A Minnesota County’s First Black Commissioner Took A Symbolic Stand On Racial Inequality

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The most populous county in Minnesota swore in its first black commissioner ever on Monday — and the book she used to take the oath was a telling choice. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Angela Conley was sworn in with her hand on The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the book by Michelle Alexander that details how black citizens — black men, in particular — have been stripped of their rights and imprisoned by the War on Drugs and a broken criminal justice system.

Hennepin County, which is home to the city of Minneapolis and many of the Twin City suburbs located west of the Mississippi River, has never had a commissioner of color before. Now it has two: Conley was joined by Irene Fernando at the swearing in, who tied in the history books for first commissioner of color.

One in five Minnesotans live in the county, and it has a long history of inequality among residents. A 2018 study published by 24/7 Wall St shows the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area to be the fourth-worst city in the country for black residents. Local news channel CBS 4 WCCO reports that the inequality is particularly due to segregation, high unemployment among black residents, and a median income of black households that is just 41.5 percent of white households'.

Lucchini Butcher, one of the creators of "Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis," an exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum, told the University of Minnesota College of Design blog in September that the county has a real problem with home-ownership rates among black residents — an issue which stretches back to 1910 when racial covenants first began.

"Minneapolis has the largest homeownership gap between black and white households in the United States, something that ... is directly correlated to decades of racist housing policy that restricted where people of color could live," Butcher told the university blog.

While the economic indicators haven't transformed overnight, political representation has. Two commissioners are now women of color, three are white women, and just two are white men.

The judge who swore in Conley, Fernando, and incumbent Commissioner Marion Greene is herself a historic figure in Hennepin County. District Judge Pamela Alexander became the first black judge to serve in the county when she was sworn in 35 years ago, according to The Star Tribune.

Both Fernando and Conley spoke to the significance of their election wins at the ceremony. "1.2 million people live in this county, and only seven people get to be commissioners," Fernando told the room, reportedly filled mainly with family members of the public officials sworn in that day. "I’m here to work."

Conley specifically spoke to representation in the room, laying out explicitly what her choice of The New Jim Crow symbolized. "This seat belongs to the people who look like me and have traditionally been shut out of this room," said, according to the paper.

Conley represents downtown Minneapolis and the eastern half of the city's south side; Fernando represents northeast Minneapolis and the first swath of suburbs to the north.

Hennepin County may take more time to see improvements in equality, but Monday's swearing-in points to local government being on the right track.