Department of the Living Dead

Why is the city's civil rights office such a chronic mess?

Twenty years ago, when Don Fraser selected Mary Emma Hixson, a white lesbian, to lead the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, the howls of protest were practically instantaneous. Black leaders around town decried Hixson's lack of practical experience in working for communities of color, and claimed the mayor was turning his back on the needs of minorities.

Hixson's supporters heralded the move as a victory for gender equality and gay rights in the summer of 1984, but the scuffle was a pivotal point for the local civil rights movement. The department was forged, after all, at the urging of black leaders in the late 1960s; that the torch would be passed to a white woman was unthinkable. The Hixson matter, as Ron Edwards told the New York Times in the parlance of the day, reflected the "posture of apartheid" emanating from the mayor's office. Fraser shot back: "It's the height of irony that a racial test should be put to the head of an agency who is hired to end those attitudes."

Things may be more muted now, but are certainly no less messy. Last month, when Mayor R.T. Rybak announced his choice for the city's civil rights director, there was swift dissent. And it wasn't coming strictly from community watchdogs: The city's highest ranking black official, council member Natalie Johnson Lee, boycotted the mayor's State of the City address three days after the announcement.

Meet the new boss? Jayne Baccus Khalifa is awaiting confirmation to lead the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights
Richard Fleischman
Meet the new boss? Jayne Baccus Khalifa is awaiting confirmation to lead the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights

Never mind that unlike Hixson, Jayne Baccus Khalifa is African American. Privately, some were saying that Khalifa, a longtime bureaucrat who left a five-year post as managing director of St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, was not the kind of black leader they needed. Sure, she had served as a deputy director for the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department in 1973, and even headed the state's Department of Human Rights in 1986. But all that only served to prove that Khalifa is beholden to insider politics, the critics said, and has done little to advance the cause of street-level progress.

Indeed, Khalifa's résumé is peppered with stays at various government agencies, and almost nothing in the way of grassroots civil rights work. One observer termed her "R.T.'s kind of Negro," a sentiment echoed by several people I spoke to. The underlying tensions have everything to do with class. Specifically, these community leaders fear that African American professionals of Khalifa's pedigree have little understanding or concern for the plight of less well-to-do blacks in America. Typically, the thinking goes, the black bourgeoisie winds up far closer to their institutional bosses than to the people they ostensibly represent--and if they do work on civil rights issues, they tend to emphasize the struggles of their own corporate/professional class rather than more basic workaday issues.

Which may or may not be true in the particular case of Jayne Khalifa. But whatever the suspicion and ill-feeling say about how some people see this mayor and his appointee, the flap also resurrects old questions about what the proper role of the civil rights department is.

 

Initially, the idea of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department was to ensure that no one working or living in Minneapolis would be subjected to discriminatory treatment, and that there would be a city entity in charge of investigating complaints. It was an outgrowth of two commissions created in 1947, during Hubert Humphrey's tenure as mayor; later, Humphrey would go on to become one of the first voices agitating for civil rights in the U.S. Congress. Even today, the city's website espouses as its goal, "to end discrimination in Minneapolis."

Over time, though, the department's purview grew and shifted--from dealing exclusively with racial discrimination to more general oversight of the rights of "protected classes," a designation that encompassed women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, the aging. There are many in local African American circles who believe the department has never fought racial discrimination seriously or consistently since its scope was rendered so broad.

Though Don Fraser's appointment of Emma Hixson was confirmed in 1984, her 10-year tenure was marked by controversy and accusations of poor management. And it wasn't lost on anyone that her defining crusade involved not race, but the rights of same-sex couples.

In 1994, then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton decided not to reappoint Hixson. But the department only grew more notorious. Sayles Belton's pick for the job, a black man named Kenneth White, was accused of nepotism when the Star Tribune reported in 1998 that three people with ties to White's family were working under him. Later White was charged with ignoring alleged sexual harassment in the workplace.

The more troubling fact was that unresolved discrimination complaints became commonplace. During Hixson's tenure, as many as 300 cases per year were investigated. As reported in City Pages in 2000 (see "The Complaint Department," 8/16/00), more than 90 percent of those cases were closed within a year. By 1995, only 188 of 263 investigated cases were resolved in White's first full year. By 1999, the department only looked at 75 complaints.

Eventually, city leaders began to talk of cutting civil rights programs altogether. Though that hasn't happened, budget cuts and staff "streamlining" further crippled the department. White was dismissed, and deputy director Vanne Owens Hayes was picked by Sayles Belton to lead the department in March 2001. By most accounts, matters have not improved under her stewardship. (See "Dancing as Fast as She Can," 12/12/02.)

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