Fliers promoting a series of discussions for Minneapolis city staffers on the 400th anniversary of slavery in North America — the sessions to be segregated by race for black and white city workers — have been taken down at City Hall after officials decided to cancel the events, at least for now.
The lunch-hour sessions, called sacred conversations, were scheduled to begin last Thursday, with “Black Bodied Staff” meeting in one building and “White Bodied Staff” meeting in another.
City Coordinator Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde issued a statement indicating she had called off the sessions but that they would be rescheduled. It was unclear Tuesday when that would happen.
“It came to my attention … that sessions had been promoted publicly in a way the city does not condone, as we cannot nor will we divide people based on race, ethnicity or any other protected class,” Rivera-Vandermyde wrote.
Bearing the heading “400 Years of Resistance and Liberation/Remembering, Recovering, Reimagining,” the fliers drew attacks on the city’s Race and Equity Division, according to a post under a social media account for division director Joy Marsh Stephens, who lamented the “unfair mischaracterization” of the sessions.
Others at City Hall distanced themselves from the notion of segregated conversations, which were intended to help staffers “discuss how they relate to the enslavement, resistance, and continual push for liberation for African-American people.”
Asked whether he had planned to participate, Mayor Jacob Frey’s office issued a brief statement: “This was a staff-led project housed in the [city] coordinator’s office. The idea did not originate in our office or with the mayor.”
Minneapolis Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel, who wasn’t involved in the planning, said the discussions were meant to be part of a long-running effort to address racial equity in city government and services such as development, transportation and housing.
“It was never our intent to exclude or marginalize anybody in the city,” she said. “What’s lost is the understanding that not everybody is in the same place in these issues.”
Steven Belton, Minneapolis Urban League President and CEO, said he believed that separate sessions for black and white people would be productive. Belton, the husband of Sharon Sayles Belton, Minneapolis’ first female and black mayor, said race was the issue of the 21st century, paraphrasing Malcolm X.
“If we’re honest about our personal experiences, we talk differently when we’re in the room with people that look like us,” he said.
But Mitch Pearlstein, founder and senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, called the sessions another example of the absurdity of “identity politics” in Minneapolis.
“I rarely have confidence discussions about race will be productive,” he said, adding that he believes discussions usually result in people who agree getting a room and saying the same things to each other.
“Most likely people who might offer unorthodox views don’t show up,” he said.
As to the notion of separate rooms for black and white staffers, Pearlstein said that someone would “have to go well out of your way to find something that open to parody.”
A difficult conversation
The sessions, three in all for each race scheduled into July, were to be led by the city’s racial equity coordinators, according to the fliers.
Each one-hour session was to have a theme: Thursday’s was to be “remembering who we are,” the one on June 27 was designated as “recovering our narratives of oppression and liberation,” and the July 25 session was on “re-imaging a future without harm.” The sessions for black and white staffers were to be held at the same time but in different places.
Council Member Andrea Jenkins said that while she hadn’t planned to attend Thursday’s session, she supported engaging city staffers in discussions about racial divisions.
Jenkins, who is black, said she saw it as “trying to create a space for city employees dealing with emotional trauma from a number of recent events and the realities of being black” in the public sector, such as the conviction of former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor for shooting an unarmed white woman.
“We’ve had lots of police shootings and only one officer has been charged and convicted, and he happens to be black,” Jenkins said. On the matter of separating the sessions by race, Jenkins said the experiences of blacks and whites past and present are vastly different. “It’s a really emotional conversation for even me to engage in,” she said.
Several City Council members said they were unaware of the meetings, and Council President Lisa Bender said she wasn’t involved in planning the sessions.
To Minneapolis activist and civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, a frequent critic of police tactics, the sessions look like an attempt by the city to create a safe space for a sensitive conversation.
“I think they mean well but it’s a very deep, difficult conversation to have in one-hour pieces spread over three months,” she said.
Levy Armstrong, who leads workshops on race as a consultant, said a better design for the discussion would be an initial grounding session for everyone, and then breaking into racial groups before bringing everyone back together for a concluding session.
“I don’t think they’re trying to exclude people but they’re focused on the two groups whose ancestry is affected by slavery,” she said, adding that between black and white people, “The level of sensitivity and grief is going to be vastly different.”
Slavery was never legal in Minnesota. Congress prohibited slavery in 1787 in the Northwest Territory, which included parts of what later became Minnesota, and the Minnesota constitution banned slavery when it became a state in 1858. Dred Scott, a Missouri slave, based his famous suit for freedom on the fact that he and his wife had lived with their owner in free territory — at Fort Snelling — for several years.
But Minnesota was not wholly free of the influence of slavery. Slaveholders from the South frequently came north for the summer, and St. Cloud State University historian Christopher Lehman has written that one such vacationing plantation owner contributed thousands of dollars to the fledgling University of Minnesota. One of the most rabid Southern advocates of slavery in the early 1800s, Sen. John Calhoun of South Carolina, became the namesake for Minneapolis’ largest lake when he ordered the erection of Fort Snelling.
Racial inequality long has been an issue in Minneapolis across socio-economic lines. The scheduled Minneapolis sessions were part of an initiative started in late 2017 when the City Council voted to establish the Division of Race and Equity in the city coordinator’s office. Sometime this summer, the City Council is expected to vote on a racial equity plan that focuses on public safety, housing and economic development.
Despite the fact that the sessions have been canceled for now, Levy Armstrong called them “a good effort. I’m glad that someone is even broaching this at City Hall.”
Belton said he saw the decision to have the discussions as courageous, and the subsequent canceling of them “quintessentially bureaucratic and frankly stupid.”
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