Local Current Blog

Michele Norris on the momentum behind the fight for racial equity: ‘We have to be willing to stay at it when it gets difficult’

Michele Norris at the March On Washington Film Festival on July 17, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Larry French/Getty Images for March On Washington Film Festival)

On the Morning Show this week, host Jill Riley had a conversation with Michele Norris, a columnist for the Washington Post, founding director of the Race Card Project, author of The Grace of Silence, and former host of All Things Considered. They discussed Norris’s experience growing up in Minneapolis, the significance of Juneteenth, and whether or not the ongoing fight for racial equity has finally reached a turning point.

Jill Riley: It’s really nice to meet you over the phone. It wasn’t until recently that I found out that you were born and raised in Minneapolis. I want to call attention to a column that you wrote after the killing of George Floyd in police custody. You wrote a column for the Washington Post about the concept of “Minnesota nice” and how it’s not so nice for everyone, especially if you’re not white. You were born and raised in Minneapolis very near the site of George Floyd’s killing. I wonder if you could speak to the column and speak to your experience.

Michele Norris: I grew up 10 blocks from where George Floyd had the life squeezed out of him. I know this community very well, and I also know the concept of “Minnesota nice” very well, and frankly, for years, have been proud of that, and am still quite proud to say that I’m from Minnesota, but know what it’s like to grow up in a place where people ask you how you’re doing and hang out to hear the answer. There is something about the spirit of tolerance, openness, and good living that is part of Minnesota’s reputation, and for many people, is part of Minnesota’s reality.

What has happened, though, is in the past two decades, there has been a paradox that has developed where Minnesota is known for being one of the best places to live in all of America, and perhaps even all of the world, unless you’re black or brown. There has been a real bifurcation of life. There are opportunities for some, and not for others. There are very good schools for some, and not for others. There is access to wonderful housing and very safe neighborhoods for some, and not for others. That has not always been the case in Minnesota. Minnesota was embracing integration before the rest of the country was. They were embracing the notion of fair housing and scattered site housing to prevent having communities where poor people or people of color were cordoned in certain parts of the city that the rest of the city ignores. Something shifted at some point, and this moment in America and this moment in the Twin Cities is, perhaps, an opportunity to recognize that and to change it.

The quality of the funding of schools in one neighborhood is so much different than a neighborhood five miles away. 

There are all kinds of things that explain that. Some of it is policy. Some of it is advocacy, you know, parents advocate on [students’] behalf. It’s not that people in poorer neighborhoods don’t advocate, but people with means are able to advocate more successfully because of their connections [and] because of the people that they can bring on board as a part of that process.

I attended schools in the Southside of Minneapolis, a combination of Catholic and public schools. I went to Washburn High School. It was a very integrated school. I went to Ramsey and Susan B. Anthony, also at a time when they were integrated. What I realize now, as an adult and someone who spends a lot of time thinking about and studying matters of race, is that they were not naturally integrated, that a whole lot of work and social engineering went into that to make sure that the boundaries of the school were drawn in such a way that students from different backgrounds could live and learn together. It didn’t just happen by osmosis.

What happens, in terms of the choices people make in where they want to live, and raise their children, and send them to school, creates a sorting system. Without that kind of social engineering or community will, you will see the kind of segregation that now exists in the Twin Cities, and it’s weird to talk about segregation in the Twin Cities because when people think about segregation they sort of think, “Oh, that happens in the South. That was a product of the 1960s in the South before the Civil Rights movement changed everything, and now everything’s all better.”

What’s happening in Minnesota is playing out all over the country, where there has been a newly segregated pattern in school, or a re-segregated pattern because we’ve sort of pulled back from some of the decisions and some of the policies that we put in place, so not just that kids could live together and magically things would be better if black kids, white kids, brown kids, and kids of all backgrounds sat next to each other, but the fact is when that happens, we are more willing to share resources in a collective and equitable way, and unfortunately that is less likely to happen when the system is segregated.

Could you tell the audience about a project that you’ve been working on for a number of years, the Race Card Project

I created the Race Card Project ten years ago, and it connects to Minneapolis because I wrote a book about my experience growing up in Minneapolis and my family’s very complex racial legacy. My mother is a fourth generation Minnesotan. My father is originally from Birmingham, Alabama. They met, married, and moved into what was then an all-white block on the Southside of Minneapolis, and that is where I was raised. That neighborhood eventually became integrated, and I wrote a book called The Grace of Silence about things that I had learned in my family that they never talked about. Very difficult, painful moments for them in a Jim Crow America that they didn’t pass on to me, so that I might be free of anger or disappointment, and that I might fully embrace America and its possibilities, and what an act of grace that really was.

