By DEBORAH SCHLICK
On February 18th, Eden Prairie student fans chanted “Food stamps. Food stamps”, at the visiting players from Hopkins. More than half the players at Hopkins are African American. Almost 80% of the students at Eden Prairie are white. These students said loudly and plainly what is rarely said aloud in Minnesota about race and poverty and public assistance.
Think for a moment about what that simple chant at that time and place meant:
• It meant that when some whites see African Americans, they see poverty.
• It meant that when some whites think about poverty, they think about public assistance. And public assistance is an insult that can be used to disgrace someone.
• It meant that when some whites think about poverty and public assistance, they think about African Americans – and probably other people of color.
This has everything to do with our work in Affirmative Options. We advocate for more effective anti-poverty policy and, with your expertise, we focus particularly on public assistance policy. We insist on looking at what credible data and information tells us – about the circumstances in which poverty is born, about the context of the labor market and history in which poverty finds roots, about what policies and resources create real opportunities for children, women and men to move out of poverty and which policies close doors.
But information, experience and data are small shields against belief systems and some of the worst strands of American history.
Those chants make clear that an African American child, woman or man never needs to turn to public assistance to share in the shame associated with public assistance. That shaming exists because of what most people believe why people to turn to public assistance in order to have enough to eat, to have a place to live, to hold the basic elements of survival together.
These chants make clear that anyone who finds themselves turning to public assistance – most of whom in Minnesota are white – are subjected to a shame and blame that is rooted in America’s still potent prejudices about skin color and culture.
Those prejudices overlook a labor market in which there are not enough jobs, in which 40 percent of Minnesota jobs do not pay enough to buy food, clothing and housing, and in which credible studies demonstrate the presence of discrimination against non-whites and women in hiring. These prejudices overlook all that and nurture themselves on beliefs about laziness, dishonesty, drug addiction and crime, about a culture predisposed to create its own misery.
And these chants make clear – in ways I have observed but never been able to understand – that people who have money, who have status, who have the best our society has to offer in terms of housing, education and opportunity are made uncomfortable by and afraid of people who they believe have so much less.
So that basketball game reminds us that while we are talking about poverty, many people will be thinking about race. That basketball game reminds us that we will not see progress in reducing poverty in Minnesota, until racism is a less potent underground force.
So you will continue to receive policy updates and action alerts from Affirmative Options. But I also urge you to pay as much attention to the important work done by our friends and allies at the Organizing Apprenticeship Project on tackling racism. See their recommendations on 14 solutions for reducing racial disparities at Leading for Racial Equity: An Emerging Agenda for Minnesota and their Minnesota Legislative Equity Report Card on Racial Equity, analyzing how well Minnesota State Policymakers are doing (or not doing) in reducing racial disparities.
And here is the hope from that basketball game: the ugly chant reached the attention of a news reporter at the Star Tribune, because some Eden Prairie students and parents were upset that it happened. While the vision we have for a more equitable Minnesota may not be yet realized, there are many who share that vision.
Deborah Schlick is the Executive Director of Affirmative Options Coalition, 555 Park St., Suite 420, St. Paul, MN 55103. 651-292-1568. www.affirmativeoptions.org