Black Like Who?

Natalie Johnson Lee and Don Samuels have had different rides during their terms on the city council
Diana Watters

Natalie Johnson Lee and Don Samuels are two black leaders representing the city's north side. Their similarities, publicly at least, end there.

Three weeks ago, Natalie Johnson Lee bustled into the coffee shop at the Urban League in north Minneapolis. Before the city council member could take a seat at a table by the front door, an old-timer from the neighborhood had her ear.

They talked about the recent rash of shootings in the nearby Jordan neighborhood, which is not in Johnson Lee's Fifth Ward, but is instead represented by council newcomer Don Samuels. Even so, as an African American, Johnson Lee is personally linked to Jordan, where there are twice as many black residents as whites.

Samuels had gained much attention and praise for his public reaction to the shootings, making good on his promise to fast and hold overnight vigils each time someone is shot and killed in his Third Ward. In light of this, Johnson Lee seemed lost in the shadows.

The old-timer, an African American who had spent most of his life on the north side, had a special distaste for this. He worried that the attention paid to Samuels would hurt Johnson Lee should the two face off in the next election cycle, a real possibility now that ward boundaries have been redrawn in accordance with the 2000 census. "Natalie, you cannot let him beat you at this," the man said. "If he's elected over you, it would be the worst thing for African Americans all over the city."

Really? In any event, the old-timer expressed a view that is hardly rare on the north side. While white folks see Samuels emerging as one of the city's most striking black leaders in recent memory, many in the African American community are more circumspect. Samuels is, after all, an immigrant from Jamaica, and his perspectives are framed by a can-do optimism that feels naive and anachronistic to many local African Americans.

But the power brokers at city hall and the king makers in the media, lily-white as they are, have been listening raptly. The same cannot be said in Johnson Lee's case.

Johnson Lee's street cred is intact, but her public image has been under siege for some time. While Samuels seems able to speak about police-minority relations with impunity, the cops have pounced on Johnson Lee. Last summer, after a white Minneapolis police officer and a deranged 60-year-old black woman shot and killed each other in a public-housing restroom in south Minneapolis, Johnson Lee had the audacity to publicly offer condolences to the black woman's family. Within hours, the police union was calling for her resignation.

And two weeks ago, Johnson Lee had a run-in with police while sitting in her car on a neighborhood street, talking to a constituent. In an incident familiar to most blacks on the north side, an argument ensued and Johnson Lee was tagged. After the incident became news, no one rushed to Johnson Lee's defense.

It's hard to imagine similar things happening to Samuels. He clearly has important things to say about race in this town (see "Don Samuels on the Struggles of Jordan," August 20), and Samuels has been embraced by white leadership in Minneapolis. There's even chatter about a mayoral run.

Johnson Lee, on the other hand, largely has had to fend for herself, championing her causes to deaf ears in dreary council committee meetings. She heads the council's Health and Human Services Committee, where most issues challenging blacks in this city--poverty, civil rights--tend to fall. But the committee's agendas are usually treated as an afterthought by most of Johnson Lee's colleagues. Johnson Lee is not bitter about her struggles (although she notes that things would be different if she weren't a woman), but she will admit that most of what Samuels is saying is nothing she hasn't said before.

Samuels is charismatic and makes for good copy, but as an immigrant and an "exotic" of sorts, he is also unburdened by many of the stereotypes most blacks have to face. Immigrants of color like Samuels represent diversity; African Americans like Johnson Lee represent something far more complex, troubling, and intractable.

Suggestions, gripes and tips should be sent to [email protected], and you can check out my similarly themed web log, The City Haul, at

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >