Bigotry Can’t Be Solved Without First Acknowledging It

What I learned from MPHA

Hollman Consent Decree announcement, 1995. Left to right: Me, MPHA Exective Director Cora McCorvey, and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. 

Hollman Consent Decree announcement, 1995. Left to right: Me, MPHA Exective Director Cora McCorvey, and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. 

When I was working for the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, the Public Housing Authority (MPHA) was a part of it – and it was in trouble. The federal government was looking to designate it as “troubled” and assume control of it.  The federal government was also looking to hold back badly needed capital improvement funds. Additionally, a large lawsuit involving HUD, the City of Minneapolis, MPHA and the Metropolitan Council that raised serious allegations about the motivations around the citing of public housing developments was about to be filed.   

We fought back and retained local control of MPHA.  And we brought a lawsuit to secure our capital improvement funds.  But the allegations of racial discrimination relating to the concentration of public housing -- allegations that went back decades -- were the most challenging to address.  Why?

Because they were true.

As I pored over old documents in preparation for discovery for the lawsuit we were facing, I realized that the motivations behind the locating of the public housing structures on the near Northside were likely motivated by a desire to isolate people of color and retain largely white neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.  The only solution I could see was for us to work towards a solution rather than litigate over allegations that in all likelihood were well founded.   We looked to settle the lawsuit.   

With all of the parties involved in the lawsuit, we developed the Hollman Consent Decree, which ultimately brought $100 million into the city to help us address some of the vestiges of this appalling history. I was so proud to work with two strong African American leaders to forge a pathway forward:  Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and MPHA Executive Director Cora McCorvey.  

Too often, when faced with the suggestion that our actions may be motivated by racism, homophobia, misogyny or some other form of bigotry, our first impulse may well be to deny it. It’s normal to want to be perceived to be a good person, and it’s normal to want to believe you’re a good person. That’s one of the reasons it can be so hard to admit tour biases; it goes against our own self-image.  But what we learned from Hollman is that putting those personal issues aside can open up real possibilities for change in our community.

If we had chosen to simply fight the Hollman lawsuit rather than work towards settlement -- even a slightly imperfect one -- we would have would have undoubtedly lost both the fight and have failed to secure the funds necessary for remediation.  We would have lost the opportunity to do something big for our community.   

If we want to move forward as a society, we all need to look inside and examine where our perceptions of others come from. When we do this, we often find that our perceptions are informed by messages in our culture, not by any objective truth.  In fact, our beliefs may very well be contrary to the real truth.   

As a gay white man, I have a special responsibility to help other communities that face prejudice and oppression. I grew up in a time when it was not safe to be out and gay.  Now, I have access to spaces that others, whether due to their gender or color of their skin, do not. It’s my duty to stand up for them the way others stood up for me during the early days of the gay rights movement.  

We moved forward with Hollman and we can move beyond discrimination in other areas too.  Everyone in our community must have unlimited opportunity.  That’s the future that I want to see in Minneapolis! 

Tom Hoch