I love the Minnesota State Fair. But dang it all — Black Lives Matter is right about structural/institutional racism at the Fair and in the state. So I went to the fair today, and I also plan to go to the #BlackFair march on Saturday. I agree with Julie Blaha, who wrote in a letter to the editor to the Strib:
“I love the State Fair with a passion that borders on obsession … [but] I have no problem with disruption for a good cause.
“If I’m willing to wait half an hour for deep-fried pickles, I can spend a little time on something as important as ending racism. Fairgoers, the least we can do for our neighbors suffering injustice is to put down the mini doughnuts for a bit and listen.”
When I was growing up, the State Fair was a summer’s end prize: more people assembled in one spot than lived in our whole rural county, politicians and hucksters of other kinds, the lights and rides of the Midway, corn dogs and cotton candy, foot-long hot dogs and tri-color ice cream cones. Since then, Minnesota has become more racially and ethnically diverse. If the Fair is the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” then it must reflect that diversity.
The crowds filling the fair on opening day today looked even whiter and older than I remember from recent years. Counting 50 adults at a time, at various times and places during opening day, I came up with 452 white fairgoers out of 500. Maybe the age, race and ethnicity change later in the day and on weekends.
Black Lives Matter says the vendors at the Fair are disproportionately white, which is hard to prove or disprove since the Fair says it doesn’t know. Fair officials say they do not ask the race of applicants.
Asking the race of applicants is not the issue. Without doing that, the Fair could ask the race of already-operating vendors. That would reveal the proportion of black (and Asian and Latino and American Indian) vendors among its 814 merchandise and 301 food vendors. If the numbers show a vastly and disproportionately white vendor group, then the Fair can and should take action to recruit and open doors for black vendors.
Walking down the Fair streets, I counted workers in food booths and found 83 out of 100 workers were white. The population of Minneapolis is about 60 percent white, and the population of St. Paul is about 56 percent white.
The International Bazaar hosts more diversity than other parts of the fair. My quick count found 34 people of color working in its booths, out of a total of 82. That includes the wonderful West Indies Soul Food booth owned by Sharon Richards-Noel, who told the Star Tribune: “It took me a long time before I was able to get into the fair, and when I did get into the fair, every year it was kind of like walking on eggshells.”
“International” doesn’t quite fit African-Americans, whose ancestors have lived in this country longer than many of the European immigrants whose historic farming culture is celebrated in the Fair. “International” definitely doesn’t fit Native Americans, pushed off their land by those very European immigrants. But the International Bazaar stage is the place to find African American and Native American performers: Universoul on August 29 and 30 and Sonny Knight and the Lakers on August 31 and September 1, as well as performances by the Native Pride Dancers on September 4 and 5.
Outside the International Bazaar, the Fair offers Hmong Minnesota Day at Carousel Park on September 7, but no Native American day and no African American day. The official page listing free entertainment shows mostly white performers, except for the International Bazaar stage, but other free stages do better.
- The Arts A’fair page lists Duniya Drum and Dance, which “exists to build a diverse community in support of the arts of the African Diaspora, specifically African drum and dance.” They’re at the KSTP free stage, August 27-29 at 3, 4, 5 and 6 p.m.
- Ifrah Mansour’s play and the Black Storytellers Alliance, both featured on the Education Building stage, are also listed on the Arts A’fair page. Mansour’s play, “How to Have Fun in a Civil War,” is “Inspired by the writer’s life experiences, the play explores child survivors’ perspective and hidden narratives of the civil war.”
- Ecuador Manta is back again as one of the regular performers at the DNR stage, with a wonderful combination of traditional Andean music and contemporary Latin and Caribbean rhythms.
The Black Lives Matter protest will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hamline Park on Snelling Avenue. City Pages summarizes the explanation of organizer Rashad Turner:
“For BLM, the fair’s diverse crowds, focus on business, and heavy police presence seem the perfect platform to talk about economic and social disparities, Turner says. That’s not to accuse the fair itself of being purposely racist – it’s just susceptible to a lot of the same forces that drive wealth and achievement gaps between whites and people of color in all areas of life.”
If you want the Fair to move toward being purposefully anti-racist and purposefully inclusive, consider showing up for Saturday’s protest.