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Select committee report: Bring a racial justice lens to legislation

After George Floyd died in police custody on a Minneapolis street last Memorial Day, a worldwide conversation emerged and has continued since. The subject is race and its place in how individuals and governments make decisions.

House members engaged in that discussion crafted a resolution that was adopted during a special session last July. It declared racism to be a public health crisis affecting all Minnesotans, and authorized a House Select Committee on Racial Justice.

On Monday, that select committee’s final report was reviewed by the House Ways and Means Committee. It’s a detailed document that identifies ways in which systemic racism has shaped the state’s communities and its policies, and makes dozens of recommendations about how to reduce its impacts.

The co-chair of the select committee is also the Ways and Means chair, Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul). She presented a report summary to the latter, launching a process of looking at the work of various committees through a racial justice lens.

One could say that the report was inspired by “the Minnesota paradox.” In short, statistics underline that – while overall quality of life is high in the state – wide disparities exist between the life experiences of Minnesotans of color and white people. The select committee report highlights a history of “government-sanctioned policies and practices that facilitate an unequal playing field.”

For example, an excerpt from a Twin Cities Public Television documentary was shown that explained how federal housing policy has traditionally ascribed lower property values to homes in neighborhoods with residents of color.

A key framing device for the report is that “racial equity is a lens through which we can view all policy and budget decisions.” The report makes a distinction between equality and equity, saying, “Equality means providing every person with the same things to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equity is understanding and providing what each person needs to enjoy full, healthy lives.”

While both models promote fairness and justice, “equality only succeeds if everyone starts with the same opportunities.” The report identifies “justice” as “fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities.”

In economic terms, the report concludes that racial disparities create a $287 billion wealth gap for BIPOC Minnesotans (Black, Indigenous and people of color). As an example, the report says the median family income for a Black family in the Twin Cities is $38,178; for a white family it’s $84,459.

In the end, the report speaks more of reframing the conversation than creating “a checklist to end systemic racism.” Among its conclusions: “Improving racial equity is a perpetual goal, not a one-and-done solution.”

“It is my expectation that chairs will take the lead on this in their various committees in bringing an equity lens,” Moran said. “For we have huge disparities and this pandemic has done nothing but exacerbate those disparities.”

Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) asked a series of questions about the degree to which the lens of racial justice could be applied to legislation. He asked, for example, how it would enter into a discussion of a new freeway overpass in his district. Moran replied that it could if the project disproportionately affected a minority community.

With the pandemic being a legislative priority, Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Mpls) asked how the select committee’s recommendations fit into that conversation.

“We have to be intentional about the vaccination process,” Moran replied. “For many in our community, they don’t always trust governments, but do trust some media within their communities. It is up to us to build relationships through those media outlets.”

“In the 21st century, racial equity is going to increasingly be one of those vital core questions that we need to be asking in public policy,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul). “It offers us an opportunity to improve our quality of service. It’s essential to modernizing our effectiveness as a Legislature.”

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