When I went out into the world to talk about the book, I wanted to help people ease into that conversation, so I created the Race Card Project, where I asked people to share their thoughts, identities, perspectives, memories, and viewpoints on race or identity in just six words. Now after ten years, we have this gigantic archive that represents 50 states and 96 countries where people have shared candid expressions, and they start with six words, but then people share the backstory and explain how they came to those six words. It has allowed me to understand race in a really interesting way, because I spend every day talking to people about deeply held views, a lot of them prickly, a lot of them dripping with anxiety, some of them with triumph, but all of them are a representation of people speaking their own individual truth about a subject that we still have a really hard time talking about.

Michele, I want to talk about Juneteenth. The president had announced a political rally on that day in Tulsa, and it has since been moved a day, but can you talk about why there was such outrage over the idea of a Trump political rally in Tulsa, of all places, on that day?

This is a president who has had a history of saying things that are racially incendiary, that is seen as a very divisive figure, particularly in matters of race, and deciding to hold his first campaign rally on Juneteenth, which dates back to 1865, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended, and that the enslaved were now free.

On that date, in Tulsa, which is the home to the Tulsa racial massacre, which happened almost 100 years ago, when one of the most prosperous black communities in all of America, known as the Black Wall Street, was burned to the ground. Thousands of people lost their property. More than 300 people lost their lives, and then there was an effort to make sure that America lost that history. We didn’t talk about it for a lot of years — “we” meaning Americans — so a lot of people are uncomfortable with this.

To do this on that date, in that city, feels like he’s picking at a scab, a wound that has not close to healed in this country. I think it is an opportunity to say, if they’re going to use this date and this location, “Well, let’s make sure as many people in America know about what happened on that date, and what it represents, and what happened in that location.”

I got the news that the Minnesota Board of Pardons granted the first posthumous pardon in state history to a man named Max Mason, and that was the person convicted in 1920 of assaulting a white woman in Duluth, and that led to the 100th anniversary of a really dark part of Duluth’s history, when thousands of residents lynched three black men. The discussions right now, so many things are converging in one place. Is this truly a turning point for this generation?

I hope so. It does feel different this time. It does feel like more people are leaning into hard truths, that more people are willing to have hard discussions. The fact that “black lives matter” is no longer seen as a controversial statement; it might be a turning point, but only if [we continue to see] the kind of resolve that people are showing in this moment, the kind of courage that people are showing in this moment in having difficult conversations, the kind of curiosity that people are having in this moment, and the kind of introspection that, perhaps, has led to the pardon for Max Mason, who was at the center of the case that led to the lynchings of the three black men in Duluth.

If you go to Duluth, there is a very moving tribute to those men, and it’s history that most people outside of Minnesota probably don’t know about.  There are probably a lot of people in Minnesota who don’t even know about this, but you asked if this time is different, if it’s a turning point. It is if we hold on to that resolve, if we hold on to that introspection, if we hold on to that curiosity, and if we keep at it. If it is just a reactionary moment, then it won’t be lasting. We have to be willing to stay at it when it get’s difficult, to stay at it when it’s no longer fashionable or faddish, when it gets tough, and it will. We just have to admit that, and then get busy and stick to it.

I saw you musing on social media about Prince. You’re talking about the neighborhood where you grew up, and that’s the neighborhood where Prince grew up. 

People who are true Prince aficionados will remind us that he didn’t grow up there entirely. He lived on the Northside of Minneapolis. I just want to be careful about that because they will speak up, but he did attend Bryant Junior High. He lived, for a time, I think it was with his aunt on 4th Avenue, which is just a few blocks from Chicago [Avenue]. He would have grown up in this neighborhood, and I think about him a lot right now. It was just his birthday, so he was top of mind then. He loved the Twin Cities, and if you listen to his music — there are a lot of people who say, “Prince told us.” It was in his lyrics. He talked about some of this, as much as he loved Minnesota, never left Minnesota, and contributed mightily to Minnesota culture and Minnesota’s economy, with Paisley Park.

I think about what he would have and could have done, because he would have leaned into the moment. He often did birthday concerts in the Twin Cities. He used to do these surprise concerts around his birthday, and he probably would have used his talents not just to heal the Twin Cities in this moment, but to ask the Twin Cities and all of the world to look in the mirror and to be honest about what they see. I miss that right now, but we do have his musical catalog, which if you take the time to listen, does some of that already, and there is a treasure trove of music that he left behind, and I am one in that number that can’t wait until they release more from the vault. We can continue to get a dose of his magic, even though he’s no longer with us.