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The Super Bowl won’t shine light on Minneapolis’ racial and economic problems

The city’s disparities are among the worst in the country

Richard Howell was 8 years old when his hometown Minnesota Vikings made their National Football League debut in 1961. He was 16 in 1969 when the Vikings won their first — and only — NFL title. But his Vikings were walloped by the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV.

That would be the first of four Super Bowl disappointments that Howell would witness his hometown Vikings suffer. There was the loss in Super Bowl VIII to Miami, a loss in Super Bowl IX to Pittsburgh and a humiliating loss to Oakland in Super Bowl XI.

Howell’s heart sank two weeks ago when the Vikings, with a chance to become the first team to play in a Super Bowl it also hosted, lost to Philadelphia. “It would have been so great for fans, and for the city,” Howell said during a recent phone conversation.

Finally, at age 65, Howell gets to see his hometown get a taste of a Super Bowl — albeit as host, not participant. Minneapolis will host Super Bowl LII, and Howell, the pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, said the excitement is palpable as players, teams and fans begin to pour into the Twin Cities.

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots will play at U.S. Bank Stadium, just 15 minutes from Howell’s church.

“It’s exciting, and it’s a help,” Howell said. “It’s going to enhance the morale of the city. It’s going to give the city itself, black and white, a sense of pride.”

Even without the Vikings.

“That would have added more excitement. That would have given us something to really cheer about — our cheer is not as great as it could have been,” he said. “But it’s still a cheer, all the same, because our city is going to benefit.”

The Super Bowl comes at a time when Minneapolis is recovering from a string of high-profile police killings that put the city in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The shootings revealed a glaring blind spot covered up by the slogan “Minnesota Nice.”

  • In November 2015, police officers shot and killed Jamar Clark during a confrontation. The shooting set off weeks of demonstrations and led to a weeklong occupation of the area where Clark was killed.
  • In July 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in a St. Paul suburb. The officer was acquitted.
  • Last July, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed an Australian woman, Justine Damond, who had called police to investigate an assault taking place behind her home. That killing prompted the resignation of Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau. Harteau was replaced last August by Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first black police chief.

Howell believes the elevation of Arradondo has gone a long way in restoring calm, if not total peace. “He is highly respected,” Howell said of Arradondo. “Right now, I haven’t heard anything bad about the police department. There seems to be a fine working relationship. We haven’t had any incidents like Jamar Clark, Philando or the Australian woman since he’s been in office.”

Howell became pastor at Shiloh in 1984. His grandparents founded the church in 1931.

As a native Minnesotan, Howell has seen the racist underbelly of his city and state. He became the first black student to integrate Northeast Junior High (now Northeast Middle School) and remained its only black student for three years.

Howell said his tenure at the school was a harrowing, life-changing experience that challenged his identity as an African-American. The experience also underlined the challenges of growing up in an overwhelmingly white environment.

Howell told one interviewer years ago that back then, he did not want to be black. “I was lost,” Howell recalled. “Drowning in white supremacy. I was so messed up. I wanted to be like John, Paul, George and Ringo. I combed my hair down like theirs and it bounced back up. I was told as a black person you’ve gotta be twice as good, three times as good. I had a self-identity crisis.”

Howell went so far as to change his name to Randy Battey so classmates would think he was the son of then-Minnesota Twins catcher Earl Battey. The idea was that a black celebrity would be accepted more readily than an “ordinary” black person.

The ploy worked until classmates realized Howell was not related to Battey. In January 1968, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Howells’ house, which was located near an upscale, all-white neighborhood.

Although the family received support from some in the white neighborhood, the incident was an eye-opening revelation that “Minnesota Nice” largely referred to the state’s white population.

Today, Howell said he is not happy with the state of his hometown. The crime rate is improving, and a recent labor study reported that the black unemployment rate was at an all-time low — although significantly higher than the white rate.

“I’m not happy with where we are; it’s actually worse,” Howell said. “There’s a lot of disparity in Minneapolis, especially in education and health.”

According to a study by Algernon Austin, senior research fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, the Twin Cities have the greatest disparity of black-white unemployment of any major metropolitan area in the United States.

Howell said he would like to see an NFL presence in the Twin Cities during Super Bowl week, especially in black communities where young people need to hear how NFL players talk about how they defied the one-in-a-million odds to reach the NFL.

“We could really benefit from athletes coming in, talking to kids, sharing their stories,” Howell said. “They should go to the high schools, talk about where they came from and how they made it. That’s what we need.”

The NFL’s Super Bowl presence will pay short-term dividends, Howell said, but the long-term, deep-seated problems will persist after the NFL leaves town.

“It’s going to take more than a black police chief in office,” Howell said. “It’s going to take more than having a Super Bowl here in the city.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.