On the Range, Race and Healing

(PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Race is one of the main variables of American life. This fact was written directly into our flawed Constitution more than two centuries ago, a truth demanding hard reckoning ever since.

Sometimes it can be comfortable to pretend that race isn’t one of the main variables of life here in Northern Minnesota, however. This is an illusion forged from driving Native Americans off the iron formation and a collective cultural decision 70 years ago to agree that Irish, Finns and bohunks were OK now (and that bohunk wasn’t an ethnic slur anymore, apparently). Mostly this occurred because everyone started intermarrying and having Irish-Swede, Slovenian-Norwegian, and Finn-German babies. Now we wear snow bibs in the winter and forget the names of our immigrant ancestors who once saw each other as foreign.

Since 97 percent of the population was now “white,” there was no “race problem.” Rather, that became the commonly held belief by many on the Iron Range. Sure, there are Native Americans, but as I’ve written before, many of us on the Iron Range were raised to believe that local Ojibwa people had their own reservations and one shouldn’t trouble oneself worrying about the fact that they exist. Out of sight, out of mind. Periodic ugly racial disputes were rare enough to be ignored … by white people.

Honest reality: Race is an issue here, certainly insofar as white/native relations go, but beyond that as well. Persistent demographic changes in American life are happening here, too. And the results are part of the same troubling story found in Ferguson, Missouri.

This Sunday, Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin followed up on an earlier column of his about a former Greenway student who committed suicide after a long period of sustained racially-motivated harassment. (I quoted that column in my piece about mental illness at that time). Tevlin gained access to official statements about the life and death of Isaiah Gatimu, and they are both troubling and sadly familiar to anyone who is or has known someone of a minority race or mixed race on the Iron Range.

It’s not easy to be different in a small town. It’s particularly difficult to be different on the Iron Range, where a generational code of fraternity and isolationism requires native birth for true acceptance in some social circles. And when the differences are visible, such as they are with race or gender, that becomes a persistent challenge to overcome. Just ask the women who were harassed at the Eveleth Mines. Or the children of more recent non-European immigrants. Or the increasing number of mixed race children like Isaiah who are being raised on the Iron Range, visible evidence of changing times so easy for the old guard to single out.

I have viewed my social media feeds with a preemptive cringe lately. I deal mostly with white people who deal mostly with other white people. So when the riots broke in Ferguson, ugliness of many varieties permeated both the TV screen and my social circles. False equivalencies, generalizations, and a general sense of racial superiority became suddenly OK to share in mixed company.

What struck me as funny about seeing an angry rant about the inappropriateness of rioting African American young people is how the only real demographic difference between the ranter and the rioter is the color of their skin. But the difference of life experience is vast. If some of the young men I know who shared racist posts were followed by police, pulled over and searched randomly and constantly, pushed, shunned and occasionally shot … well, they’d be rioters, too. Their social class is almost enough to make them riot now. Almost. I think I can understand why someone would get so angry that they’d burn a police car, or break windows. Or steal. Because who cares, right? Who cares about a system that doesn’t care about you?

That’s where the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., become so important. Yes, he did say “Riots are the language of the unheard,” not in prescribing riots, but decrying the social condition that causes them. Robberies can be random crimes. Murders can be random crimes. For that matter, even wire fraud can be random. But riots don’t happen randomly. Riots also don’t solve anything, which is what King would go on to preach. Only peaceful, righteous protest can succeed, but that does not mean such demonstrations are warm, comfortable or fitting the expectations of the majority.

At the peak of the national media blitz on Ferguson, this letter appeared in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. Written by former GOP legislative candidate and local township official Marv Ott, the piece laments the decay of some remembered age of virtuosity in politics, but names only African American Democrats for blame in its demise. The first paragraph is abject racism, whether the writer intended it or not. This is not an isolated case. The coffee klatches. The gas stations. Facebook. At best, just ignorance. At worst, willful ignorance.

There isn’t much that empathy can’t cure. As I teach in class, empathy isn’t the same as sympathy. Sympathy means “sucks to be you.” And I think it’s clear to most people that it does suck to be black in St. Louis right now, and also on the Iron Range. It sucks to be any kind of person who stands out in any way. Why is that necessary? Forced homogeny is no longer a social virtue. Those days are gone, and good riddance.

The specter of police violence and lawlessness, the riots in Ferguson, the protests around the nation, these are all part of a sickness in this country. So, too, was the harassment and death of Isaiah Gatimu on the Iron Range.

The worst assumption anyone can make is that this sickness, and the need for redemptive healing, does not apply to each of us equally — no matter where we live. As the popular prayer of St. Frances states clearly: Seek first to understand. The rest will come.

I love my people and my place in Northern Minnesota. I love it as it is, and as it could be. We deny ourselves hope if we close our minds to conversations like this.


  1. joe musich says

    Beautifully written ! And to think that a former resident’s writings were a hallmark speaking of the same issues almost 60 years ago. Thank you.

  2. Tammy Swedberglund says

    Really wanted to see Mesabi Daily News’s regular Empress MaeLi feature somehow worked into the mix . Although the paper’s editorial heart might be sort-of near a good place , this series goes all-in with old-timey racism that draws heavily on the exotic Asian trope .

  3. Race is such a divisive issue, always amazes me how right and wrong get thrown out when race is interjected. Shooting 18 yr old unarmed kid- wrong. 18 yr old strong arm stealing cigerallo’s-wrong. Rioting because of verdict- wrong. Burning someones business to ground-wrong. Voicing an opinion without riots-right. Peacefully supporting your community-right. Demanding more blacks on police force in Ferguson-right. Using your vote to elicit change-right. So many more folks were doing right in St. Louis but the wrongdoers made all the news.

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