Caryn Sullivan: Kendall Qualls on challenging the systemic racism narrative

It's an outright lie, he says, with tragic consequences.

Kendall Qualls speaks with a voter on the campaign trail. (Photo courtesy of Kendall Qualls)

For the past two years we’ve been told Minnesota, like the rest of America, is systemically racist. Myriad individuals and organizations have offered diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives as solutions.

A relative newcomer to Minnesota politics, Kendall Qualls is one of a handful of candidates vying for the gubernatorial nomination at the Republican Party’s convention this weekend.

I’m intrigued to find out whether Minnesotans will support a black Republican who offers unique solutions to the problems that plague us.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Qualls about how he believes his background and experience would make Minnesota better.

For starters, he would reject the systemic racism narrative. It’s an outright lie, he says, with tragic consequences.

“That idea that you can’t get ahead in this country because it’s systemically racist and white people don’t care about you — I’ve heard that my whole life.”

Yet he served as an Army officer, obtained an undergraduate and three master’s degrees, worked as a vice president at a Fortune 100 company, and started a nonprofit with his wife, Sheila, the mother of his five children.

His childhood was difficult, focused on survival. But it was also filled with valuable lessons that shaped the course of his adult life.

He learned about crime on the streets of Harlem as a young boy. His family had just stepped off a bus when, in broad daylight, a criminal robbed his mother of everything she had to support herself and her five children.

No one came to their rescue.

His mother later offered important counsel.

“Just because we live in a place like this doesn’t mean you have to live like you’re from a place like this,” he recalls her saying.

Qualls decided he didn’t want to become one of the guys he saw preying on the defenseless. But it was the only life he knew — until he visited his relatives on Long Island.

His aunt, uncle, and cousins lived together in an 1100-square-foot home in a neighborhood without gangs and sirens. It was the first time he saw a “normal black family,” Qualls says, and it made a lasting impression on him.

In their lives he saw an alternative to living in a tiny apartment with a big family in a noisy and dangerous neighborhood.

If they could do it, he could do it.

When he moved from Harlem to Oklahoma to live in his father’s trailer home, he learned more valuable lessons about respect, rules, and personal responsibility.

“When your father is an Army drill sergeant, you only get to make one mistake,” he says with a smile. “The next mistake lands you on a missing person’s report.”

Character and personal responsibility are core values for Qualls, both as a candidate and as the founder of TakeCharge Minnesota.

The nonprofit, now run by his wife, promotes hard work, education, faith, family, and free enterprise for all Americans, regardless of race or station in life.

Qualls rejects the notion we need a “diversity czar” to fix the problems in the black community.

Rather, we need black leaders to share their experiences and wisdom, he says.

We also need to have honest, adult conversations about norms and expectations; about what to expect from our fellow citizens, whether in the public square or in the context of interactions between citizens and law enforcement, he says.

Having grown up with divorced parents, Qualls appreciates the value of the two-parent home.

“The black community used to be 80 percent two-parent families,” he says. “Now we’re 80 percent fatherless homes.”

And he wants to correct what he considers a tragic trend that began in the 1960s.

“At the time that we were given full civil rights, they were promoting social welfare programs that literally take your freedom away as you become dependent on government,” he says.

“Every major city around the country, led by Democrats, has decimated the black family. There’s been no attempt to reverse the trend.”

He’s committed to doing so.

He’s also focused on improving education, which he deems another casualty of failed policies and the broken family system.

Though neither of his parents finished high school, both earned their GEDs. They sent a clear message: education was the pathway to a better life.

Dyslexia made reading and writing more difficult for Qualls; but it didn’t stop him from getting into college. No one can stop you from studying hard and applying for colleges, he says.

“The schools used to be decent enough that a guy like me could get a decent education and be successful in a very competitive market. Now you look at some of those schools. Kids can’t read beyond the third-grade level.”

“There’s a new narrative coming out from the black community, and it has less to do with Democrat or Republican and more about getting our culture back,” Qualls says. “A culture that is rooted in faith, family, and a better education for our kids: that’s what we were before we had help from the government. And now we have none of those things but we’re going to get them back.”