What We Can Learn From Minnesota’s Racial Divide

I have not been shy about taking the opportunity to humble-brag about my home state of Minnesota. For example, during the Republican presidential primary when a lot of eyes were on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, I took the opportunity to compare the results of his state’s conservative trajectory with what happened in Minnesota under Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. I didn’t mention it here, but recently the Annie E. Casey Foundation released their annual “Kids Count” report and listed Minnesota as the best state in the country to raise a child. I’ll simply note as an aside that the person who is most often noted as the one who initially launched what became known as the “Minnesota Miracle” back in the 1970’s – Governor Wendell Anderson – died yesterday.

But the shooting of Philando Castile on the heels of that of Jamar Clark raise the specter of something happening in this state that is unaccounted for in all of that success. Taylor Gee looks into that and asks the question, “what is Minnesota’s secret to success?” Gee says, “The secret is you have to be white.” And this state has a lot of white people: according to the 2010 census – 85%.

The dirty little not-so-secret truth about Minnesota is that – for the relatively few people of color who live here – the racial disparities are larger than those in most every other state. That includes measures related to education, income, employment and the criminal justice system. It’s important to keep something in mind about that: a disparity compared to white people who are doing better than those in most every other state can mean actually doing better than people of color who live in states where outcomes are bad for everyone. But the reality is that Minnesota has a serious problem when it comes to the racial divide. And I can assure you that there is no shortage of talk focused on what to do about that.

The question that might be instructive for the rest of the country is, “how did this divide happen in liberal Minnesota?” That is what Gee tried to answer. It is important to note that the population of people of color is exploding – especially in the Twin Cities metropolitan are right now. So in some ways, this area is facing things that many urban areas did a long time ago. So Gee turns up answers about things like segregation in housing/education, a lack of resources dedicated to poor communities and a forgotten history of racism. Those are all dynamics we have seen played out all over the country.

But Gee also gets a couple of responses that dig a little deeper. Here is one that stood out to me as significant:

Susan Brower, the Minnesota State demographer, said that until recent decades Minnesota didn’t have a large black community. Approximately 48 percent of African-Americans currently living in Minnesota emigrated from another state.

During my time of working with families of color in the inner city, this is something that stood out to me. At one point I looked at both our African American staff as well as the families they were working with and realized that almost none of them grew up in Minnesota. They migrated here for a “better life” from places like Chicago, Detroit, Gary, and even as far away as New Orleans. When one of our staff explained to me that he came to Minnesota on a college basketball scholarship because he looked around at his family and friends and knew that if he was going to survive, he had to get out of there, I realized that this state not only had a foreign refugee population (from SE Asia and Africa), but from other urban areas in this country.

The American refugees were fleeing places of extreme poverty and violence and coming to a place with a completely different culture and no familial/community support system. While Minnesota has an array of programs to help foreign refugees resettle here, there was nothing like that for African American refugees from other cities. They were on their own. And a lot of people in this state resented their presence – more than they did that of foreign refugees. The framing was that these African American refugees come here because our welfare programs are too generous compared to other states. It should come as no surprise that a racial divide happens under those circumstances. This speaks to the need for a federal response to urban poverty and violence…we really are all in this together, as Minnesota is learning.

Gee got another explanation that is important to keep in mind.

Teresa Nelson, the legal director at ACLU of Minnesota, described how Minnesotans, even when they know the facts, are often reluctant to act on them. “There is sort of this phrase that we’re ‘Minnesota Nice,’ that we’re nice to a fault, that we won’t say anything confrontational. So I think as a consequence we have a veneer of being tolerant and not racist, and that makes us unwilling to confront the implicit biases that exist,” Nelson said.

Tackling racial disparities requires having difficult conversations. It is true that “Minnesota Nice” makes that particularly difficult. When white liberals try to engage on this topic, the goal becomes to convince everyone of how forward-leaning and unracist you are. There is a lot of personal back-slapping and tut-tuting of “those racists” who haven’t evolved yet. That means that the hard stuff never gets talked about or addressed. Based on my experience, Minnesota isn’t the only place that happens.

When I wanted to know what was going on in this community with regards to the racial divide, I very rarely found much more than political posturing by the leaders (both Black and White) who are often given the microphone by the media. The young Black professionals who are too busy working within the community to seek the spotlight were the ones who almost always helped me make sense of what was going on. That’s why I believe that the answers are likely to come from the bottom-up, in Minnesota as well as elsewhere.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.