Affirmative Action UpDate: DFL Party Continues Effort to Soften “A-Words”


Story UpDate for The UpTake by Sheila Regan; update posted 4:45 p.m. Sept. 24

There were tears and accusations of personal attacks as the DFL Central Committee voted Sept. 21 to revise its previously named Affirmative Action Statement in the party’s Official Call, angering some party members who believe the party is trying to soft-pedal its previously staunch support for affirmative action.

After much heated debate, the title of the party’s “Affirmative Action Statement” was changed at Saturday’s meeting in St. Paul to its “Affirmative Action, Outreach and Inclusion Statement,” followed by definitions of what the party means by Affirmative Action and Outreach and Inclusion, with an added motion that those definitions will be revised again next year. The vote followed controversy over a proposed draft had erased the words Affirmative Action from the Statement, sparking protests from members of the African American Caucus and other groups.

Although the party’s processes and discussions no doubt seem obscure to outsiders, the underlying implications were clear to African-American Democrats who worry that the party is backing away from affirmative action in light of recent Supreme Court rulings and right-wing criticism.

Terra Cole, who recently became an Outreach and Inclusion Officer for the Minnesota Young DFL, said Saturday that the reason there’s been resistance among Minnesota Democrats to the words Affirmative Action is that some in the DFL don’t want to give Republicans ammunition for criticism.

“We’ve done this work before,” Cole said. “Every time we do it, it (the words, “Affirmative Action”) gets taken out,” she said.

The Outreach and Inclusion Committee’s definition of Affirmative Action was met with resistance from the Constitution and Bylaws and Rules Committee, according to Cole, and in response, Mark Raabe, from the CBRC Committee, came up with alternative definitions which Cole describes as “flowery and watered down.”

Nellie Stone Johnson: The DFL's iconic Civil Rights leader, who died in 2002, was a proud member of the party's "Affirmative Action Committee." How would she have liked to be on the "Outreach and Inclusion Committee?"

The State Central Committee, whose membership includes the State Executive Committee, ten elected officials, the leaders of the Minnesota Young DFL, the chairs and associate chairs of each senate district, and representatives elected from local party units, eventually voted to approve the definitions put forward by the OIC, but with the last sentence of each definition deleted. Below are the two definitions, including the struck last sentences:

Affirmative Action is defined for the purposes of the DFL Party as the aggressive recruitment, selection, placement and retention of members from historically-underrepresented and excluded groups in all party affairs. This includes all party units, officers, caucuses, committees, conventions, convocations, and staff members at every level in the party. These actions must be results-oriented and will be reflected in the DFL Party’s Affirmative Action/Outreach and Inclusion Plan.

Outreach and Inclusion activities are wide-ranging, intentional, results-oriented, everyday DFL Party efforts to engage and retain participation from historically underrepresented and excluded groups. All party units, officers, caucuses, committees, conventions, convocations, and staff members at every level in the party shall engage consistently in outreach and inclusion By engaging underrepresented groups through collaboration, flexibility, and fairness, the DFL Party shall enable current and potential members to contribute to their fullest in all party activities. Outreach and inclusion activities shall be consistent with the DFL Party’s Affirmative Action/Outreach and Inclusion Plan, which shall be updated annually.

Sue Moravec, who serves on the OIC and the CBRC, made the motion to strike the last sentence. “We are walking along shaky ground,” she said, objecting to the action-oriented language of the two sentences, which call for an Affirmative Action/Outreach and Inclusion plan to be updated annually.

Alexis Pennie, a delegate from the Fifth Congressional District, objected to striking the last sentences, which he said “negated the responsibility and accountability we desperately need.”

After the State Central Committee voted to approve the new Affirmative Action, Outreach and Inclusion statement along with the new definitions, it then voted to have the OIC and the CBRC work collaboratively to come up with “better language” for 2015-2016.

In response, Terra Cole, who was one of the main authors of the definitions, spoke emotionally at the microphone, crying as the phrase “better language” had been repeated numerous times throughout the afternoon. “We have to debate the validity of my existence,” she said. “When we talk about a collaborative effort, it also needs to be inclusive.”

Mark Raabe, who had spoken most strongly against definitions language, said that “no one out-reached to me” and that “the diversity of my perspective was not respected” during the process of coming up with the definitions. Raabe stressed he felt the definitions could be more “accessible” to newcomers to the party. “We not only need to simplify our processes, we need to draw people in, we need to be able to explain our processes and our values and our commitments in accessible language,” he said.

The following is Sheila Regan’s original story on the Affirmative Action issue. This story was posted Friday. Sept. 20.

The United States may have elected an African-American president, but that doesn’t mean we’re living in a post racial society. In areas of income, access to quality education, employment and representation in government, disparities continue, and two recent Supreme Court blows to civil and voting rights laws have led many to believe that Affirmative Action is needed now as much as ever to ensure an equal playing field for groups that have historically not been equal.

So to some Minnesota DFLers, the party has been mistaken in downgrading its “affirmative action” branding over the past couple of years, including changing the titles of its “Affirmative Action Officers” to “Outreach and Inclusion Officers.”
This weekend, the party is considering further changes to its “Call,” a document which governs the process for precinct caucuses, conventions, electoral commissions and other party meetings. An early draft of the revised document replaced the party’s “Affirmative Action Statement” with a more blandly and obscurely titled “Outreach and Inclusion Statement.”

To some DFL stalwarts, particularly in the party’s African-American ranks, the proposed change was too much. So on Saturday, the DFL State Central Committee (SCC), (the governing body of the DFL) will meet at the Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul and vote on an amended revision of the Call, restoring “Affirmative Action” to the Affirmative Action Statement, which would become the “Affirmative Action, Outreach and Inclusion Statement.”

