GRAND FORKS — Here’s the headline that confronted me on Sunday morning, when I opened my computer screen and clicked the icon for The New York Times:
“Minnesota is one of the best places in America to live. Unless you’re Black.”
The accompanying article, an opinion piece, provided perspective on some vexing questions, “How can this be happening? What’s the matter with Minnesota?”
This, of course, is the death of Black men at the hands of police, during what should be routine interactions. One officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. As Chauvin's trial began winding down, another cop in another city apparently grabbed her gun rather than her Taser. Daunte Wright, a young Black man, died. The officer, Kimberly Potter, has been charged with manslaughter.
How can this be happening in Minnesota? Samuel L. Myers presents some perspective in the Times’ piece. Murray is professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota.
“Across a whole host of measures — unemployment rates, wages, incarceration rates, test scores, homeownership rates — the gaps between white Minnesotans and Black Minnesotans are among the widest in the country.”
Here’s a telling piece of Myers’ evidence: The share of American households without an automobile is 9%. In Minnesota, it’s 7%. Among Black households nationwide, the percentage without a car is 19%. In Minnesota, it is 24%. That’s the reverse of national statistics.
The Times helpfully links to other recent articles addressing this same question. Justin Ellis, a Minneapolis native who’s returned to his hometown while working on a book, provides these statistics in an article published Thursday, April 15: 7% of Minnesotans are Black. A majority of traffic stops in Minneapolis involve Black drivers. Use of force by police against Black people is seven times greater than against white people in Minnesota. Blacks account for 27% of deaths in police encounters in Minnesota.
Why is this happening in Minnesota?
Minnesota, Myers suggests, has buried racism. He writes, “Unlike places where racism was (and is) open and transparent, racism in Minnesota is obscured by progressive policy. Our history and legacy of egalitarianism makes it harder for us to see racial disparities as manifestations of racism.”
Myers’ telling of Minnesota history highlights its openness.
Minnesota enacted a broad range of programs aimed at welcoming and supporting Blacks who fled areas historically more hostile to Black people. All of this was well-intentioned, even well-administered.
But policies became frozen in place, he suggests. Intent excuses the reality. Past good intentions fuel today’s complacency. Minnesotans — and their neighbors — shrug. While the outrage on streets in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center seeped across the Red River into Fargo, the prevailing attitude remains, and — as we saw last week — the killings continue.
A third article in the Times pressed this point, as well. David Lawrence Wright, a screenwriter and playwright with deep roots in Minneapolis, pointed out that — as common with other Midwestern cities, including Fargo — Minneapolis had a long history of redlining, thus concentrating Black populations in certain neighborhoods. He nostalgically recalled The Rondo, a vibrant Black neighborhood destroyed by the construction of Interstate 94.
Wright wrote, “The home of ‘Minnesota nice’ — that deeply rooted stereotype about our state’s cult of politeness — would love to believe that there’s no substantial toehold for white supremacy here. But the stereotype has always been about the maintenance of a superficial kind of civic politeness, about preserving the appearance of peace and only the best intentions.
Ellis describes this as “the Minnesota Paradox.” If Minnesotans want to end the paradox, he writes, “they must continue to acknowledge and change policies, past and present, that have led to such wide racial disparities and that belie our reputation as a progressive and egalitarian state.”
Acknowledgement comes first. Grand Forks took a first step last year, acknowledging a lynching that occurred more than a century ago.
Of course, it’s only a step.
We’ve got to move away from the complacent self-satisfaction that hides the reality and fuels the division that threatens all of us, not Minnesotans only, not Midwesterners only, but all Americans together. This means examining both our individual and our community consciences, and it means addressing policy, including policing, voting access, social services, housing and educational opportunity.
Regardless of the verdicts in these trials, the paradox must be met.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.