"It's hard to see racism when you're white" billboards roil Duluth

This billboard has some folks so upset they've threatened the Duluth mayor.
This billboard has some folks so upset they've threatened the Duluth mayor.

New anti-racism billboards in Duluth have sparked a heated debate.

The billboards, created by the Un-Fair Campaign, tell passersby that "It's hard to see racism when you're white," but some white folks in the predominately caucasian community object to being singled out and argue the campaign contradicts itself by using racism to combat racism.

Phil Pierson, creator of an anti-Un-Fair Campaign Facebook page, told the Duluth News Tribune that he thinks "it's a misguided and contradictory campaign."

"Duluth cannot afford this kind of hate," he added.

While Pierson's objections are civil and principled, others who are offended by the billboards have gotten downright threatening. The Star Tribune reports that Mayor Don Ness -- a supporter of the Un-Fair Campaign -- received a message telling him to "Die, scum, die."

But proponents of the ads argue that the "it's hard to see racism when you're white" message is especially important in a relatively homogenous community like Duluth, which is 90 percent white.

Duluth is 90 percent white.
Duluth is 90 percent white.

Ellen O'Neill, executive director of the Duluth YWCA, one of the campaign's 15 co-sponsors, told the Strib that "it's possible to never interact with a person of color here, [which] makes the problem more invisible." She said that only 25 percent of Duluth's black students and 34 percent of American Indian students graduate from high school in four years, compared with 80 percent of white students. Furthermore, while only 18 percent of Duluth's whites live in poverty, 67 percent of blacks and 56 percent of American Indians are poor.

According to its website, The Un-Fair Campaign's mission is "to raise awareness about white privilege in our community, provide resources for understanding and action, and facilitate dialogue and partnership that result in fundamental, systemic change towards racial justice."

Maybe the billboards will get a few Duluthians thinking about the racial disparities that are all too easy to overlook. But is it socioeconomics or racism that generates the inequalities referred to by O'Neill? After all, there are plenty of poor whites in Duluth, but few would blame their plight on racism. It's easy to ascribe one cause for phenomena like poverty and low graduation rates, but the full scope of the problem goes beyond white folks being blind to racism.

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