The Status of Equal Opportunity for Minorities in Moorhead, Minnesota

Chapter 3

Findings and Recommendations

Opening Comment

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan agency of the federal government charged with studying discrimination or denials of equal protection on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin. State Advisory Committees, such as the Minnesota Advisory Committee, operate in each state to advise the Commission on matters within the jurisdiction of the Commission.

To ensure independence and bipartisanship, State Advisory Committees are constituted to include individuals representing major political parties, a broad spectrum of political philosophies, and different races, religions, and geographic regions of the state. The Minnesota Advisory Committee is also independent of any national, state, or local administration, political organization, or advocacy group.

In the past five years, the Minnesota Advisory Committee has examined a number of race-related issues, including news media stereotyping of minorities; the enforcement of civil rights by local, state, and federal enforcement agencies; equal educational opportunity; and affirmative action. Since all of these studies were conducted in the eastern part of the state, the Minnesota Advisory Committee decided to go to Moorhead to examine race relations in the western part of the state.

In the experience of the Minnesota Advisory Committee, Moorhead is probably similar to most other cities in Minnesota regarding the state of ethnic and race relations. So although the particular degree and manifestation of racial and ethnic problems and tensions in Moorhead might vary from that of other Minnesota communities, the essential issues concerning race and ethnic relations in the city of Moorhead are likely typical of other communities in many respects.

To that end, the Minnesota Advisory Committee notes that for the most part overt, egregious racist behavior and attitudes are not tolerated by the vast majority of people, white or people of color, living and working in the metropolitan Moorhead area. Though this is a positive situation, it does not mean that prejudice and bigotry do not exist or that discrimination in employment, housing, and education does not occur.

The Committee finds that in Moorhead among the majority population there is an “illusion about inclusion.” This lack of consciousness about racial and ethnic prejudice allows white individuals to honestly maintain a support for a just and equal opportunity society, without having to accept any personal responsibility either for an unjust, unfair, and unbalanced system or for working toward a resolution of the problem.

The result becomes observable in Moorhead and in many other parts of the state. The minority and white communities exist as virtually separate communities, with the minority community disproportionately relegated to the less desirable jobs, housing, and educational programs. Since there are few open and visible manifestations of overt discrimination, there is no easily identified locus of the problem and no simple, direct way to address latent bigotry and prejudice in the Moorhead community.

In recent years, local political leaders and community organizations have engaged in efforts to improve the climate of race and ethnic relations and to eliminate discrimination. Still, startling disparities and inequalities along racial and ethnic lines persist in the Moorhead metropolitan area. Consider:

Findings and Recommendations

1.  Income and Employment

Finding 1.1. Stark differences exist between the white community’s and the minority community’s perception of equal employment opportunity. A survey of the Moorhead community shows that whites assume that equal opportunity in employment and earning a livelihood exists, and the testimony of public leaders supports the survey results. In contrast, minorities perceive barriers to equal employment opportunity.

The per capita income of minorities in Moorhead is one-third that of whites, minorities are clustered in the lowest paying jobs of the labor force, and public employment opportunity is virtually closed to minorities. All these factors support the perceptions of the minority community.

Finding 1.2. Minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in the public work force. In employment opportunity with the city administration, in the public schools, and within the police department minorities are significantly underrepresented proportional to their population. This lack of minorities in public sector employment is at distinct variance from the usual practice in most larger communities, where the public sector is the leader in offering equal employment opportunity.

Recommendation 1.2. The city of Moorhead should commit to an affirmative action program designed to recruit, hire, and promote people of color. Affirmative action programs are forms of outreach to formerly excluded segments of society—not programs of preferences or quotas. Moorhead remains a color-conscious community. For equal employment opportunity to become a reality, employers must take specifically designed actions, such as affirmative action, both to counteract the consequences of past discrimination and to ensure nondiscrimination in current practices. The public sector needs to set the example for the private sector.

Finding 1.3. The Moorhead Human Rights Commission is a weak and ineffective enforcement mechanism for ensuring equal employment opportunity. The Moorhead Human Rights Commission is an agency with no full-time staff and without any investigatory power. Though it is part of the State League of Human Rights Agencies and serves as a moral guide to the community on human rights issues, it simply does not have the ability to investigate effectively and resolve complaints of employment discrimination.

Recommendation 1.3. The city should vest the Human Rights Commission with real enforcement power, e.g., investigatory power and mandatory mediation. At the very least, the agency should be some form of a “whistle-blower” agency, identifying overt and covert institutional practices precluding equal employment opportunity.

2.  Education

Finding 2.1. Significant differences exist between the views of whites and those of minorities regarding equal educational opportunity. The white community assumes that equal opportunity in education is provided to all students regardless of race or color, and the testimony of the school administration supports this perception. In contrast, minorities perceive barriers to equal educational opportunity. And reinforcing this perception is the fact that minorities are disproportionately overrepresented in the alternative school programs, have significantly higher dropout rates, and are much more likely to be disciplined.

Recommendation 2.1. School administrators acknowledge that disparities exist along racial and ethnic lines in graduation rates, alternative school placement, and discipline. Though acknowledging the existence of the disparity is a start, public schools need to undertake an open examination of these disparities and work with the minority community to understand how such disparities evolved and what institutional barriers may exist allowing such disparities to persist.

