New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

On the face of it, Thursday’s New York Times story about a Minnesota city that doesn’t want any more Somali refugees sounds like a racist-town-hates-Muslims kind of piece.

I decided to look deeper into it and ask a few questions the article didn’t raise to see why everyone’s so upset why a 16 percent growth in non-white residents –- and mostly Muslim ones at that -– has frazzled the populace.

As you would expect, there’s lots of information here about politics and life in the Donald Trump era — complete with red “Make Saint Cloud Great Again” hats and lots of references to locals reading conservative websites online.

However, this is also a story in which it is important for readers to pause and do some math. The bottom line: It’s simple to write a story about racist right-wing Christian bigots who don’t want any more Muslims moving in. It’s not as easy to look at some of the other factors, like overcrowded classrooms in public schools; school districts having budget money for interpreters and ESL instructors; crowded emergency rooms at local hospitals and a tax base that’s not being greatly added to by all the new arrivals.

First, here’s the opening of the story:

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — John Palmer, a former university professor, has always had a cause. For decades he urged Minnesota officials to face the dangers of drunken driving and embrace seatbelts. Now he has a new goal: curbing the resettlement of Somali refugees in St. Cloud, after a few thousand moved into this small city where Mr. Palmer has lived for decades…

On Thursdays, Mr. Palmer hosts a group called Concerned Community Citizens, or C-Cubed, which he formed to pressure local officials over the Muslim refugees. Mr. Palmer said at a recent meeting he viewed them as innately less intelligent than the “typical” American citizen, as well as a threat.

“The very word ‘Islamophobia’ is a false narrative,” Mr. Palmer, 70, said. “A phobia is an irrational fear.” Raising his voice, he added, “An irrational fear! There are many reasons we are not being irrational.”

In this predominantly white region of central Minnesota, the influx of Somalis, most of whom are Muslim, has spurred the sort of demographic and cultural shifts that President Trump and right-wing conservatives have stoked fears about for years.

So “right-wing conservatives,” and people who rally in church pews, are all basically racists?

That does appear to be the thesis of this Times article.

Dave Kleis, the mayor of St. Cloud and a longtime Republican who now identifies as an independent, has voiced support for the resettlement program, but he has also drawn criticism for not forcefully denouncing groups like C-Cubed, which he refused to discuss in an interview. Mr. Kleis said the city was facing the same challenges as other parts of Minnesota and other changing communities around the country. St. Cloud, the state’s 10th-largest city, increased in population by 33 percent over the last 30 years, to roughly 70,000 people. The share of nonwhite residents grew to 18 percent from 2 percent, mostly with East African immigrants from Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, and the numbers of Somalis are estimated to grow.

Thirty-three percent total growth?

Let’s look inside that number. Eighteen percent of 70,000 is 12,600. Two percent is 1,400. So about 11,200 immigrants have moved in during the past 30 years. That’s definitely more than a “few thousand” mentioned in the lede.

That’s one out of every six people in this city. And 33 percent growth means a jump from about 46,000 to 70,000. That kind of sudden growth is going to cause tensions in any city.

Their increased presence — and an attack at a mall in 2016, when Dahir Adan, a Somali-American refugee living in St. Cloud, stabbed 10 people — has emboldened a loosely connected network of white, anti-immigration activists who are trying to pressure local and state Republicans to embrace an increasingly explicit anti-Muslim agenda.

About that mall attack, the Times reported back then how police had shouted out the name of Allah during the attack and asked at least one bystander if he was Muslim. That had something to do with the locals being creeped out.

As you would expect, these big changes in the local population have had political implications.

C-Cubed supported four candidates for City Council last year, and two won seats, although Mr. Palmer himself lost. Members say they are raising questions about the state’s refugee program in order to determine its total cost. But in interviews, many repeatedly outlined more fundamental fears, including the belief that an influx of people who were nonwhite and non-Christian posed a cultural threat.

Several of the group’s members and their allies said their stand against immigration was a small part of a broader national conflict, in which the rising tide of a multicultural, multiracial Democratic Party must be opposed.

Then there is this, the best quote of the whole story:

Kim Crockett, the vice president and general counsel of a conservative Minnesota think tank called the Center of the American Experiment, said she intended to eventually sue the state and challenge the resettlement program in court.

