early 2000s ramshackle buildings where crack smoking and sex traffic were common were demolished. 

East Village went up in its place, filled with upscale tenants. African-Americans believed Somali-Americans got the collective jump on the affordable, subsidized portion of vacancies.

Jeff Horwich, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said in a statement that there’s no favorable treatment for any racial or ethnic group. 

“MPHA evaluates all applications based solely upon income (need), senior and/or disability status, and the order in which they are received,” he said. 

Even the subject of the housing authority and its leadership are now a point of conflict between the two communities. Since last year, the commissioner of the MPHA is Abdi Warsame, the recently departed city council member. As Sahan Journal wrote of his tenure, “Some of his non-Somali constituents accused him of giving preference to his Somali community.”

The Black activist Flowers said flatly, “Abdi Warsame (being) head of the Housing Authority is not good news for us. We have to watch Abdi Warsame.”

Warsame declined an interview request.

Osman pointed out that the disadvantages faced by African immigrants are often even greater, despite the claims that they are recipients of freebies. 

“People came here and had all kinds of barriers: Language, education, culture. But they are hungry for opportunity because they came from countries where there was no public education, or even libraries,” he said. 

Osman said the perception that East African immigrants are unfairly benefiting from government programs may arise from the community’s collaborative spirit, in which they help family, friends and neighbors seize opportunities.

“We have a collective culture. We help each other,” he said. He gave an example of the unspoken bonds: “If I see a stranger, a Somali person in Brainerd or Wisconsin, I will talk to that person and we have that connection.”  

Resegregation of the suburbs

As housing shortages have beset the Twin Cities, African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved have tended to move to inner ring suburbs, creating a still new pattern of segregation in places like Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Fridley, Columbia Heights and other northern suburbs. 

Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, said this development has not been a good one for Black Minnesotans. “What’s happening in the inner suburbs is that they are re-segregating. As they (do so), they create dual market housing (where) Black people don’t live in cheap housing. They pay high rents. In dilapidated units. That’s the sad part about segregation,” he said. “African-Americans suffer really severe housing discrimination. There’s not a ton of places they can live and those places they can live charge a premium.” 

This is the end result of a system that claims to be separate but equal: “When you create a dual system, the system for Blacks is always rotten,” Orfield said. 

The paradox is that for whatever benefit East Africans are gaining from affordable housing, their children are losing out by attending segregated schools, Orfield said. 

He cited evidence that Somali children living in Cedar-Riverside were struggling in school and coming up against the criminal justice system. 

By contrast, Somali-American kids in the integrated suburb of Eden Prairie were doing much better.  

In other words, the best chance for all Minnesotans with any African ancestry is to join together and end the systemic racism that is damaging both newer arrivals and those whose ancestors were brought here enslaved. 

Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins called the division “a false barrier between the two groups that inherently have African blood in common.” 

She added: “We have to work hard to overcome (that) and recognize that we’re fighting the same enemy, which benefits from keeping communities separate as opposed to working together.”

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