Finding 2.2. The reality of the educational experience for minority students is that they interact almost exclusively with white teachers. There are only five minority teachers in the city’s public school system. Minorities are less than 2 percent of teachers, though minorities constitute nearly 15 percent of the student body. Two of the minority faculty members at the secondary level are assigned to the district’s alternative school program.

Recommendation 2.2. The Moorhead public school district should commit to an affirmative action program designed to recruit, hire, and promote people of color for faculty, support, and administrative positions. Such an affirmative action program should include specifically identified recruitment efforts and goals and timetables for achieving an ethnically and racially diverse work force.

Finding 2.3. The Moorhead Community Alternative Program (MCAP), the school district’s alternative educational program, promotes de facto segregation in the Moorhead public schools. Testimony received at the fact-finding meeting, coupled with educational data, supports this finding. Latinos make up less than 10 percent of public school students and one-third of all MCAP students; American Indians are less than 3 percent of public school students and nearly 20 percent of all MCAP students.

Recommendation 2.3. The MCAP should be openly and publicly examined, with input from the minority community, as to whether any overt or covert racial and ethnic bias exists for placing students into the program.

3.  Public Safety

Finding 3.1. Differences exist between the white community and the minority community in the perception of police services. The white community overwhelmingly perceives that respectful and quality policing is provided equally to all communities. In contrast, the minority community perceives policing in Moorhead to be color biased and unequal.

The survey of the minority community and testimony received at the fact-finding meeting demonstrated to the Advisory Committee that no issue is more contentious among minorities in Moorhead than their perception that policing practices in Moorhead are unequal and unfair toward minorities. Moreover, the perception of the minority community is bolstered by the extreme disparity in arrest rates between minorities and nonminorities. The Committee discerns minorities as viewing the police not as an organization that is providing public safety services to their communities but rather as an occupation force.

Recommendation 3.1. There is an urgent need for the city and police administrations to develop programs and policing strategies that will foster cooperative and trusting relationships between the police and the minority communities. Such programs and strategies must actively engage the minority communities to begin to break down the barriers of distrust that have built up over the years.

Finding 3.2. The Crime Free Multi-Housing Program provided to landlords promotes de facto segregation in housing by virtue of its adverse impact on Latinos and American Indians. The Committee is troubled by ties between police and landlords in providing data on prospective tenants. The Committee holds that such a practice goes far beyond normal police functions, may violate state privacy laws, and certainly adds fuel to the distrust that exists between the minority community and the police.

Recommendation 3.2. The Crime Free Multi-Housing Program needs reassessment. First, that reassessment should be done in open meetings so that the public can view and hear all elements brought to bear on both the purpose and implementation of the program. Second, now that there is some history of the program an assessment should be done considering the demonstrated—not hypothetical—benefits of the program against the costs of the program both in terms of policing resources and the social costs of marginalizing the minority community.

4.  Housing and Public Accommodation

Finding 4.1. Moorhead is not a color-blind community. Individuals in the community are color conscious, see skin color, and often act—even if subconsciously—on stereotypes associated with skin color. Significant differences exist between the views of whites and people of color regarding public accommodation and equal access to housing. The white community holds that equal respect and accommodation are provided to all citizens regardless of race or color, and the testimony from public officials reflects of this perception.

In contrast, minorities understand there to be prejudicial behaviors operating on a regular and daily basis by many whites toward people of color.

Recommendation 4.1. Some individuals in the Moorhead community should recognize, as uncomfortable as it may be, that they see skin color and associate stereotypes with skin color. Further, it should be recognized that the refusal by individuals to acknowledge the presence of such color-consciousness and subconscious stereotyping perpetuates covert, institutional barriers limiting access to equal opportunity in employment, education, housing, and public accommodation for people of color.

Finding 4.2. Several groups allege that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are not being provided equally to minority communities.

Recommendation 4.2. An assessment of the disbursement of CDBG funds should be done in open meetings so that the public can view and hear all elements brought to bear both on the purpose and implementation of the program. This needs to be done to allay concerns that the white community is utilizing a disproportionate share of such funds at the expense of the minority communities.

Closing Comment

The purpose of this report is to put before the citizen community and the civil, religious, and political institutions an assessment of equal opportunity and race and ethnic relations in Moorhead and to give a voice to those most affected.

As such, the Advisory Committee finds that there is a social climate in Moorhead promoting the persistence of racial and ethnic problems and a thwarting of equal opportunity for people of color. This climate is neither acknowledged nor recognized by most in the majority community, who appear to assume that race and ethnic problems will dissipate in time.

The mayor of Moorhead, Morris Lanning, has committed his administration and the community to achieving a diverse and open community devoid of racial and ethnic discrimination. He said, “Let me make it very clear that we want as a community to appreciate and celebrate our diversity, and we want to deal with discrimination and bad things that happen in race relationships and deal with them effectively as a community. We are committed to that.”[1]

The Committee notes, however, that when the leadership of the white community has committed to involve itself in examining and resolving these issues, simple “Band-Aid” solutions to deeply ingrained institutional practices have been what has been offered.

A change in the disparities of opportunity, both perceived and real, between the white community and the communities of people of color will lead to a healthier community for all citizens. The challenge to Moorhead and other Minnesota communities is whether they have the courage to undertake the fundamental changes that will allow people of color to have a genuine share in the power, responsibility, and rewards of a prospering community.

[1] Mayor Morris L. Lanning, statement before the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Moorhead, MN, May 24 and 25, 1999, p. 13.