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COL Look around, racism exists in Rochester

Last week, while waiting to cross a downtown Rochester street at a red light, I shared the corner with two young men.

Stopped at the light in a car across the street was a black driver.

"OOOh, look at the teeth on that one," one of the pedestrians said.

"Bet he doesn't have to use his headlights at night," his buddy chimed in.

And then the two young racists laughed and crossed the street, lunch boxes in hand.

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This little exchange didn't surprise me. It was just another indication that we haven't come nearly as far in this community where race relations are concerned as we like to think we have. Had the two white men on the corner been in their 70s or 80s I might have shrugged it off as a couple of bitter old codgers, set in their ways, who won't be around much longer to propagate their bigotry.

But these guys were in their late 20s or early 30s and they were living, breathing evidence that racism exists here. And worse, it's still breeding and raising its young.

Don't believe me? Take a look around. When it was reported a couple of months ago that there was still a huge disparity in test scores between white and black students in the Rochester public school system, what did you hear? Much of the feedback I've read and heard has come from people who believe that the entire blame for this problem rests with the parents of minority students and the students themselves. We shouldn't do a thing for these people. It's THEIR fault.

I'm not saying all of these misguided people are racists. But their simplistic reaction to a deeply complicated societal problem indicates the need for enlightenment and education concerning the plight of black American families. (For more on this subject, read Leonard Pitts' column on today's Opinion Page.)

One of Rochester's first black residents, Earl McGee, died earlier this week. Earl became a civil rights leader in this community at a time when people of color were so rare here that folks gawked at them. But as the city grew, so did it's racial diversity, and Earl, an IBMer, was one of those who helped persuade the city's residents that black people were moving into our city for jobs and opportunity, not crime and welfare benefits.

Earl led by example. He was an educated, articulate man. He and his wife, Anna, raised a family here. (Their late son, Billy, after graduating from John Marshall High School and the University of Minnesota Law School -- was the chief public defender in Hennepin County.) Earl was on the Chamber of Commerce. He ran for school board.

I interviewed Earl in 1993 on the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. He said at the time that he remembered having his spirit crushed after President Kennedy and the Rev. King were gunned down five years apart.

"I cried when both of them were assassinated," Earl said. "They were bleak days. It seems that people who champion the cause of justice don't live long."

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I think Earl was wrong about that. There are plenty of folks out there still championing the causes of justice and equality at mid- and late life. People like George Gibbs, a prominent black businessman in Rochester, who died at age 84 in 2000. People like former Mayor Chuck Canfield, who launched an anti-racism campaign in Rochester seven years ago. People like George Thompson, and Sandra Means and Barbara Porter and dozens of other black residents who, like Earl McGee, have been leading by example for years.

But they cannot enlighten a community on their own. Here is the most important thing Earl told me during that interview a decade ago:

"Those of us in the minority have to depend on the majority to become the outraged. We cannot do it ourselves. We have to have white people who really believe in justice for all on our side."

Amen.

Greg Sellnow's columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at sellnow@postbulletin.com.

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