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Explore a Racial Awakening in a Small Minnesota Town

By Kaomi Lee

Randy Hoffman farms in the same southeastern region of Minnesota that his Swiss great-grandparents farmed after they arrived in America. This summer, he participated in an anti-racism class through his church.

"When I saw what happened to George Floyd, I just could not believe that," he said. "It was the first time I said to my wife, 'I am going to remember this guy’s name.'"

Pastor Karen Larson of nearby Zwingli United Church of Christ offered the class after realizing that congregants like Hoffman were grieving. They also wanted to learn more about the systemic racism and oppression they could no longer ignore. About half of her congregation of some 40 people signed up.

"It was hard work [for] all of us, including me," Larson said. "I was with them in this journey [as] we were just finding out what the reality of the history of the country is, and our founding …. on the institution of slavery."

They learned about redlining and inequities in home lending, education and job opportunities. The white parishioners, many of whom did not personally know people of color, also learned about the frayed trust Black and brown people have in the police.

"Really we were investigating was our own white privilege - not just how has it hurt those people, but how has it benefitted me," Larson added.

Hoffman had a realization.

"If you were going to ask me if I was a racist five or six years ago, I would have said no. But I realize now that, yes, I am a racist," he said. On this journey, he realized he had a certain discomfort around people of color. He also made assumptions about people based on their race.

"I guess it’s natural to notice differences in people. I think it becomes racist is when you make judgments for no reason at all except for their race," he said. Now, Hoffman tries to challenge his friends and neighbors to also set aside these types of judgments and prejudices.

"If we as white people don’t care that people of color are held down…. so they don’t have the freedoms and rights to improve themselves and make themselves happier and healthier … that’s indifference. That's the opposite of love," Hoffman said.

While demand sparked several more classes this year, most were supported through area churches and faith leaders. Pastor Larson said she'd like to see the discussions and education happen community-wide. But she said it will take leadership.

"There is an unspoken code that keeps us from bringing up anything controversial," Larson said. "It takes real leadership and there’s key people who can change the tenor - pastors in town, people involved with the schools - if they spoke out more clearly, that would help. City leaders, the mayor, the city council...we want to be known as a town that welcomes all and is not a scary place to be," she added.

City leaders, including Mayor Rod Steele and City Administrator Elizabeth Howard, did not cooperate with this story. The city communications director did not respond to Almanac for a request for a statement or make any officials available without first receiving a list of questions prior to the interview. City council members reached also declined comment.

Local anti-racism activists said silence by city officials has been disappointing. Alice Is Kopp (who uses they/them pronouns) co-founded a group called Pine Island Against Racism. They said they had pushed for the city to affirm the slogan that 'Black Lives Matter' in a recent welcoming resolution. But officials declined. This past summer, Confederate flags were waved in a counter demonstration to the Black Lives Matter protest. Those flags can also be seen at various private residences around town.

"I think there’s a history of white nationalism and toxic patriotism. It's very common in rural communities across the United States where either people are complacent and don't protest against them, or there are a lot of people who are politically libertarian and think it’s the right of white nationalists to speak out," Is Kopp said.

Kopp, who identifies as Filipinx and queer, grew up in Pine Island and said they were no stranger to racial intimidation themselves over the years. Pine Island Against Racism recently compiled a survey on human rights in the community and hope to use the results to support their advocacy work.

However, not all residents of color say they've had overt problems or issues. Christopher Carter is retired and lives in Pine Island with his white fiancé. Carter is Black and has been pulled over by police before.

"Not here, but when I lived in Minneapolis," he said. "I’ve been stopped for unnecessary reasons, and it makes you feel less than a full citizen. That’s what people don’t understand, when you go through your whole life just because of the way you look, that’s something about privilege a lot of whites don’t understand," he said.

While Carter said racial incidents have been few in Pine Island for him, he has noticed the Confederate and police "thin blue line" flags around town.

"Police take it as supporting the police. I’ve seen the signs go up, "blue lives matter," they support the police," he said.  "That’s fine...but do you understand what the issue is?"

In One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Goetz's first installment about racism issues in Pine Island, she learned about the opposition that Black Lives Matters demonstrators faced in the small town.

In 2014. Dr. Ayaz Virji gave up a lucrative career in Pennsylvania and moved his family to rural Dawson, Minn., to run the local hospital. But once the 2016 election was decided, he noticed a different tone coming from his neighbors: As the only Muslim family in town, Dr. Virji, his wife and their children found themselves constantly defending Islam and Muslim Americans. One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Goetz has chronicled Dr. Virji’s story since 2018, starting with Muslim Doctor Finds Purpose and Pushback in Rural Town.

Continue reading about Dr. Virji’s journey in What’s It Like for a Muslim Doctor Living in Rural Minnesota? and Why This Muslim Doctor Is Taking a Break from Rural America.

Kaomi Lee Read More
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