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Minnesota Legislature

House kicks off series of hearings on racial justice issues

House Photography file photo

Especially in the areas of education, health, housing and public safety, a common refrain during legislative hearings is that Minnesota has some of the worst — if not the worst — racial disparities in the country.

A 13-member bipartisan group began Tuesday to delve deeper into the how and why of such inequality as part of the new House Select Committee on Racial Justice.

No action was taken and the select committee is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. the next four Tuesdays and likely develop suggestions for action. The Oct. 13 hearing is to be dedicated to the public sharing personal experiences and recommendations.

“Earlier this year we passed a House resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis … We will finally have a forum where we can deep dive into the impacts on Black, Indigenous and people of color,” Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) said while previewing the first hearing.

”The work we are about to embark upon is personal to me as a mother and a grandmother, but more importantly as a Black mother and grandmother,” she continued. “I’ve experienced and witnessed the roadblocks that Black Minnesotans face in accessing quality health care, a great education, public safety that recognizes human and civil rights, finding a place to call home, and the ability to achieve economic prosperity.”

House Select Committee on Racial Justice 9/22/20

Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights), sponsored the racism resolution and co-chairs the select committee.

“While we know we cannot undo over 400 years of systemic racism in a single committee, this committee is an important first step forward,” she said. “… We must have difficult conversations and recognize the conversations are difficult because something is deeply wrong. We must also engage with the community, including engaging with Black, Indigenous and people of color who are closet to the pain of these complex issues.”

“Working in a collaborative and bipartisan way will move our state forward to benefit all Minnesotans. … Minnesota has moved to a national spotlight, and I believe now is the time for us to lead with positive and sustainable solutions,” added Rep. Lisa Demuth (R-Cold Spring).


Racism 101

The first of five meetings focused, in part, on a simple question: What is racism?

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, whose background includes being a family physician, past president of the American Public Health Association and assistant professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, said racism is “a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks that:

  • unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities;
  • unfairly advantages other individuals and communities; and
  • saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

Using examples of where these historically occurred and take place today as institutionalized, personally mediated or internalized racism — including housing, police brutality, teacher devaluation, self-devaluation and hopelessness — Jones provided a call for action, especially in a state reeling by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in police custody.

“If we just say a thing, six months from now we may forget why we said that thing,” she said. “… If we start acting we will not forget why we are acting.”

Maternal-child health mortality and morbidity was also discussed, with Rachel Hardeman noting Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related cause than white mothers and in 2016 the non-Hispanic Black infant mortality was 2.3 times higher than white babies.

“Here in Minnesota, we’re certainly grappling with racial disparities in infant mortality where we see that Black and Indigenous babies are twice as likely to die in that first year of life,” said Hardeman, an associate professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Hardeman is concerned COVID-19 will further affect the disproportionate maternal health equity.

“A lot of clinics and providers have opened their doors again, but there are those who still remain fearful of exposure and aren’t using the clinic or using clinics that are only doing tele-health visits,” she said. “… Relationships and building relationships under care is incredibly important for birthing people of color. It’s really difficult to do that in a virtual space. We also know there’s higher levels of mistrust of the health care system due to structural racism.”

Yet, Hardeman sees hope.

She acknowledges a lot of work needs to be done, but she has never seen this much motivation to address the issue.

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