Recently, attorney, professor and civil rights advocate Nekima Levy-Pounds was a guest on KFAI’s “Conversations with Al McFarlane.” Here is a transcript of their conversation.
Attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.
Professor Levy-Pounds I’m looking to connect the dots. Our community feels a lack of justice. There is a perception of inequity, inequality, of imbalance and shaming. I believe there is an assault on leadership in our community and is part of a continuum of oppression and suppression.
Are we looking at Minnesota’s Reconstruction Era? Will this be an era where after being poised for some gains, our community is demolished by the reversal of policy and practices that produce incremental improvements due to effective legislative leadership from our community? Will Minnesota succumb to supremacist biases that denigrate and marginalize Black voters, terrorize Black residents and suppress civic engagement and voting in our community, with an end-game of no Blacks in our legislature or in the Minneapolis and St. Paul City Councils?
Is that happening here in Minnesota right now or am I going too far with that?
No, I would say in Minnesota we are living with what I would call the Jim Crowe North. And unfortunately we’re living in a situation as African-Americans where we’ve been “hoodwinked and bamboozled” as Malcolm X said in terms of thinking that this is a land of opportunity and a place where we will be able to get a job and provide for our families, have a decent quality of life. But when we look at the key indicators of the quality of life in our statistics here, African-Americans in Minnesota are doing far worse than African-Americans in other parts of the country, so something is terribly wrong. It just feels like we’ve been had. We’ve been hoodwinked. We’ve been bamboozled. It feels like so many of us are drinking the Kool Aid. When I say drinking the Kool Aid, I’m talking about the propaganda that is put out day in and day out through the media, through many of our so-called leaders within the community that say that everything is alright the way that it is. But we see the suffering in our community. People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They’re feeling like they don’t have access to resources to even be able to provide for their families.
We have a lot of Minnesotans who not only own one home but also own a cabin up north. But when you look at African-American families, many people are just struggling to pay their rent. And those issues are compounded by something that one of my co-panelists (at a recent forum) talked about regarding to the disrespect that we face as African-Americans when we are trying to challenge systems of oppression. An example is what recently happened at the police forum in south Minneapolis. I was citied to be the moderator of that forum and found out a couple of hours before the police chief (of Minneapolis) to was to arrive, that she had pulled out of the forum. The allegations that she made, from my perspective, are absolutely absurd. Unlike my esteemed co-panelist, I did not give the chief the benefit of the doubt. Personally she needs to be held accountable for telling what I would call outright lies to the public about the so-called threats to public safety.
In the aftermath of that incident, I have had white men, even wealthy white men, who normally don’t engage in these issues, coming to me saying “but she’s the chief of police … how could she be afraid of the community and claim that there was a threat to public safety which excused her from coming and hearing the concerns of the community?” It’s just completely unacceptable.
And I am even more appalled by the Minneapolis city leaders who are responsible for the chief’s position and her actions and who have failed to publically hold her accountable. It’s a real slap in the face to the people of our community to realize that we are living in a so-called democracy but when we attempt to express ourselves, when we attempt to raise questions about the governance structure that we’re dealing with, when we raise questions about the inequitable and inhumane treatment that African-American men, women and children face on the streets every day, we are given the message that our voices don’t really matter.
And it feels like a slap in the face. And frankly I’m tired of it. It’s hard living in this environment when you realize in some ways we’ve rolled the clock back. This morning I was actually on my way into the studio and I was just praying. I was saying, “you know God, this is a difficult place to live.” I’ve known that for a while but it’s more and more difficult to grapple with the Jim Crowe-like conditions that we deal with here and to have the concerns fall on deaf ears. And I happened to run into a man named Terry Austin. I had never met him in person. He’s an African-American man who runs a father-daughter program. He saw me pumping gas and he said he recognized me and immediately when he saw me he said, “You have to keep going. You have to keep speaking the truth because they need to hear it.”
And that was what I needed to continue to stand strong and to stay focused because we’re in a crisis in Minnesota and we need to wake up, step up to the plate, speak truth to power and stop allowing ourselves to be treated as second and third class citizens.
Well let me be the devil’s advocate this morning.
Well he doesn’t need an advocate Al, but I know what you’re saying.
For the sake of this theater that we call radio, I’m going to be the devil’s advocate and on behalf of white supremacists say, “How dare you. You should be happy to live here and that if you are not successful and enjoying the quality of life, the clean air, the high quality education, the exceptional health care, and plentiful job opportunities, it’s because you people have not contributed, you have not rolled up your sleeves to do the hard work, and you have not been present when we meet to determine the progress of the community. Your people don’t show up.”
