Minnesota has the largest number of Somali refugees in the U.S., with thousands living in Michele Bachmann’s Sixth Congressional District. African and Muslim, the Somali community is here thrust into the crucible of race and religious bigotry, mirroring daily the challenges facing Muslims across the country in the post-9/11 era. While Bachmann stirs up the struggle taking place in that dangerous crucible, her Muslim, African American, Congressional colleague next door—Keith Ellison of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District—seeks a more democratic and racially just future.
Self-proclaimed head of the Congressional “Tea Party Caucus,” Bachmann’s run for the White House has thoroughly revealed the hardened conservative politics that have kept her in office. Her evangelical Christian faith cemented her unequivocal and outspoken stands on key social issues, from which she has never wavered. Ellison co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
In 2005 Bachmann’s infamous diatribe on Islam—her “not all cultures are created equal” rant—foreshadowed her subsequent alliance with the bald religious bigotry of the emergent, well-funded political movement that is now at the heart of Islamophobia, as detailed recently by the recent Center for American Progress. Unabashed, Bachmann has subsequently leaped into the netherworld of Muslim bashing numerous times. Ellison is a devout Muslim.
At home in her District, Bachmann’s stance on her Somali Muslim constituents is somewhat more subdued—reportedly she simply ignores them. That so many Somalis are employed by powerful turkey and chicken processing companies in the District may explain her local reluctance to speak out about them. Even faced by a U.S. Department of Education investigation into discrimination in the St. Cloud, Minnesota school district, Bachmann was surprisingly quiet. Ellison is outspoken in his engagement with the Somali community in his District.
Bachmann and Ellison. As the Minneapolis StarTribune’s Kevin Diaz penned so well in his piece on the political divide between the 5th and 6th Congressional Districts, the neighboring Representatives “…are separated by a border that might as well be the International Date Line.” Neither they nor their Districts could be more different nor more distant in the American crucible of race and religious bigotry.
But even in the Sixth District Somalis are organizing, immersing in civic engagement, and voicing and exercising their power. Running for school board. Organizing a parents’ group. Advancing worker health and safety concerns. Securing better housing. Reaching out to the larger religious and civic community. Building their base for a different future, full of new possibilities, even in the crucible that is, indeed, America today.