My first indication that the commitment to racial equality in the City of Lakes was at best superficial was in 1979. I was in Washington, DC, assisting a writer on a project about racism in newspapers. One of my tasks was to call newspaper editors and gather statistics on how many minorities they had on staff. The numbers were routinely pathetic, but my call to the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper stood out.
Despite having a large staff, the newspaper had no black reporters, editors, or photographers. The executive editor was new, a journalistic heavyweight from New York, and he was clearly embarrassed by the lack of minorities on his staff. He told me he was about to hire a lot of new people and would address the problem. Then he hired me, a white guy, and, I think, one black reporter.
A separate “black” city
The paper was virtually white, and for most of us staffers living in South Minneapolis, so was the city. But there was a North Side to the city, a side without the beautiful lakes, without the extensive bike and running trails, a side where the houses were not nearly as decent. Like many American cities, this was a separate “black” city with higher crime rates, neglected public housing, and economic deprivation.
A few white reporters lived on the North Side, and they were more aware than the rest of us that there were two cities. But their knowledge didn’t translate into the journalism of the time. I was oblivious to the racism in Minneapolis, and therefore guilty as at least a passive participant in it. And to anyone who really looked, the racism was readily apparent.
“The racism has been around for a very, very long time,” Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist, told the New York Times. “You can see it in the redlining of neighborhoods, the education system, the transportation system and, obviously, policing.”
I didn’t see them, so I didn’t think about them.
For me, a science and energy reporter during most of my time there, social issues were not my focus. I knew what redlining was, but I didn’t think about it. If anyone had asked, I would have acknowledged that the public schools on the North Side were likely not as good as those on the South Side. But my kids were in private school, so I rarely thought about the very real issue of bad schools in poor neighborhoods. I didn’t see them, so I didn’t think about them.
That sounds more callus than it really was. There was a black superintendent of schools in Minneapolis, Richard Green, who served for several years in the 1980s, and Sharon Sayles Belton, the black mayor of Minneapolis for eight years, mostly in the 1990s. How racist could this American Copenhagen be, with a powerful black school superintendent and progressive black mayor?
The white politicians from the state have included Walter Mondale, President Jimmy Carter’s vice president, liberal icon Hubert Humphrey, a senator and President Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, and Paul Wellstone, a progressive US senator whose rise in power was cut short in a plane crash in 2002. The mayor before Sayles Belton was Donald Fraser, a white liberal who had made his mark as a progressive congressman.
The incarceration rate of blacks was 11 times that of whites
Yet throughout the 80s and 90s, when I lived there, and apparently in the 20 years since I left, the outward liberalism covered up an inner racism that has made Minneapolis one of the most racist cities in America. According to a recent National Public Radio account, the city ranks near the bottom nationally in income inequality between whites and blacks; black unemployment, while low by national standards, is more than three times that of whites; and the black poverty rate in 2016 in the Twin Cities, which includes St. Paul, was more than three times as high as white unemployment.
And perhaps most relevant to the police attitude that allowed the murder of George Floyd, the incarceration rate of blacks in the Twin Cities area was 11 times that of whites in 2019. That is a stunning number, one that I doubt many of the white, liberal Minnesotans were aware of, much less thought about.
A different level of awfulness
Robert Lilligren, the first Native American elected to the Minneapolis city council, told the New York Times that Minneapolis did the right things, but in name only:
“Create a civil rights commission, create a civilian review board for the police, but don’t give them the authority to change the polices and change the system. Do something superficial and feel like you did something big.”
I was guilty of all of that during my 21 years in the city. The murder of Mr. Floyd is changing that. At least I hope it is. Over the last few years I’ve watched the stories of countless other blacks being killed by police and been angered, but not as deeply moved. Watching a cop put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck and slowly kill him as he said he couldn’t breathe was a different level of awfulness. The inhumanity was right there on camera.
Perhaps this will finally be enough to end “racism with a smile,” as a Somali immigrant described the attitude among the liberals and progressive whites in Minneapolis. Perhaps.