Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

I lived in Falcon Heights, Minnesota for most of the 18 years I resided and worked in the state, teaching at the University of Minnesota. I was offered the job there in 1990, and subsequently bought a house. Falcon Heights is a suburb that is equidistant from both Minneapolis and St Paul, the capital, about a ten-minute drive away from both cities. For most of my time there I was the only black person owning a home on my street, and indeed on adjoining streets. I had no trouble living there.

But there are existential limits to living in a white place and country. I retired in 2008 and returned home. There is no retirement age at the university. I was in full flight. I came to work at UTT. That unfortunately revealed to me an ugly side of this country.

But coming back home is what I needed to do and I do not regret it.

Minnesota is off the beaten path, in the upper mid-west of the US. It is seven per cent black, inclusive of a sizeable immigrant community, mainly Somalis and Eritreans, but also Nigerians and some West Indians. The African-American community lives mostly near the two cities, in sub-par housing. The Somalians thrive there mainly because of their cooperative and tribal culture and their industry.

In 2018 Minnesota ranked second among states as the best in which to live. Indeed, in very many ways, the state is pristine, and quite desirable. I enjoyed many things about it. You see an intelligence at play, not just in industry but in state governance.

But in terms of the employment gap by race it placed (47th) and as to income gap by race it ranked (38th).

In my view, race there for a black person is no different than in any other state.

The black person in America, whether immigrant or native, professional or blue collar, whether residing in Brooklyn, Boston, or the desirable Falcon Height suburbs in Minnesota, is on the clearest day there, a second-class citizen. The difference is that when I am at Piarco airport in the terminal waiting to board a plane to America I am a man. Once I get to Miami airport, or Houston airport, when the plane touches down, I am black man.

And those are two completely and qualitatively different identities.

But make no mistake, this would be the same if I touched down in Toronto or London.

When the police stop you in Minnesota, they are stopping a black man, not a black professor, or a black doctor. When the cop finds out who he has stopped the behaviour may change. But you can’t count on that. The second-class status of which I speak does not mean that you cannot live at a level commensurate with your occupational standing. Falcon Heights is a highly desirable place to live, as is Eden Prairie, where the families that constituted my primary in-group reside — doctor, engineer, accountant and community college dean, the occupations of the respective household heads. T&T, Guyana, and Antigua represented. We had a black circle there, comprised mainly of high-income professionals who lived wherever they wished.

But you cannot live there on a black island. We had our respective circles of white colleagues.

Now on to the killing of George Floyd by the police on a Minneapolis street. This killing does not indict Minneapolis so much as it indicts America. Black men have been killed wantonly by police on American streets in an array of states.

In 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth, Minnesota, publicly hanged, on the ground that they had raped a white woman. The coroner found no evidence that the woman had been thus violated.

So the state has a dark history. But they voted for Obama twice, and that must be factored into the calculus.

The ethic that prompted the killing of my brother George Floyd does not issue from Minnesota-specific animus. Rather, it is of a piece with other such beatings and killings of blacks in the country over time, going back to Jim Crow, at the end of the period of reconstruction, just after slavery, when public hanging of blacks was a spectator sport, a social event to be attended in suit and tie, with children and women coming along, all in their finery.

In 2019 a Somali policemen, Mohamed Noor, was jailed in Minnesota for 12.5 years for killing a white woman while on duty in 2017. He was in an alley with his partner in the squad car unable to locate whoever had called them to the location, saying there was trouble. Then there was a sound which Noor thought was an ambush. Both he and his partner pulled their guns, but he fired through the window killing the woman, Justine Damon, an Australian citizen, who indeed was the person who had called them. Clearly a tragic, fatal error. Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia at the time, weighed in, saying his country wanted answers. The city of Minneapolis settled the matter with her family for US$20 million.

In their protests over the imprisonment of Noor, the Somali community pointed to the police killing in 2016 of Philando Castile, a black man who was driving in Falcon Heights. The police officer stopped Castile for no reason, as is their method. He promptly revealed to the officer at his window that he had a licensed firearm in the car. Castile’s girlfriend and their daughter were in the vehicle. The girlfriend live-streamed his killing in the car by the police officer, Geronimo Yanez, a Hispanic. Yanez was tried and acquitted. On the day of his acquittal he was fired from the department on the ground that it would be in the best interest of the community. He was given parting severance of US$48,500. He was free to go home.

Castile’s mother was awarded US$3 million in settlement over his death. The differential between the quantum of that award and the US$20 million awarded to the family of Justine Damon, was one obvious way in which the authorities demonstrated their view of the relative worth of a black life. Gopaul luck, is not Seepaul luck in American policing.

THE AUTHOR is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota

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