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The Big Picture 9: Bruce Corrie on the power of "ethnic capital"

Bruce Corrie has some stats that might surprise you.

Professor of Economics and Dean of the College of Business and Organizational Leadership at Concordia University in Saint Paul, Corrie has devoted himself for many years to researching and explaining the economic contributions of minority and African, Asian, and Latin American immigrant communities both locally and nationally.

Born in India, he earned his PhD at Notre Dame in 1982, and was hired by Concordia shortly thereafter. He's been a consultant to many economic and community development projects, and is cofounder of OneMN, which describes itself as "multiethnic coalition [creating] a space within Minnesota for a nonpartisan engagement around policy issues." On October 5, Corrie joined Brett Buckner of Minnesota BaseNetwork in testifying before the Court Redistricting Panel in favor of creating legislative districts that preserve minority and immigrant economic and political gains.

The Line sat down with him in his Concordia office to talk about ethnic enterprise and the value it brings to our city and our state.

The Line: Bruce Corrie, how did you get started researching the economic and other contributions of our minority and ethnic communities?

Bruce Corrie: When I came to Minnesota, one of the things I noticed was that the mainstream perception of minorities and immigrants was more on the "deficit" model. They cost the state money, they are involved in crime. Are these people capable? Are they asking for handouts? How much are we giving them? There was not much said about what they were bringing to the table.

So I developed this concept called ethnic capital, where we talk about members of these communities as entrepreneurs, as workers, as human capital, with a potential as consumers, as creators of trade networks and ambassadors to the world. Also as civic capital--getting involved with the political process but also with many other kinds of civic engagement. And cultural capital too--adding to the culture of the state.

The Ethnic Dollar

Around those concepts I developed data, much of which is on my web site. I'm in the process of updating it with the latest data from the 2010 census.

The buying power of these communities in 12 billion dollars. If you take the state's estimate that on average a Minnesotan pays 11 percent in state and local taxes, well, 11 percent of 12 billion dollars is not a small piece of change, easily over a billion dollars of tax revenue coming in from these communities.

A New Paradigm

The Line: Those are impressive statistics.

Bruce Corrie: Yes, but this is an idea more than a collection of data. The idea is, you change the way that you look at people. In the deficit model, when you look at somebody, you're looking for problems. That approach pulls you down and lowers your expectations. But in this new model you are looking at opportunities, and when you do so you are going to start relating to these people in a different way, as equals. And that will open boundaries and increase the potential of the communities. Often people are surprised by the data I show them—but this is data that is very readily available.

If you put together all the ALANA (African, Latino, Asian, Native American) communities—I use ALANA instead of "minority," because in the world that is coming by, say, 2030, the boundary between majority and minority is going to be very hazy—if you take the entrepreneurs in the ALANA group, and look at their revenue, together they would be the 15th-largest business in the state. And if you look at the number of people they are collectively employing, they would probably be the ninth largest employer in the state.

A Sense of Affirmation

When I began telling ALANA community members these facts, they felt affirmed—because no one had told them before. Their economic power, right here in Minnesota, is greater than the GDP of many countries in the world. You have people who are doing some phenomenal creating of wealth in this society, but nobody was acknowledging it. That's why my site has had a half-million hits over the years, with people accessing this data and using it.

The Line: You've pointed out that as far as Minnesota is concerned, this economic power is concentrated in the metro area, but not limited to it.

Bruce Corrie: I have a map that was part of the testimony we gave on redistricting; I'm also going to use it at the governor's job summit next week [editor's note: the summit took place on Oct. 25]. It's an indication of the ethnic economy throughout Minnesota, as reflected in buying power. It shows that this ALANA buying power is spread all across Minnesota. And there are especially significant areas, like Rochester and Willmar, outside the metro area. These areas throughout the state can be engines of economic growth, because the data is showing that they are growing very rapidly.

The question is, how to nurture these engines of economic growth—because when they get successful, they tend to employ other ALANA community members, they tend to build up their neighborhoods, and they raise the standard of living for themselves and for their community.

The Hmong Advance

For example, if you look at the Hmong population between the 1980s when they first came here and 2010, around 1980 about 60 percent were in poverty; today it's about 25 percent. Many people look at the data and point to the gap, saying look, there are many people in poverty. But they are not looking at the decline in poverty, the growth of the middle class and the professional class.

