Don Samuels: The Great Black Hope?

Can Don Samuels heal what ails the North Side and Twin Cities’ race relations in one fell swoop?

Don Sameuls: The Great Black Hope?
Photo by Craig Bares

Samuels has made something of a cottage industry out of racial outreach. Four years ago, Samuels, Kevin Reich, and southwest Minneapolis activist Michelle Martin created the Peace Foundation, which—in addition to sponsoring the monthly Saturday bus trips—stages North Side “Peace Games,” street-level barbecues, art crawls, block parties, and “Peace Balls” that draw prominent and proletarian Twin Citians for volunteerism and fun. (Samuels stepped down as president when his opponent and some community members complained that corporate donations to the foundation could be considered favors for the council member. Don’s wife, Sondra, now has the title.)

Since being elected to the council Samuels has also formed a private business, the Institute for Authentic Dialogue, which is led by his wife and local author Jon Odell. So far, Don says, the trio has consulted with a dozen corporations whose executives “call and say, ‘I’m having problems keeping black people or people of color at my company, and I don’t know what’s going on.’ And basically our feeling is he knows what’s going on, but just can’t deal with it. We didn’t want to fuss around trying to transform employees while the bosses are so uncomfortable with race. So we go in with these executives, top management folks, and we demonstrate the conversation. Between Jon and me, we both demonstrate a raw conversation on race.”

Odell is well suited to the task, Samuels adds. “Jon is a Southerner who grew up on the other side of the civil rights movement. He’s the first white guy who told me he grew up racist. All of my white friends look at me like ‘Where are all the racists? Nobody in my family is one. I’ve never met one. Aren’t those people evil?’ ”—giggle—“And so when you meet a white guy who can tell you [he’s racist], you want to hug him! Together, we encourage the executives to mine their memories and their attitudes and come up with the questions and statements they have been suppressing for years. And we create a safe space for them to do that.”

Politics has no safe space, and as an elected official, Samuels’s “authentic dialogue” has alienated blacks who say he cannot speak for them. During his 2005 council race, Samuels told a community forum that his Jamaican slave ancestors “got a leg up” working in the “big house” rather than the fields because they saw the masters’ families doing homework, reading books, and taking piano lessons. He said that he and Sondra wanted their Jordan neighborhood home to provide big house–style enrichment for neighborhood children. The inelegant plantation metaphor and artless noblesse oblige led to opponent Natalie Johnson Lee’s campaign slogan, which decorated T-shirts and literature: U can’t LEAD the people if you don’t LOVE the people. The symbolism dogs Samuels.

Reverend Jerry McAfee of the North Side’s New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, an activist who has battled Samuels over the years, says, “He’s made the right moves for the white community, but he hasn’t courted the black community en masse in the same way. When you make the statements that you make—dang! Whether you meant it or not, it’s insulting. You tell that to some people like my grandmother, who was born on a plantation. Her twin brother was killed by one of the overseers. Talk about some big house and stuff, that ain’t appealing to them.”

By way of explanation, Samuels, who was ordained a few years ago, says a meaningful part of his seminary work was learning about the Twelve Steps of alcoholism recovery. “This is the paradigm: I am an alcoholic; I am a racist. I have to stand up and say I was richer than some of the people in my community, we did have some maids, we did have a lighter complexion. I have to confess those things because then I can look at you and hold you accountable.”

Some wonder, though, whether he hasn’t let Mayor R. T. Rybak off the hook. Though Samuels is not one of city hall’s policy wonks, he backs Rybak on almost every economic and policing issue: He quickly supported the mayor’s nomination of Tim Dolan for police chief, even though no minorities were seriously considered.

Hitching a ride on Rybak’s coattails is not the most popular move on the North Side, where crime has climbed since the mayor’s 2001 election. And even though Rybak won reelection in 2005 with 61 percent of the vote, he lost Samuels’s 5th Ward. Ralph Remington—whose 2005 election to Uptown’s 10th Ward made him the council’s only other African American—recalls attending a black scholarship celebration where “at least ten to fifteen people came up to me and said, ‘You’re my council member.’ I said, ‘You’re in the 10th Ward?’ And they said, ‘No, I’m in the 5th Ward.’ They don’t say specific things, [it’s] more of a feeling—‘Don kisses the white man’s ass; Don kisses the mayor’s ass,’ those kind of comments.’ ”