Number 279 November 26, 2004

This Week:

Quote of the Week
Minnesota: The “High Achiever” and the “Earnings Gap”
A Radical Faith (Part 4 – the final part – of the “How Not To Get Depressed” Series)


I confess to some nervousness this week, as I address the issue of faith. After all, a big part of Nygaard Notes is facts and figures, rational arguments, and critical thinking. And faith is not about any of that. Faith is the thing that comes before all that, the thing that keeps us going. In light of the recent election, I heard some people say things like, “We lost, so why did I do all that work?” If you have had some thoughts like this, then this week’s piece on faith – the last piece of the How Not To Get Depressed series – was written especially for you.

Nygaard Notes will take next week “off” to install and configure the new computer system that YOU made possible with your contributions to the Capital Fund Drive. Despite the fact that I expect this process to drive me insane for a time, I am aware that I ASKED for this insanity, and am grateful to all of you who made it possible. It’ll be a good thing, in the end. I expect to be back in two weeks, Nygaard Notes # 280 should be out on December 10.

Faithfully yours,


"Quote" of the Week:

“Knowing that everything changes and how things change gives you power. Sometimes people say,
‘What difference can one person make?’ When you understand that each drop adds up to make a mighty ocean, you know you are important. Every vote counts; every voice matters; that extra bit of effort may be all it takes to reach a turning point. Every step in a long journey brings you closer to your goal.”

from “What Good is Knowing Dialectics?,” found on the web at

Minnesota: The “High Achiever” and the “Earnings Gap”

I have heard many people say that the Star Tribune (and Minnesota media in general) are “racist.” This essay looks at two recent articles that I think are examples of the sort of thing that gives rise to such charges.

As you read this story, please bear in mind that I am not charging anyone with racism. I’m simply suggesting that it’s worth thinking about the possibility that the passive, internalized bigotry from which many of us who grew up in this state suffer may be a part of the explanation of the disparity in coverage and interpretation of the news that is discussed here. See what you think.

On September 17th, a story appeared on the front page of the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) with the headline: “EARNINGS GAP GROWS WIDER IN MINNESOTA: Income Growth In Past Decade Missed Rural Areas.” The inside headline (on the page where the story continued) read: Urban-Rural Wage Gap Now Stands At $11,500.”

Two days earlier, on September 15, a story appeared on the front page of the “B” section (the “Metro/State” section), headlined “A HIGHER-ED HIGH ACHIEVER; Minnesota Is No. 2 Performer, But Racial Gap Is Growing.” This was a report on a major national study on higher education released the day before. (This is not the first time I’ve looked at this story; see Nygaard Notes #269.) This week I want to look a little more closely at the Placement, Emphasis, and Tone of these two very different stories that both appeared in the local newspaper of record.

PLACEMENT: The education story was relegated to the “Metro/State” section, far less important than the earnings story, which was on the top of Page One.

EMPHASIS: The emphasis in the education story was on the performance of the state as a whole, with the growth in the “racial gap” mentioned as a secondary point. The earnings story was just the reverse: the “gap” was the story here. In fact, one had to turn to the inside page to find this quote from the state demographer’s office: “Minnesota has done really well as a state the past 10 years. Our nationwide rank in income has gone up quite a bit – from 18th to 8th. . .” The keyword used to identify the continuation story on page 15 was “GAP, from page A1,” so we see that the editors considered the story here was the gap, and not the overall achievement.

TONE: Clearly, one was a “good news” story, and one was a “bad news” story, with one being about the state as “high achiever,” and the other being about the “earnings gap” growing wider.

The overall impression? When it comes to meeting the basic need of education, the fact that the state is not doing it for children of color barely tarnishes the overall picture of “good news.” But when it comes to meeting the basic need of income, the state is not doing well, BECAUSE it is not meeting the needs of its rural people. (The numbers of people affected are large in both cases: People of color in Minnesota number about 535,000 people, while the rural population – which includes people of color – numbers roughly 1.5 million people.)

I doubt very much that this impression reflects the conscious beliefs or intentions of the writers or editors of the two pieces. I also doubt very much that I am the only one who came away with the impression I summarized above.

A couple of relevant details: While it is true that Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, has the state’s highest income, that is an average. Within the county, household income for Indian people is almost exactly one-half that of so-called “white” households, with black households barely higher. Also, while the earnings article mentions that the state’s poorest county is Mahnomen County, it fails to mention what I consider an important fact: this county is also the location of the White Earth Indian Reservation and has by far the highest percentage of Indians of any Minnesota county. None of these racially-relevant details were mentioned in the Star Trib’s news reports.

The Definition of Racism

My definition of “racism” is “race prejudice plus power.” That is, race prejudice within an individual is simply bigotry. That’s plenty bad, but it’s not “racism.” What you talk about at a party, in other words, is one thing; what goes on the front pages of the paper is another, because of power.

Many so-called “white” people still need to see overt acts of bigoted hostility or discrimination in order to see what they call “racism” at work. Many people of color – and racially-educated “whites” – are able to see the more subtle kind of racism that appears to be evident in the news stories I’ve been looking at in this article.

If bigoted ideas did, in fact, play a role in the troubling choices made about the Placement, Emphasis, and Tone of these stories, they only rise to the level of racism because of the power of the media institution in which they were played out. It’s unlikely that the writers and editors at the Star Trib are any more bigoted than most people in this state. But most people do not impose their ideas about what is more important and what is less, about what is “good news” and what is “bad news” upon a reading public of hundreds of thousands of people.