The Line: Immigrant communities can connect us to the world in significant ways too.

Bruce Corrie: This is a globalizing world! Do you know who the largest manufacturer in Britain is? Tata, the Indian conglomerate. In the Iron Range, one of the largest investors is Chinese; you have Brazilians, I believe, in the meat processing industry. With investment coming from these companies, having these immigrant networks here is important.

Immigration Anxieties

The Line: At the same time, immigration, both legal and illegal, is a hot-button issue these days.

Bruce Corrie: There is a mood in the country that says, let's photo-ID these folks, let's keep them from getting an education, let's deport them. But think about it—you're a visitor from Sweden, a big entrepreneur looking for opportunities here, and you are going to places that employ lower-wage workers—Home Depot, Target, your hotel. Wouldn't we want to have an educated and qualified person serving the needs of a visitor like that? Here the old way of thinking is to put up barriers to access to education and full participation in the society. For the new way of thinking the key thing in the equation is quality.

We can't ignore the reality of the issue of legal versus illegal immigration. When those of us who came here the legal way--and it's tough to get into the US--see people just coming across the border, of course we have concerns. But the context in which that reality came about was our own "wink and nod" immigration policy. Everybody knew that undocumented immigrants were coming in; we could have let them do it legally by having a guest worker program. It would have worked; they would have gone back home at the end of their period here because that was always the goal of the undocumented workers--to go home. But we created a mess and now we are criminalizing that mess.

The "Basket Case" That Wasn't

I read on the internet that when the Hmong came, they were described by somebody as a "basket case"--they didn't have the language, they didn't have the culture, they didn't have the skills. How are they going to survive here? But maybe it's Minnesota and its environment, maybe it's the entrepreneurial energy in their community, that explains why they have made tremendous progress in a few decades.

The Federal Reserve did a study on access to credit. Now you would think that the Hmong would say that they had a problem with access to credit—but the study didn't find that at all. Some people said maybe the study was faulty and didn't ask the right questions, but I suspect that there is a different answer.

This community is very well integrated into the policymaking machinery and into society in Minnesota. There has been a Hmong state senator, Mee Moua, and a Hmong representative, Cy Thao; we have a foundation head down the road [Editor's note: MayKao Y. Hang, president of the Wilder Foundation]; there are Hmong working in businesses, including banks, because the banks looked at that market and started hiring folks. So a lot of things were happening positively in Minnesota for the Hmong. A lot of progressive groups here opened their doors to the Hmong and the Somalis and other groups.

ALANA  Exceptions?

The Line: The ALANA umbrella takes in some very different groups, from Native Americans and African Americans to recent immigrants. Isn't it an unwieldy category?

Bruce Corrie: Of course there are many differences among the groups that make up the ALANA category. Differences in access to capital, in education, and in access to mentoring. But I think what they all share in terms of experience are barriers to success. Because they can be marked out visually from the majority, people have looked at them and put them in a box. How they address those barriers and deal with them are different based on different historical and cultural factors.

Toward a New Minnesota

The Line: What are your hopes for the future?

Bruce Corrie: In 2030, when you come to Minnesota, I'd like it to be something like coming to Toronto. A multiethnic community. A lot of difference and vitality, but without the barriers that come in the way of some people's success. And all these groups with a shared vision for the future, moving beyond the differences to some sense of commonality, while taking advantage of the differences to be creative. I think that would be our ultimate success story.

I came across an article by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal about Abraham Lincoln's answer to the question, "Who is an American?" He answered the question in a very powerful way: Anyone who shares the moral sentiments of the Declaration of Independence has a bond greater than blood with our Founding Fathers. So we're not defining Americans on the basis of whether or not all of us celebrate Thanksgiving. Those values of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, of all people being created equal and endowed with certain rights, are what bring people here.

I want to be clear: there are challenges. There is poverty, there is need, there are gaps, right? But what I'm saying is, let's look at the issue in its totality. What I have done is bring in the other part of the equation. And I have a hunch that when you look at the totality, Minnesota and the nation come out ahead.

As I said, when I explain this data to an audience that looks like me—ALANA people—they just light up. If people in the majority understand the facts about their contribution, they are going to look at them differently. And if everybody looks at them in this new way, you are going to see an explosion of creativity from them.

Photos of Bruce Corrie speaking with Managing Editor Jon Spayde by Bill Kelley
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