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Workforce racial disparities challenge Minnesota leaders

Date Published: 01/23/2014

Author: Dane Smith, President


Opposition by many whites to civil rights for blacks, in the South and elsewhere, was based not just on visceral racial bigotry, but on a fundamental misunderstanding of economics and sociology.

In the view of many white farmers and workers, especially those on the lower rungs of society, if you gave your socioeconomic inferiors more opportunity to compete with you, or allowed them the education and resources they needed to catch up, you would lose whatever small advantage you had on that next-to-lowest rung.

Instead, the civil rights revolution lifted all boats and eventually helped a backward South compete economically with the rest of the nation. The book “Sharing the Prize,” a seminal work published last year by Stanford University economist Gavin Wright, documents how civil rights laws and regulations benefited both blacks and whites, unlocking human potential and productivity and contributing significantly to the economic gains of a much more vital “New South” over the last 50 years.

Wright wrote that after the federal Civil Rights Act was implemented and legal apartheid was eliminated in in the southern states, “regional growth generated gains for all major segments of the population. One never observes white wages falling while black wages rise, nor black employment growing at the expense of white jobs. … In other words, the civil rights revolution was not a program of redistribution, but an integration of blacks into the mainstream of a regional economy from which they had long been excluded.”

This lesson, that justice is good for growth, must be top-of-mind in Minnesota as we struggle to close some of the widest racial disparities in the nation on employment and workforce readiness, which are rooted in wide inequality of educational opportunity, achievement and attainment.

Most political leaders are saying the politically correct things for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday this week. But as we reflect throughout 2014 on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we all need to bring pressure on Minnesota policymakers to prioritize racial equity and redouble efforts to reduce disparities from cradle to career for African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asians, who now comprise 30 percent of our preschool population.

The latest call to action on this front comes from the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which recently issued a report on unemployment disparity in Minnesota, with this statement in its executive summary:

“The common thread… is the belief that Minnesota’s unemployment disparity, in which Blacks [in 2010 were] more than three times as likely to be unemployed than their White counterparts, is detrimental to the African American community in particular, and to the current and future regional competitiveness of the State of Minnesota as a whole.”

This is not exactly breaking news. Previous work on this subject includes the Itasca Project report in 2005, produced primarily by business leadership in the state, titled “Mind the Gap.” Then came “Everybody In,” a sweeping report issued by a Ramsey County Blue Ribbon Commission in 2011, documenting disparities and spawning an ongoing collaboration of business, government and nonprofit groups.

Recommendations for closing these gaps are proliferating, and it’s a little daunting to keep track of them. But the Minnesota Advisory Committee’s latest outline of what needs to be done is a good starting menu.

Among the key findings and recommendations:

One, increase support for startups and development of small businesses owned by minorities. As these businesses grow, they are more likely to hire from communities of color, but they need access to capital, business education and training, and broad-based efforts to stimulate entrepreneurialism and growth. Barriers to government contracting need to be overcome.

Two, minority hiring goals of close to 30 percent in the Twin Cities, which reflects the population overall in the urban core, must be set and actually achieved for projects that receive taxpayer subsidies. Previous hiring goals and requirements for public projects have been too low and weakly enforced. Higher goals are being achieved on some major projects and by some major contractors, such as Mortenson Construction and THOR Construction.

Three, many reforms are needed to dismantle a vast array of legal and bureaucratic barriers that discriminate against communities of color because of disproportionate rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction, and adverse credit histories. The collateral damage from these lasting institutional biases is significant and persistent, and we need to move toward expungement or forgiveness of records that serve as racially biased barriers.

The report calls out two outstanding examples of groups that have achieved success in education and vocational training of African American youth and young adults. One is the Minneapolis Urban League, which runs a high school and elementary school, the Gateway to Opportunity Resource Center, and a Labor Education Advancement Program for building and construction trades. The other is the much-admired Summit Academy OIC, which offers high-quality education and training in technical, construction and health care jobs, along with enviable placement and retention rates.

Both those programs are in north Minneapolis’ African-American community, where disparity indicators are among the worst in the state. The percentage of kids of color is growing rapidly in virtually every school district in Minnesota. Our economic future depends on improving their circumstances, and we need to get much more pushy about it with policymakers.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor and chair of the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, quoted the legendary 19th century civil rights leader Frederick Douglass on that point at a panel discussion on race earlier this week.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Douglass said. “It never did and it never will.”

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