“I think of America, the great assimilator, as a rubber band, but with this — we’re at the breaking point,” Ms. Crockett said. “These aren’t people coming from Norway, let’s put it that way. These people are very visible.”

That’s true. They’re definitely not from Norway. As I read on, I began to wonder what it must feel like to be a smallish town that’s being used as Ground Zero for Minnesota’s very generous immigration policies.

The closest city to where I live that has a similar population is Redmond, Wash., the home of Microsoft. It has about 64,000 people and two mosques (and three Hindu temples). St. Cloud has about 6,000 more souls and four mosques. One of those mosques is a former Assemblies of God church that was sold in a very amicable deal between Christian and Muslim groups.

In St. Cloud, some opponents of the refugee program have taken the introduction of non-pork options in the local public schools as an attack on their way of life. The 2018 elections of Representative Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison, who are Muslim, fueled xenophobic conspiracies that Muslim residents were planning a long-term coup to institute Shariah Law. They also point to individual instances of crime by Somali-Americans as proof of an innate predisposition to violence, and ignore the repeated studies showing that there is no demonstrated link between immigrants and criminal behavior.

There’s definitely editorializing in that paragraph. Do we need the word “xenophobic?”

A 2018 poll from The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported that almost 50 percent of Minnesota Republicans wanted the state to temporarily stop accepting refugees, and during the midterm elections the most prominent members of the state’s Republican ticket all pledged to institute a moratorium on resettlement. A New York Times poll from 2018 showed the Eighth Congressional District — in the state’s northern region — was one of the few areas where 50 percent of people said discrimination against white Americans had become as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups.

If 50 percent of the population believes they’re being discriminated against, something’s obviously going on here. When minority groups say they feel discriminated against, they are believed, right? So why are the white folks’ perceptions not taken seriously? This is where the article refuses to dig down. We’re asked to accept that Minnesotans are racist and leave it at that.

As the story continues, it’s obvious that large swatches of people in central Minnesota are truly fed up with seeing their communities change into multi-ethnic compounds. Those of us who’ve grown up on the East or West coasts are used to this. Not so much folks in the Midwest.

What the Times story doesn’t remind us of is that the Somali community in Minnesota is the largest in the country and that it is famously insular. This Fox News story (naturally with a different POV than the Times) talks about how the Minneapolis area, with the most Somalis, because the “terrorist recruitment capital” of the country for ISIS. People watch that and they also watch videos like the one atop this story that has interview with Somali immigrants who would favor sharia law in this country.

This is bound to scare a lot of people. How did Somalis choose Minnesota? This CBS story explains why and how it was three Christian relief agencies that steered the refugees to Minnesota’s snowy climes.

While reading some of the comments to the Times piece, I noted one resident pointing out that while the refugees got the benefit of generous social services, the locals were not seeing their own wages go up and they wondered if their tax dollars were funding the new arrivals.

Head east across the Atlantic and you’ll see whole countries, i.e. Hungary, close their doors to immigrants because they want their culture to stay as it is. Denmark is refusing to take any more.

Also, take a look at a common complaint about Muslim Somalis; that as a community, they are not interested in assimilating which is where they differ from, say, groups like the Hmong who also have settled in the upper Midwest. And unassimilated immigrant ghettos are causing big problems in Sweden and even more famously in France.

America is famous for assimilating its immigrants, which is how — in the past century or so — we’ve avoided forming ghettos. I’m curious if the Muslims in St. Cloud ever held open houses for their mosques when they first opened or had any sort of outreach to the greater community. The article does not say. I’ve seen mosques elsewhere do this as a way to allay fears.

Let me be clear: I am not saying there isn’t xenophobia out there.

There is and this article on the locals complaining about the color of a security vehicle belonging to a mosque is a case in point.

But instead of it all being about Trump and nasty Republicans and CAIR defining St. Cloud as being the epicenter of Islamophobia, it is also about people who didn’t ask for boatloads of refugees to show up in their community.

Maybe they are not expressing their anger too well, but simply dismissing them and some of the hard statistics linked to these tensions is not working either. After all, Trump is seeking to flip Minnesota into becoming a red state in 2020. Lots of folks from St. Cloud will be out there helping him do it.

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