Minnesota was once on the vanguard of managing social issues such as fair housing practices. But over the years, racial disparities have appeared in indicators such as housing, education and employment. A group of civic and elected leaders meets Friday to work out a strategy on how to deal with the growing problem.
The half-day long conference will focus on recent studies, such as one released by the Minneapolis Foundation, that found that racial minorities lag behind whites when it comes to a host of indicators.
The foundation's "One Minneapolis" report both frustrates and motivates people like Velma Korbel, head of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, which is sponsoring the conference.
"I've lived in this region and worked in the civil rights profession for a number of years, and what was really sort of galvanizing for us here is, for the years we've been working in this business, it doesn't seem to have made a huge difference," Korbel said.
Before she took over as head of the city's civil rights department last year, Korbel served as the state's human rights commissioner. She's spent more than 20 years trying to erase inequality. Korbel said she's seen progress, but it's not enough.
Over the years, Korbel said, local and state governments have cut resources to civil rights programs. But some of the blame rests on the shoulders of people who work in the civil rights field, she said.
"When we introduce new programs and new processes, if we don't see an immediate turnaround we tend to abandon those and try to go to something new," Korbel said. "And I think part of it is our own inability to stick to something that works."
In the '70s and '80s, Minnesota was in the vanguard of fair housing practices. But elected leaders in the '90s became complacent, leading to more segregation.Myron Orfield, University of Minnesota professor
The authors of the Minneapolis Foundation study say the recent recession, high unemployment and housing crisis have hit low income and minority communities hardest. And that has made the task of eliminating racial disparities particularly difficult. The Twin Cities have one of the largest unemployment gaps in the country between black and white residents.
But there are also more entrenched obstacles. For cities like Minneapolis, University of Minnesota professor Myron Orfield said the main problem is segregation. Orfield, who heads the university's Institute on Race and Poverty, said clusters of low income racial minorities tend to perpetuate disparities.
"If people grow up in very disadvantaged neighborhoods that are isolated, really walled off from the rest of the region," Orfield said. "Or they have schools that really aren't connected to higher education or the economy; and when they are products of those schools they don't have much opportunity."
Orfield said in the 1970s and 1980s, Minnesota was in the vanguard of fair housing practices. But in the 1990s, elected leaders became complacent, Orfield said, which lead to more segregation in neighborhoods and schools throughout the metro area.
According to a 2008 report by the institute, between 1992 and 2008, the percentage of white students in segregated schools fell from 87 to 60 percent. At the same time, the percentages of black and Hispanic students attending non-white segregated schools shot up from 14 to 51 percent for black students and from 3 percent to 43 percent for Hispanics.
There's overwhelming research showing that racially and socially diverse communities foster higher student graduation rates, college participation and economic prosperity, Orfield said.
While the research on disparities has gotten the attention of public officials, some community leaders aren't waiting for government to take action.
"I always tell people the best social service program in the world is a job," said Louis King, CEO of Summit Academy, a north Minneapolis vocational training school that school specializes in training African Americans in the construction trades.
King said there are several factors which have created the unemployment gap between black and white city residents, not the least of which is racial discrimination. But King won't sit on the sidelines and complain about racism.
"I'm spending less time focusing on the disparities and more time focusing on creating the environment that is intolerant of the conditions that cause the disparities," he said.
King has criticized government agencies that don't meet minority contracting goals when they build large construction projects. In the past, he's led demonstrations against MnDOT for failing to meet hiring goals mandated by state and federal law.
Organizers of today's conference say they will challenge participants from both the public and private sectors to do what they can to tackle racial disparities.