Anti-racism ad campaign in Minnesota town called 'racist' by critics

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A controversy over an anti-racism campaign some local critics say is itself racist is roiling the Iron Range city of Duluth, Minn.

The Un-Fair Campaign addresses what it calls ‘white privilege’ with billboards, posters and online videos assigning guilt to people with taglines like, “Is white skin really fair skin?” and “I am a white man. That’s unfair.” The ads are plastered across a city where 90 percent of the population is Caucasian.

The campaign aims to “raise awareness about white privilege in our community, provide resources for understanding and action, and facilitate dialogue and partnership that result in fundamental, systemic change towards racial justice,” according to its website.

A coalition of co-sponsors including the City of Duluth, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the NAACP, League of Women Voters and the YWCA hopes the effort will “result in fundamental, systemic change towards racial justice.”

But some critics in the region say the ads make a blanket generalization of all white people.

“You can't open a discussion on race and hope to see it move in a positive direction when you raise the topic by stereotyping an entire race,” Phil Pierson wrote on the Facebook page he started and dubbed STOP Racist Unfair Campaign, started by local resident Phil Pierson.

“It will be perceived as biased and accusatory. Instead of spreading love and togetherness, it spreads animosity and hate, teaches a new generation to point fingers and focus on the color of our skin instead of the idea that we're all human, and we're all in this together,” Pierson added.

His group is trying to have the billboards removed from city streets and has petitioned the Duluth Human Rights Commission, one of the sponsors of Un-Fair to end the campaign.

The university released a statement Friday saying that, thought it supported the principles of the campaign, it found the advertisements "divisive" and questioned the "creative strategy."

"UMD expressed displeasure to the partnership that the PSAs were aired without a chance for our review," the statement said. "We will continue to discuss our concerns with the partnership and will require review of all future campaign materials and efforts to ensure they foster constructive dialogue and do not alienate people in our community."

The university also stressed that it is one of 18 community partners in the campaign, not the sole sponsor.

"As a community, we believe it is critical to have a serious discussion about diversity and racial equity," the university said. "Duluth has had a difficult and long history of challenges regarding racial equity and justice that we have not entirely overcome."

The campaign’s legality has also been called into question for any possible taxpayer dollars from the city and the university has been used for funding.

An official from Mayor Don Ness’ office told that City hall has thrown the support behind the campaign but is not providing any funding.

A representatives the Un-Fair campaign did not immediately return requests for comment.

The city of Duluth, located on the shores of Lake Superior, is considered one of the least diverse city’s in America. Reports suggest that the campaign was started in an effort to change the racial make-up in Duluth as studies show that more diverse cities across the country are seeing better economic growth.

The city currently has other pressing issues: Damage from the worst flooding in its history has caused an estimated $80 million in damage just to the city's public infrastructure. The flooding has left huge sinkholes, washed out dozens of roads and forced hundreds of people from their homes.