In other words, whatever the conscious intent of the writers or editors in the mass media, they have a special responsibility when they make their news choices. This is true because they have great power to subtly reinforce – or challenge – some of the damaging priorities and realities in our state, such as the factors that tend to marginalize both rural people AND people of color. When we see a pattern in which all types of inequality are deserving of front-page headlines, then we’ll know we are making real progress in undoing the racist legacy which we all have inherited.


A Radical Faith (Part 4 – the final part – of the “How Not To Get Depressed” Series)

  • faith: (noun) “confidence, reliance, belief, especially without evidence or proof”
  • radical: (adjective) “going to the root or origin; pertaining to or affecting what is fundamental.”

Those definitions are from my Oxford English Dictionary.

I am aware that “faith” is all over the news these days, as people go about interpreting the results of the recent election. Supposedly people voted their “faith,” or looked for a candidate that shared their “faith,” or in some other way used their “faith” to decide who was their choice to be the president of the United States. All of this seems like wild speculation to me; not completely uninteresting, but also not too terribly useful.

What most of these commentators are talking about is religion, or certain sets of doctrine that are organized into particular religious creeds. I believe there is a different type of faith, a more profound faith, one that is innate in the human being. Sometimes it attaches itself to religion, but it doesn’t have to. This deeper thing is the type of faith I want to talk about this week.

Consider my understanding of the world, which I explained in Part 1 of this series (Thinking “Systems”), and in Part II (“Thinking Dialectically”). Briefly, I think of “systems” as basically what the world is, and I think of dialectics as a useful way of thinking about that world. I said last week that the key to not being depressed when you think about that world is ACTION. But simply taking action isn’t good in and of itself – I want my action to help build the stream of justice into a mighty river. Actions taken without care and reflection can work against the current – that is, can be ineffective or counterproductive – and having done so on numerous occasions I know that’s depressing.

So, there is effective action, and there is ineffective action. But there is no such thing as NO action, at least not if you think dialectically. In this way of thinking, by doing “nothing” you are choosing to refrain from trying to make things better. That’s an action in itself. This is the meaning of the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

From the systems analysis – that all of us are affecting the world, for better or worse, all the time – comes a longing. A longing to find one’s place, to make good choices about how MY life affects the world, how MY choices influence others. My faith tells me that my life will have been a good one if I have taken the best actions that I could take, to the best of my abilities. I can’t prove any of this. But I believe it.

A personal story: Last year I had a small stroke. Now, by all appearances, I was – and am – remarkably healthy, so I went a little bit crazy for a couple of months while the doctors conducted about 7 million tests. Finally, I was told that I had a hole in the wall of my heart. Now, wouldn’t you expect me to be discouraged to find that my heart has a hole in it? That’s what I would have thought. Yet I greeted this news with joy. Why? Because suddenly I could understand the root cause of this problem, and take steps to preserve my health, and not just cover up the symptoms or worse yet, “learn to live with” the problem. And so it has been with life in the larger world. [Ed. note: If you didn’t know, I did address the heart problem, and I’m fine now.]

In the same way, I greet the results of the research I do for Nygaard Notes with joy. What I am attempting to do, and hopefully helping Notes readers to do, is to accurately “diagnose” the social problems that we care about by going to their sources. My faith tells me that, as more and more people come to question prevailing policies – really, as more come to be able to imagine a different system entirely, which is the “source” part – we will get closer to the next “tipping point” of transformation, the kind that we’ve seen again and again throughout history.

Helping us all to imagine a different reality is why I strive for a radical analysis, why I try to go to the SOURCE of problems. Even when looking at the smallest tidbit of information, I try to help people – including myself! – connect it to their larger understanding, all in service of the goal of working toward solutions at the deepest level we can. The clarity that then results is, for me, very uplifting, regardless of the nature of the underlying problem. It’s never depressing!

In the day-to-day world, we don’t need to do too much reflecting or researching. We know what we have to do to put food on the table. But what tells us that political action matters? Why would I think that my efforts are making the world different? In the larger world, change happens slowly – or, at least, the forces that bring about change build up slowly. Often it’s so slow that we aren’t around by the time the change becomes visible. So, how do we know that our actions are having any effect? Faith.

For a radical thinker, the biggest and best part of the vision is in the future. While I may support an increase in the minimum wage, for example, that’s not the vision. The vision is an economy that provides for everyone, where there is no need to enforce a “minimum.” While I may oppose the occupation of Iraq, the vision is larger, of a time when the United States has rid itself of both the capacity and the need to occupy other countries. Will I see these things – or most of the other things I talk about and dream about – in my lifetime? Not likely. So, what keeps me from being depressed all the time? Why do people constantly remark on how “optimistic,” and “hopeful,” and “positive” I am? Why don’t I just accept reality and go get a “real” job?

It’s because I believe that my work, as it adds to the work of others with similar values and similar dreams, DOES make a difference, DOES add a drop or two to the stream of justice, even though I have no “evidence or proof” to support this. As the Buddhist Sharon Salsberg says, and as I quoted a couple of weeks ago, “When we stand before a chasm of futility, it is first of all faith in this larger perspective that enables us to go on.”

And go on we will, as long as there is breath. That’s the power of faith. A radical faith in the future.