Well, I know that they wouldn’t be talking to me because personally I go wherever I can to advocate for justice, so do a lot of other advocates within our community. I agree with something that was said earlier by you about us living under the doctrine of white supremacy. That is the entire framework under which all of these issues are occurring, both in Minnesota as well as on a national level. Right now in the aftermath of Ferguson (Mo.), and the shooting death of another young, unarmed African-American man, we see high-tech lynching of African-American men by portraying them as violent. They’re circling the wagons; coming after these men. And what that ultimately does is reduce the level of empathy that American society has for the plight of African-American men, women and children.
What do you mean by that? Break that down for me.
Well I used to work in family law, Al, before I started in civil rights. And I used to represent victims of domestic violence and child victims of domestic abuse. What I try to let people know is that domestic abusers come in all shapes, sizes, colors and different socio-economic levels. You would not know that from the way the media is portraying the Ray Rice incident and honing in on one African-American man, who from my perspective definitely did not act in a manner that was appropriate in any way. However he’s not the only man in America who has engaged in that sort of conduct. We also need to leave room for people to have a chance to repent, for them to get treatment and for them to be restored. But we are making it so that people are being demonized, locked out of access to opportunity, locked out of access to the broader society and locked out of access to a livelihood, which is only going to acerbate many of their situations.
We don’t focus our attention on the institutions that perpetuate the types of violence that we’re looking at.
With Adrian Peterson, I don’t know all the details of his situation; I want people to look back historically. We’re concerned about the treatment of children and kids in corporal punishment. Well I say go back and read the slave narratives. Go back and look at the pictures where the backs of Black men, women and children were whipped to shreds by white slave masters and overseers. We cannot ignore that that is a part of the fabric of this country and that those lessons have been taught to our people and passed down from one generation to the next. So if we’re going to talk about child abuse, we need to look at the entire context under which those issues actually arose in the first place. I don’t think we’ve done that. I think we’ve demonized one or two people, circled the wagons and then placed the blame on them.
White America is essentially given a pass when something egregious happens within the African-American community, and acts as though it confirms some of the negative images that have been put out by the media. That makes it hard for equity and equality based policy decisions. It makes it difficult when a Black man like Terrence Franklin is murdered in the basement and people feel comfortable with police and media explanations that made no logical sense. And it makes it easier to swallow the fact that the police chief can get away with refusing to listen to the concerns of the community and to not be held accountable.
Nekima, how do we organize our community so that not only we offer a defense or a response that’s principled, that’s not reactionary but is proactive?
And, how do we organize in a strategic examination of the failure of the institutions and people who are supposedly serving our interests … an examination of the diversion of resources and revenue, an examination of the unwillingness to actually implement policy and laws designed to protect and empower us?
Well I would say the first thing that we need to do is to challenge Mayor Betsy Hodges on what recently happened with the chief of police. She’s the boss of the chief of police. And what we’re asking for is a public apology. So I’ve asked people to go on Facebook, go on Betsy Hodges’ timeline and send her a note about the chief’s conduct being unacceptable and to demand a public apology. That’s the first step.
What has the mayor said so far? What’s been her response up to now?
So far there has not been a response specific to the chief’s absence at the forum, which I think is problematic. So that’s number one. On a macro level I think what we need to do is to rewrite the narrative. So often the narrative that is out there is a deficit-based narrative. We have to change the language that people use to describe the challenges that we face, that we know are based on white supremacy, like calling the academic issues that our young people face as an “achievement gap.” There’s no such thing as an achievement gap. That’s an opportunity gap that we know is based on economics. It’s the failure to develop a sound infrastructure to educate children of African descent based upon what has happened historically. When you have a school system where over 90 percent of the teachers are white and many of them are women and they are trying to educate children of color without having the proper context for the students’ experience or even knowing how to relate to them, you’re going to have challenges. And instead of us addressing those systemic and structural challenges we choose to blame the children and their parents in the rhetoric that’s put out there as well as the language we use. So I would say rewrite the narrative; begin to see what’s happening with new eyes. Don’t adopt the oppressor’s language. Challenge that language. Challenge the systems that we are constantly having to contend with on a daily basis and that are entrapping us.
I would also say anytime legislation is being passed there needs to be a racial impact statement that goes along with that legislation. As (Rep.) Rena Moran was talking about, the new child abuse legislation is going to disproportionately impact communities of color. That needs to be addressed.
We need a Black agenda, not other people’s agenda, and not what the non-profit industrial complex says that we need, where people are getting grants to go out and mobilize our community for their own gain. We need to set a Black agenda that’s grounded in our history, in our focus on civil rights and human rights and stick to that agenda. We might have to put out fires but if we have a plan in place, we can keep going to the end.