Nekima Levy-Pounds on race relations in Minnesota

Law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds
University of St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds called on racial-justice advocates in St. Paul to keep raising awareness about Minnesota's racial disparities at a Feb. 18, 2015, event.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

In a time when race relations capture headlines month after month, law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds has been a leading voice for civil rights and a critic of the status quo in Minnesota.

She runs an award-winning legal clinic at the University of St. Thomas law school. She'll also be in court next week, as one of the people charged with leading the Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America in December.

She talked with Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer about her increasingly high-profile effort to bring change to Minnesota.

Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.

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Why are you putting yourself out there as a force for change?

I have been active in the field of civil rights for a number of years. That's the reason that I went to law school — to fight for justice. It had a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in an inner city community in South Central Los Angeles. And I saw people's rights being violated on a regular basis because they were poor and because they didn't have political capital and they didn't have a voice in society. So as a kid, seeing the travesty of justice that existed in my community and the impact of people living on the margins, I decided at 9 years old that I wanted to be an attorney.

Why are African-American women like you taking a higher profile role in the debate over civil rights in Minnesota?

As an African-American woman, we bear the brunt of unfair and unjust laws and policies when we see our fathers, our husbands, our brothers and our sons being impacted by the criminal justice system and being impacted by biased policing. So as a mother of African-American sons, I recognize that I have a responsibility to speak truth to power and to advocate for justice.

You're a law professor and mother. Do you experience this disparity firsthand?

I attended a business circle event at the Guthrie, and that event consisted of Mayor Betsy Hodges giving a presentation on equity in the city. And so prior to the event, there was a reception. I was at that reception, I sat in the corner, away from most people. I had a lot of people come over to that area. Well, several of the people, maybe three or four were African-American. That gave me the sense that there was racial diversity in the room. But once we moved into the auditorium, and I looked around, I realized that those three or four African-Americans who had approached me were the only other people of color in the room, besides myself. I could not believe it, given the conversation was about equity. I said how can we dare have a conversation about racial equity in the city of Minneapolis, and there are four or five people of color in the room.

You are a mom. How do you talk to your kids about these issues?

One of my sons, he is 12 years old, his name is actually Trayvon. When the death of Trayvon Martin happened, we had to have some serious conversations that really hit home. You know, to be calling my son Trayvon every day, and then thinking about a slain 17 year old who should not have had to die under those circumstances. I talk to them about some of the dangers they are going to encounter because they are young African-American men. And unfortunately for African-American boys, their innocence is lost all too soon within society. They're typically not seen as boys. They are seen as men, from the time they are 11 or 12 years old. I think society has a preoccupation with the black man as criminal. And that scares me as a mom to think that the innocence of my children could be lost because we have never solved the race question in this country. So not only have I talked to them about how to interact with the police, even when we go into department stores, I have to pull them aside and tell them keep your hands to yourself and stay close to me.

But can you have hope that things will change?

I'm cautiously optimistic. I have been studying this question of race, particularly with regard to interactions between African-Americans and whites since I was a kid. I think in many ways, race relations have become worse in this country, primarily because to many people feel that we are living in a post-racial society. And that misperception has cost us a great deal, because it makes it difficult when you have patterns and practices of discrimination to be able to shine a light on those issues, when people have the perception that we are beyond race.

What do you think is at the root of the disparities you see in Minnesota?

There are two Minnesotas, one black, one white, both separate and unequal. The Department of Justice has looked very intently at the practices that were happening in Ferguson, and they found extreme patterns and practices of discrimination. Well, I would argue that if the DOJ came here, to the Twin Cities, and they actually exercised due diligence and did a thorough analysis of how our police systems operate, they would find very similar disparities.

Your public profile is growing, and people often say to really bring change, they have to have some authority to run for office. Do you think you will run?

I usually tell people if God himself called me into public office, then I would run. And I would have to know, "OK, God, that's you," in order for me to do that. But I would not surprised if at some point in the future I was called into that arena, not because of my own desires to do that, but because of necessity.