Just a couple days ago, Tou Ger Xiong, wrote an open letter to the citizens of Beltrami County. You can find the letter here. For those who don’t know, Tou Ger Xiong is a Hmong comedian, entertainer and activist. In the letter Tou Ger highlights the journey of Hmong community and highlighted the positive impact of refugee communities. I didn’t have any quarrel with the letter until about half way when the tenor of the letter becomes condescending. Frankly, some parts of the letter I found appalling. This response is written to specifically address the last half of his letter.
If you live in Minnesota you’ve likely heard that Beltrami County voted 3–2 to block any future refugee resettlement in their county. And at face value it looks controversial. But the essential question we should ask is why — why did the commissioners vote the way they did? What were the factors that led to this vote? Instead of asking why, Tou Ger asserts that the vote, “affirms that this was a vote based on misinformation, bigotry and fear. Fear of refugees, fear of immigrants, and fear of brown and black people stoked by our current political climate.”. Because the vote fits the “anti-refugee narrative” pedaled across the country, we need to cut past the noise and also ask, “Did misinformation, bigotry and fear really drive this vote?
Here’s what Commissioner Richard Anderson, one of the three yes voters, said about the vote. The commissioner stated, “If they (refugees) were placed here, we just don’t have the resources to nurture them and help them succeed and be successful in life, and what a disappointment that would be.” I don’t see anything “racist” or “bigoted” in that statement. It actually seems to be a reasonable and responsible decision — even if you disagree with it.
Over the last decade, Beltrami County has been the second poorest county in Minnesota. In 2018, based on data by Minnesota Compass, 18.4% of individuals in Beltrami County live below the poverty level. This is a decrease from 2009–2013, when nearly 22% of the county lived below the poverty line, according to indexmundi, an online database on counties. Currently Beltrami County has an unemployment rate of 4% and for over the last decade has regularly had one of the highest unemployment rates in Minnesota. Hand in hand with poverty, Beltrami County has had a sharp increase in out of home placements, requiring the County to pull from reserves to cover the cost.
It seems that the data actually bears out the commissioner’s statement — that any resettlement in Beltrami County would be less than ideal, there are barriers the county already is facing and the burden of a large population too great for Beltrami County to absorb. Finally Commissioner Anderson also stated, “I have a heart for immigrants and refugees. There’s a great need out there… They expect to be placed in an area where food, shelter and job training is supposed to be met. If they land here with our great needs already, what disappointment there would be that they’d find here. Not for a lack of warmth or people wanting to help, but because we lack the resources. Immigrants are still welcome in Beltrami County, but at a level they can be supported and nurtured.”
I was also taken aback when Tou Ger stated, “we are refugees and it is in our DNA to see the best in people…” but on the other hand, because he “saw” a video showing, “a sea of White people, some with MAGA hats, shouting angry falsehoods”, he openly labels the whole county as bigots and racist. Not only are the two statements in direct conflict with each other but by definition, this is a prejudice statement that borderlines racist. Prejudice by definition means, an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge. And I have yet to find a video that reflects what was described.
The most appalling part of the letter is when it takes a taunting tenor. First, Tou Ger accuses the county about forgetting their history and proceeds to “educate” them on their county. Tou Ger also reminds the county that it’s named after a refugee, Giacomo Beltrami. Imagine if a “White” person did this to a Hmong person… We would never accept that. And what’s worse is Giacomo Beltrami was not a refugee. The assertion that he is, is just false. Giacomo Beltrami was, a “jurist, author and explorer, best known for claiming to have discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1823 while on a trip through much of the United States.” From my understanding, Giacomo Beltrami never settled in Minnesota. After discovering the headwaters of the Mississippi River, he journeyed south to Mexico where he then returned to Europe in 1826. He died in his homeland of Italy in 1855.
Not only did Tou Ger seemingly taunt Beltrami County about their history, but about the county’s high rate of substance abuse, high poverty rate and essentially concludes that Beltrami County is a trash heap county not even considered for refugee families to resettle. Here’s what was written, “Let’s also not forget that statistics show that drug, marijuana, alcohol, and prescription drug abuse in your county are much higher than the state average, not to mention the poverty level of your residents. Suffice to say you weren’t high on the list of potential places that refugees were considering to resettle, anyway”
How is that okay? It’s not. This falls in line with a trend that I’ve found troubling. It’s the trend of “soft-bigotry” and “soft-racism”. And these forms are accepted because they masquerades as the perception of a “refugee” or comes from a “person of color’s voice”. If a “White” person made the same or similar statements, I’m certain, without hesitation, that “White” person would be called a racist.
If the intentions of the letter were to demonstrate “hope” and “love” to the citizens of Beltrami County, I think it failed. Instead it demonized the citizens of Beltrami County, trivialized the challenges of that community, sowed division and intentionally or unintentionally misinforms people. If indeed we want to make “America loving and kind again”, instead of labeling whole swaths of people as racists and bigots because of their skin color or a hat they wear, I suggest empathy and asking “what”… what caused them to vote the way they did?… What is going on in their county…? What is the reasoning for their beliefs…? And even if we disagree at the end of the day that it’s okay. If we truly want to make America a loving and kind place again, we need to start with decency and start talking to each other again.
At-a-glance information about Beltrami county. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mncompass.org/profiles/county/beltrami.
Beltrami County, MN. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://datausa.io/profile/geo/beltrami-county-mn.
Giacomo Beltrami. (2018, December 18). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giacomo_Beltrami.
In Minnesota first, Beltrami County votes to ban resettlement of refugees. (2020, January 7). Retrieved from https://kstp.com/news/in-minnesota-first-beltrami-county-votes-to-ban-resettlement-of-refugees-january-7-2020/5601134/.
Kaul, G. (2020, January 9). As Minnesota counties vote on accepting refugees, here are the counties where refugees have actually moved in the last decade. Retrieved from https://www.minnpost.com/new-americans/2020/01/as-minnesota-counties-vote-on-accepting-refugees-here-are-the-counties-where-refugees-have-actually-moved-in-the-last-decade/.
Liedke, M. J. (2020, January 8). Voices emerge in aftermath of Beltrami County refugee vote. Retrieved from https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/news/government-and-politics/4855340-Voices-emerge-in-aftermath-of-Beltrami-County-refugee-vote.
Minnesota Compass. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mncompass.org/economy/poverty#3-5271-g.
Minnesota Poverty Rate by County. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/united-states/quick-facts/minnesota/percent-of-people-of-all-ages-in-poverty#chart.
Press, A. (2020, January 8). Minnesota County Votes to Ban Refugee Resettlement. Retrieved from https://time.com/5761225/beltrami-county-minnesota-bans-refugee-resettlement/.
Treacy, M., Goetz, K. R., & Backerud, T. K. (2013, November 19). In search of the Mississippi’s source: Giacomo Costatino Beltrami. Retrieved from https://www.minnpost.com/mnopedia/2013/11/search-mississippis-source-giacomo-costatino-beltrami/.