To people outside the party structure, the issue might seem akin to How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin? But to Democrats who have labored in the party — and outside — for years towards the cause of racial justice, it is not a trifling question. Instead, it is the party trifling with its own history.

Lucy Buckner, the Outreach and Inclusion Officer for the DFL’s 2nd Congressional District, still prefers the title Affirmative Action Officer. “I feel very strongly,” Buckner said. “I feel I put in the service, the time, lived the life and can speak on it and I have, because I’ve lived in the South, I’ve lived in the North, I’ve been a voting democrat for 50 years.”

The reason that the party implemented Affirmative Action policies in the first place, Buckner said, was because African-Americans were not given equal status within the party. The use of Affirmative Action was in order to take a firm stand on adding and including African Americans; later, equality for other groups was sought, as well. That’s okay, Buckner said, “But we as African Americans still have not reached that point of equal inclusion. To change the term to Outreach and Inclusion, is not something I embrace.”

Some old school Democrats fear that the party is abandoning the affirmative action term as a sop to the right wing in an era of conservative court rulings and assaults on the very concept of “affirmative action.” For some high party officials, however, “affirmative action” is a phrase that has out-lived its usefulness and is too polarizing to be productive. But African-American DFLers want the phrase restored to prominence as a signal of the party’s determination to promote racial and economic equality. If “Affirmative Action” isn’t important to the DFL, they say in a not-so subtle threat, maybe the votes of African-Americans aren’t, either.

The question of how to frame Affirmative Action policies has been an on-going party conversation since 2011, when the party changed the title of Affirmative Action Officers to “Outreach and Inclusion Officers” (or simply Outreach Officers) and changed the name of the State Affirmative Action Commission (SAAC) to the State Outreach and Inclusion Committee (SOIC) (both changes were approved at the 2012 state convention).

Affirmative Action “Divisive?”

According to Eric Margolis, the State DFL Outreach Officer, the titles of the Affirmative Action Officers were changed to “resonate with the mission.”

“It’s the next step beyond Affirmative Action,” he said. At the heart of the change, Margolis says, is a question over “what would resonate with a broader base of people.” The party, he said, hoped for a “change in conversation and a different approach. It’s a fact that Affirmative Action is a divisive term,” he said.

The Outreach officers are now supposed to not only uphold efforts to achieve racial quality and inclusiveness but are also tasked with efforts to make meetings more accessible, make accommodations for childcare, provide information and literature, and actively take steps toward bringing new people into the party.

When members of the party’s African-American Caucus recognized the changes that were happening, it did not go over well. In fact, opposition from the caucus to the initial changes forced the party to modify them.

“It was not going over well with our communities,” said Bill English, Chair of the African-American Caucus. “We started organizing (and) we went back to the Outreach and Inclusion Committee. We went to the Constitution Bylaws and Rules Committee — they are responsible for changing the calls.”

Party Chair Ken Martin says he was swayed by members of the African-American Caucus and other constituencies that “words matter.” He and others support efforts to put “Affirmative Action” back into the revised call, so that the party’s statement will now come under the heading, “Affirmative Action, Outreach and Inclusion.”

According to Martin, the Constitution, Bylaws, and Rules Committee (CBRC) agreed to restore the words Affirmative Action after the concerns surfaced. “As chair, I was made aware of it, and led the charge to include that back there,” he said.

However, the CBRC didn’t agree to add definitions of the terms to the call, believing they would prefer to see the definitions in the DFL Constitution, Martin said.

According to English, members of the African-American caucus “took grave concern” when the words “Affirmative Action” went missing in a proposed draft of the new call. English supports the current CBRC statement that includes both Outreach and Inclusion and Affirmative Action, and is in favor of adding the definitions of each to the call as well.

In addition, English said the African-American Caucus is hopeful that the DFL will implement an annual Affirmative Action plan “that will show measurable results,” he said.

English said he doesn’t know why “Outreach and Inclusion” has been positioned to replace” Affirmative Action” in the party’s documents.

“What I heard them say is that it is an outdated term,” he said. “But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No one has been more loyal to the Democratic Party than African-Americans,” English said. “We vote 98 percent Democrat. We don’t think Affirmative Action is an outdated term. We are clearly not represented.”

English points to gender-balance policy, which was implemented because women were discriminated against in the party. “People of color supported gender balance,” English said. “When we start talking about racial balance, the party says, ‘We will make every attempt.’ But they guarantee gender balance. Tell me why one you guarantee and the other you say you make every attempt — with no real result. It is time for us to say, ‘We need more than an attempt.’ We need to show we are taking affirmative steps to bring loyal voters to the party — that includes on the state central committee, our delegates and our elected representatives.”

Currently there are three African-Americans in the state legislature. “At one point in the 1960s, we had two. We’ve gained one in 50 years. That’s not saying much. The party has not made significant progress,” said English.

If at Saturday’s meeting the words Affirmative Action are left out, English said there are options:

“We know that we would not have a Democratic governor if African-Americans wouldn’t have voted. We know that we can be the difference in a close election. We are not political naivetes[; we are not dumb.” If the SCC decides to eliminate Affirmative Action, he said, “They are going to turn off a lot of African Americans.

““Minnesota is no longer the blue state that it used to be. In elections we recognize we can be a difference. We can fight back now.”

Certain factions in the party, according to English, don’t understand Affirmative Action. Has the DFL ceded leadership on racial equality to the corporations?

“Corporations use Affirmative Action all the time,” he said. “General Mills today, they have a much more diverse workforce. Target, Wal-Mart- they recognize our country is very diverse.”

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