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In Minnesota, racial discrimination cases often hit dead end

A Minnesota state trooper pulled over Sylvia Harris and her husband on a summer evening near their home in Woodbury. The patrolman said he had a warrant for her husband’s arrest.

Harris’ husband started wrestling with a medical device for a heart condition, so she stepped out of the car to explain why he was fumbling. The trooper pulled out his Taser, and soon she found herself handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. Harris was eventually released, but the humiliation of the encounter left her traumatized.

“I literally was shook that in sweet, white, suburban Woodbury, where we own our home, where my husband worked 30 years at Ford,” that this could happen, Harris, 65, said of the 2014 encounter. “As an African American, I don’t have the privilege of driving up and down my main street without getting stopped.”

Harris filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. More than a year later, in 2016, the department concluded that there was probable cause to believe the officers discriminated against Harris.

Difficult to prove

Such an outcome is not typical, according to records obtained by the Star Tribune. Only a third of the cases investigated by the state’s Human Rights Office end up concluding that discrimination occurred. The low number highlights how difficult discrimination is to prove and how the often long and complicated process of investigating each claim can take. Now the same 50-employee agency must balance its regular cases with the enormous task of investigating all civil rights complaints against the Minneapolis Police Department, a duty assigned to the office after the police killing of George Floyd in May.

From 2015 to 2019, Minnesotans filed 3,227 complaints of discrimination based on race, gender, disability and a range of other categories, according to the Human Rights Office. The state investigated 742 racial discrimination complaints in that time, and in nearly two-thirds of cases did not find probable cause that discrimination occurred.

The typical caseload is a wide range of alleged microaggressions and prejudicial actions people of color face while working, attending school or shopping, or in encounters with police. In rare instances, white people also file racial discrimination cases for perceived grievances.

Some of the complaints are alarmingly visceral, with shopkeepers hurling racial slurs at people of color and children of color demeaned in public or at schools. But that doesn’t mean what happened constitutes a violation of the law, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, disability and a range of protected classes.

“In many places, explicit and implicit bias manifest in that people feel very isolated because of their race and unwelcome. But it doesn’t meet the standard of being severe or pervasive,” Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said in an interview. “Many times it’s the exhaustion of navigating a world that wasn’t intended or built for you.”

Among the complaints where the department failed to find probable cause recently:

• Black children being racially profiled and followed at a pharmacy.

• A Hispanic woman accused of witchcraft and polytheism in the workplace.

• A bar owner telling a Black employee they don’t play music he characterized with an ethnic slur.

The department did find discrimination in the case of a Native American man who was not allowed to see an apartment for rent with his wife and three kids. In another case, the office reached a settlement agreement with a senior living facility, Edgewood Sartell, after it fired a personal care assistant because of her race.

The various cases intersect with other forms of discrimination prohibited under the law, including those based on disability, age, national origin, familial status and more.

Lucero said while the days of signs saying “no Mexicans” or “no Blacks” are gone, identifying discrimination has become more challenging over time. The Civil Rights Act has been around for more than 50 years, but Lucero said it does not always capture the “sophisticated nuance of discrimination.”

She said during the beginning of the pandemic, 10% of the agency’s calls were related to anti-Asian bias about COVID-19. There was nothing the agency could formally do, since the callers were not being explicitly denied services or entry into businesses.

She also said people can talk with an investigator about their situation and how to move forward and how best to document what happened. She said this is often helpful for people experiencing issues in the workplace or with their landlord.

In Harris’ case, she hoped to see the state trooper get some form of disciplinary action or to even be fired for the incident.

At the time, Harris feared that the situation could have turned out much worse. She felt like she was saved when a fellow churchgoer saw what was happening and got their pastor. The pastor came to the scene and spoke with the patrolman and the officers who arrived at the scene. After several tense minutes, the patrolman finally told Harris she could leave if she apologized for leaving her vehicle to approach the officer.

After speaking with the department, her lawyer suggested they wait for the human rights investigators to come back before proceeding.

But in between, Harris recalled being discouraged by the lack of consequences for police who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.

Harris was shocked by the thoroughness of the investigation when the department returned its findings.

In a 14-page memo, the department determined that the trooper arresting her after she had returned to her vehicle violated the law. The trooper told the pastor during the incident “quite honestly, her attitude suggests to me she ought to be put in jail,” which the agency concluded could be seen as bias, and the 50-minute length of the stop also suggested bias.

Harris said she was “crushed” to see the number of violations outlined in the report. “I was floored to see that he knew better and he chose to do what he wanted to do anyway.”

Almost a year later, Harris reached a $90,000 settlement with the Department of Public Safety. But it still left Harris dissatisfied.

“I got a check but I didn’t get justice and there’s a difference,” Harris said. “The system is … not designed for African Americans to get justice because that would be an admittance that something was done wrong to them and America is not ready for that yet.”

Different lived experiences

Stephen Befort, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said racial discrimination cases are challenging because “lived experiences tend to color perceptions” and people alleging discrimination have to prove it happened. He said surveying Black and white workers in a workplace about what they believe is discrimination could show differences on how actions and incidents are perceived.

“The Black workers, based on their experience and the experience of their family and friends, would say ‘We’re always getting the short end of things. It must be discrimination,’ ” Befort said. “Whereas I think white workers who haven’t had the same experiences might have the perception, ‘You have complainers at work that are finding discrimination when it’s not here.’ ”

The department found there was more than perception involved in the way Michael Jointer was mistreated in 2015 at the Mall of America.

Jointer, a 58-year-old Black man, was exchanging coats from a store when a Bloomington police officer said he was on their no-trespass list. According to Jointer’s complaint to the state, the officer asked him to show identification and then let him leave.

But a second officer stopped him on the way out and accused him of stealing. He showed the officer his receipts and the credit card he used to pay for the jackets. He also showed the officer that the bar codes on the labels matched the ones on the receipt. The officer still forced him to go back to the store to prove the items were not stolen.

“Society doesn’t understand what we go through, they just think we over-exaggerate situations,” said Jointer. “They need to walk in my shoes for one week and maybe they’ll understand the way that I feel.”

Jointer said he would have let the situation go had the officers apologized. When that failed to come, he filed a complaint with the Department of Human Rights. He was shocked reading the department’s report saying the Bloomington Police Department had discriminated against him.

“None of the officers interviewed during the course of the investigation provided a legitimate explanation for why the charging party was publicly detained and searched after he had proved that he was not the person they initially thought he was,” the department wrote in its findings. “To the contrary, it appeared that they chose to harass him, simply because they could.”

Jointer won a $150,000 settlement from the city, according to his attorney.

“I felt vindicated, I felt they actually believed I was not making up some false racial profiling incident,” Jointer said.

marissa.evans@startribune.com 612-673-4280

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