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 is blunt about his relationship with Rybak, which epitomizes the realpolitik of his larger outreach. “This will not be an adversarial relationship where I am demanding things. Because one thing I have discovered about life: When you make demands of people, they will help you and comply with every demand you make that they can’t refute—but they are not going to help you with anything else but that. When a thief says to you, ‘Give me your wallet,’ you don’t give him your watch too. If he asks for the watch, you’ll give him your watch. But I don’t want that kind of relationship. I want one where when I say, ‘Can I have your wallet?’ you say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s the watch.’ ”

A crime metaphor might not be the best way to exemplify a new North Side vision, but Samuels has survived worse: In the wake of the “big house” imbroglio, he won reelection by 11 percentage points. In Rybak’s first postelection state-of-the-city speech a year ago, he promised to concentrate cops and city economic development energies on the North Side, though the effects so far are unclear. “That totally grew out of Don taking me to meetings in his neighborhood,” Rybak says. “The people told me, ‘You wouldn’t allow this in other parts of town,’ and they were right. Don was willing to stand by me, but he made sure I really listened, really heard that.”

Within the black community, critiques of Samuels’s approach range from the principled to the destructive.

On the reasoned side, Remington says Samuels’s philosophies are similar to those of black conservative Shelby Steele, who “talks more about personal responsibility than system causes that create the situation. That makes it appear like you’re a gatekeeper or toady for the system.” Then there are the turf wars: Remington says he frequently attends events at the Urban League, a longtime, system-challenging organization, and Samuels is often not present. Not only that, McAfee believes the Peace Foundation competes with traditional inner-city institutions for scarce nonprofit and corporate dollars. “I came out the doors of the church this summer and some folks from white churches [were] walking up and down the neighborhood cleaning stuff up,” says McAfee. “Some people would get all excited about that. I couldn’t get excited about it, because there is no way I would go out to Edina, near a white church, and [clean] it up unless I contacted that pastor first. That’s pastoral protocol.”

And then there are the hatemongers, such as Booker Hodges, who, as a guest on a public-access cable TV show after Samuels talked of the big house, spoke—possibly metaphorically—about how “we have to kill the house niggas. We gotta kill them. And that’s what we doin’ on this show. . . . If you see a house negro, deal with them appropriately, call them out, do not allow these people to continue to sell us out.”

Although Samuels was outraged enough by Hodges’s threat to file a city civil rights complaint that’s still pending, it’s telling that he now speaks as if the static is the birth pangs of a new black leadership: “That is the result of, I think, visionary leadership. Then eventually other people come along as they begin to see. I have to keep speaking out because based on what I’ve observed over the years what’s happening is not working.”