Minnesota’s growing racial and ethnic diversity, detailed in the 2020 U.S. Census, underscores the state’s need to further address some of the largest achievement and opportunity gaps in the nation.
By and large, Minnesotans of color routinely face disparities in household incomes, homeownership, health care access and academic success. State leaders and community advocates agree that addressing these disparities is essential for the state’s future success.
Numerous initiatives are underway, but outcomes have been mixed at best.
“It is important to see the need to work directly with the different groups in order for us to guarantee we have the population we need to lead in the future,” said Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, or HACER.
“Otherwise, we are going to be seeing professionals who are now working in the state leaving and not being replaced,” he said, noting the state’s white population is both aging and shrinking.
When working to address these gaps, community leaders say there are three important things to remember:
MEMBERS OF RACIAL GROUPS ARE NOT ALL THE SAME
The data reported Aug. 12 by the U.S. Census Bureau from the 2020 count is not the same as the information collected from residents. The most recent release lumps Minnesotans with origins from around the world into a set of broad racial and ethnic groups.
The census is expected to release more detailed population counts that describe all those different groups in September. Advocates say it is always important to remember the large amount of variety that falls under a racial or ethnic label.
For instance, Asians can include Hmong refugees, Korean adoptees and Asian Indian immigrants. Blacks can include Somalis, Caribbean immigrants or African-Americans whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as slaves.
Similar differences exist for Hispanics, white immigrants and others.
Joshua Crosson, executive director of EdAllies, an advocate for equitable education, says those vast differences are a key reason his group and others are calling for the disaggregation of data on the people who fall into those broad racial and ethnic groups. Without that level of detail, it can be hard for educators and others to address challenges residents face.
“Let’s stop looking at students in big buckets,” Crosson said. “We’d hopefully be able to better understand students’ needs and address those needs more directly.”
The state Legislature approved the All Kids Count Act in 2016 to do just that, but Crosson says compliance has been slow in many districts.
Kara Carmosino, director of programs at the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, says specific disaggregated data isn’t just important to improving education.
She noted that research by her group and the Hmong Public Health Association found that Hmong, Karen and Karenni residents have died at disproportionate rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You don’t see that when you look at the overall Asian-American category,” Carmosino said.
REPRESENTATION MATTERS — A LOT
One of the driving reasons the for the U.S. Census’ 10-year count is to ensure legislative districts are drawn in a way that fairly represents the people who live there. Racial and ethnic fairness is part of that calculus.
Community advocates say it is important that residents of different racial and ethnic groups see leaders who look like them and share their experiences. “Whether it’s (Olympian) Suni Lee or a state representative, it is important,” Carmosino said.
Currently, about 10 percent of Minnesota’s state lawmakers are people of color; at the local level, the numbers are even smaller in most communities. Advocates hope the state’s growing diversity will convince more residents of color to seek leadership roles.
“Whatever maps we draw will shape who represents us and how they allocate resources,” Carmosino said. “We want to make sure these data are used as they are intended. To redraw districts fairly and really set our communities up for equal weight and equal resources going forward.”
Representation is not just important in government and community leadership. It’s also important in places like the classroom.
Minnesota has one of the most white teaching forces in the nation, and districts across the state have struggled to attract and retain educators of color. About 95 percent of Minnesota’s classroom teachers are white, according to a 2019 state report.
“The gaps are significantly larger than other places in the country,” said Crosson, whose group has worked on changing the way teachers are licensed in order to attract more teachers of color.
“We have to get rid of the foregone conclusions we have of this is the way we have always done things,” he said.
LANGUAGE ISN’T THE ONLY BARRIER
Language is an obvious hurdle facing new immigrants to Minnesota. Gutierrez says it can be hard to find interpreters who speak some of languages Latino immigrants speak that are less common that Spanish.
But he says other cultural differences are even more pronounced and can have a bigger impact.
“We are coming from many different nationalities into this community,” Gutierrez said. “We also come from many different socio-economic and educational backgrounds.”
That includes well-educated immigrants from South America or refugees from Honduras who may have walked to the U.S. on foot.
Gutierrez says information about health care, education, social programs and other services needs to be accessible to all types of people. Many immigrants may not have easy access to social and traditional media or it may be hard for them to understand messages when they do.
“We need to be very smart in how we get information to them,” he said.
Crosson notes that it is equally important in communities and in the classroom that leaders gain an understanding of the histories that new Minnesotans bring with them.
“We often define equity as let’s provide for what people need. There’s another part to that, let’s understand how we got here in the first place,” he said.