To a white boy headed to the lake on vacation with his family, Bemidji, Minnesota, was an idyllic place. Every summer, year after year, our family would pick up groceries (and sometimes fishing lures) there on the way to a private cabin on a lake north of town. The cabin owner, a businessman from Sioux City, Iowa, had started renting it out to my parents in the early 60s as a service to the church, putting the pleasures of a vacation Up North within reach of an underpaid pastor.
The city stretching out along the big blue lake was beautiful and filled with simple wonders. The most iconic sites were the signature WPA era statues of the mythological Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The visitors’ center nearby featured a fireplace inlaid with stones from all fifty states, seemingly emphasizing the All American imprimatur of the place. The adjoining amusement park didn’t hurt, either. Not far away stood a statue of Chief Bemidji (perhaps or perhaps not a real historical figure), overlooking the waterfront, and an Art Deco movie theater (later converted to other uses) also bore The Chief’s name.
Though I recall seeing Native American people in Bemidji, where nearly one in five people is Native, it never really registered with me how starkly different their perception of social reality might be from mine. As James and Nadine Addington later taught me, being white means not having to think about it. Not having to think about institutional, structural, systemic racism, of the privileges I am afforded in society simply because I'm white. I noticed, for example, that Native Americans had a different type of license plates on their vehicles, and my father probably explained to me that Minnesota’s three largest Indian reservations — Leech Lake, Red Lake, and White Earth — were all nearby. But I was oblivious to the fact that these different plates made racial profiling on traffic stops that much easier.
Slavery may be America’s original sin, but the confinement of Native peoples to reservations is no less so. For decades, the supposed sovereign status of the tribes was little more than a hypocritical fiction. Today, the rise of gambling casinos on reservations has made some tribes with easy access to urban areas wealthy. Yet the reality is that for most Native people the downward pull of decades of economic deprivation and racism keep them caught in a cycle of abuse, suicide, murder, accidents, and other ills — often alcohol-related.
Civic leaders in Bemidji and elsewhere in northern Minnesota have begun to grapple head-on with many of these issues. In 1999, data showed that in Cass County, which borders the Leech Lake Reservation, Native people made up about 11 percent of the population, but accounted for over half of the arrests. By 2003, figures like these hade come to the attention of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU set up a field office in Bemidji to monitor the justice system in the surrounding 7-county area. This effort included hiring an educator and activist named Audrey Thayer to conduct civil rights education in the community for all races.
Five years later, the results, as one might expect, remain a work in progress. The percentage of the jail population that is Native American has gone down from 80 percent to 45 percent in the seven-county area. But many tensions and charges of racial profiling remain. In the fall of 2007, the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council and a community development group called Bemidji Leads collaborated to form Shared Vision, a task force dedicated to improving mutual understanding between Indian and non-Indian communities.
Shared Vision commissioned a professional survey, conducted by the Wilder Foundation of St. Paul, which documented a daunting racial divide. Of those who responded, 71 percent of white people saw the Bemidji area as a community welcoming to everyone, but nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of the Native people living in the Bemidji area did not. The percentage of Native people living on the nearby Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth reservations who thought Bemidji was not welcoming was even higher, at 88 percent.
As Lenin said in quite another context, What Is To Be Done? The task is not merely to eliminate bias within the criminal justice system. As challenging and unfinished as that is, it does not fully account for the disproportionate impact the system has on people of color. It’s not just race — it’s also about class, intertwined with race, and race as a structural privilege, not primarily a personal prejudice. Attorneys and justice system personnel can be trained about improper bias until the men and women in blue are blue in the face, but the results are likely to remain limited without a commitment to economic justice and to dismantling the deep roots of institutional racism in the community.
In the long run, in a global economy, the continued economic development we’re counting on depends on overcoming the legacy of racism. As Jim Addington says in his Dismantling Racism seminars, the human race is one family. We all come from the same earth, even if we don't all look the same or pray to the same God. Stimulus package or no stimulus package, it’s hard to get much work done, or find customers for our products, if we’re fighting with each other or (even unconsciously) holding each other down.
Brecht didn’t get it quite right when he said “feed the face first, then talk of right and wrong.” In a country in which 1 in 50 children is homeless and 1 in every 8 black males in their twenties is in prison or jail, we need to feed the face AND talk of right and wrong. A working lunch, to which all people are invited, where the privileged are prepared to give up their unearned perks.