In the days after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, Ruth Richardson ’06 remembered a conversation she’d had several years ago with her son, Shawn.
“He’s a runner, and all he wants to do is be outside,” Richardson told NPR in June. “And I had to tell my little boy that you can’t run in our neighborhood. If you’re going to run, I need you in a track uniform and I need you running with other people, because even with that, you could still be seen as a threat.”
Richardson took that experience this summer to the Minnesota State Capitol, where she’s a state representative. After the killing of George Floyd, Governor Tim Walz called lawmakers into special session to consider a series of proposals to reform policing in Minnesota.
The compromise deal that passed makes several changes in police use-of-force. It included several of Richardson’s proposals: A ban on warrior training; autism training for law enforcement; and expanded mental illness training for law enforcement. Richardson also authored and passed with bipartisan support a resolution that declares racism a statewide public health crisis.
The resolution was long overdue, she noted. “Racism has been killing our communities for centuries. In many ways, passing this resolution is bittersweet because of how long it’s taken to acknowledge the effect of racism on people’s health.”
While the resolution doesn’t create a new law for the state, it does create a House Select Committee that commits the Minnesota House to studying how its proposals might adversely affect communities of color. The chamber will also analyze decisions on how leadership is picked, staff are hired and promoted, and even everyday decisions like how vendors are hired. Her own official state representative photograph, Richardson noted, was “an episode in hiring photographers not used to taking photos of Black people.”
Several other states and government bodies—including city councils and county boards around the Twin Cities metro—have also declared racism a public health crisis, as have organizations like the American Medical Association.
Richardson says she hopes the declaration can help craft policy to right historic wrongs and address disparities. For example, even when accounting for all other factors, Black women are still 3-4 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—and 60% of those deaths are preventable. “When you see Black women like Serena Williams and Beyonce almost dying during pregnancy, it illuminates the fact that regardless of your education or income, racism is still killing our communities.”
Richardson, 44, first was drawn to addressing racist policies as a law student at William Mitchell College of Law in the mid 2000s, when she worked as a clerk for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. The organization at the time was working to repeal the state’s vagrancy law, which made it a misdemeanor to loiter or beg for money, to be a commercial sex worker, and to be unemployed if you weren’t seeking employment.
“It was criminalizing being poor,” she noted. “After slavery was made illegal—except for incarcerated people—there were a lot of Reconstruction and Jim Crow-era laws passed that were designed to negatively affect certain populations. We were able to center the stories of homeless veterans as an argument for repeal.”
The law was repealed in 2005, a year before Richardson graduated from William Mitchell. In addition to being an elected official, she is the CEO of Wayside Recovery Center, a Twin Cities treatment center for women with substance use disorders and mental health issues.
Richardson also noted the importance of law schools dedicating themselves to self-analysis. She recalls being just one of two Black students in her law school cohort and says law schools show their true intentions on addressing disparities by the kinds of strategic plans they enact and budgets they pass. “Four hundred-plus years of oppression and racial terror won’t be undone with one law or in one budgeting cycle or strategic planning cycle. It’s incumbent upon us to commit to doing this work for the long haul.
“My son’s a sprinter but this isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.”