Why This Started in Minneapolis

Police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street in Minneapolis, but the protests that have erupted in response to his death have rippled worldwide. From Riverton, Wyoming, to Flatbush, Brooklyn — and now in Paris, London, and other European capitals — communities have risen up in a shared rage that speaks to the universality of police violence and the inequities that feed it.

Minneapolis, however, stands out as the site where it all began. The city’s history of disparate policing, and the ways racism and division molded its physical landscape, might help us understand why.

Minneapolis is at once considered one of the most livable cities in the country, and the one with some of the greatest racial disparities in housing and income and education. There’s a dissonance, locals say, between its progressive rhetoric and the reality of how people of different races experience completely different cities. This local paradox is a microcosm of the statewide “Minnesota Paradox,” a term coined by University of Minnesota economist Samuel L. Myers Jr., to highlight the often-ignored inequality that defines the region.

CityLab spoke with five experts on race, culture, and state and local history to understand how they’ve experienced these divides, and how to bridge them. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

William D. Green, history professor at Augsburg University: Back in 1860, even though Minnesota was free soil and had in its constitution a ban against slavery, slaveholders would come to Minnesota to vacation.

Abolitionists brought one slave woman to court and freed her, and what resulted was a riot in the city. For the next four or five months, neighbors in Minneapolis walked the streets with loaded weapons, waiting for their neighbors to provoke them.

And what averted that pending crisis was when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and started the Civil War. Minnesotans shifted their focus away from their neighbors — what got them to change their focus was joining up. Minnesota was the first state to send volunteers into the Union Army.

So you have this strange situation, where people were willing to defend a slaveholder’s right to hold a slave in Minnesota, despite what the state law said, and they were also willing to join up and fight to preserve the Union.

Daniel Bergin, documentary filmmaker for Twin Cities PBS: This paradox goes to the very founding of the state: the colonization and the displacement of Dakota and Ojibwe, which is its own complex and deep and insidious story. But in terms of the African-American experience, even after the territorial period, there was this tension around abolitionist culture from the New Englanders who had largely made up Minneapolis at the time, and the businessmen who were seated in St. Paul.

Literally, when they were founding the state, there were two constitutions: One that made a statement against slavery. And then another that didn’t.

Green: After the war, Minnesotans tried three times to pass a law that would extend the voting rights to black men. And on the third attempt, they succeeded — before the 15th Amendment was ratified. Just months after that, the legislature passed a law saying that any school system in Minnesota that segregated on the basis of race would lose all state funding. And then they also began to see black people serve on juries, which was something that had never happened in Minnesota. This is all before 1870.

And then right after that, nothing happened. It was like the progressives and the friends of black people took their feet off the pedal and began to coast in complacence on their good deeds. Even though Minnesota would later pass two or three public accommodations laws banning banning segregation and discrimination in public settings, you still had discrimination being carried out by white shopkeepers and restaurateurs and whatnot, denying or harassing black patronage.

What that represents is that policymakers did high-minded things, but they did not push down that sense of enlightenment into the body politic. Policymakers and the body politic lived in parallel worlds with regard to race relations.

By the end of the century, the reputation of Minnesota across the nation was that Minnesota at least was racially tolerant, but what was not being addressed was the fact that the black population in Minnesota is exceedingly small. And what that meant was there were not a lot of black people around to test the social customs that permitted segregation to continue, and discrimination to exist.

Taiyon J. Coleman, assistant professor of English literature at St. Catherine University in St. Paul: After I moved to the state, I wrote an essay, “Disparate Impacts: Moving to Minnesota to Live Just Enough for the City,” which appeared in the anthology “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota.” At the end of the essay, I say, “There are Confederate flags everywhere, even if you can’t see them.” That’s what I would say about Minnesota. There are good people here. It’s a good place to live: There are parks, and recreation, and this notion of public interest for the public good. But there’s this undercurrent of Minnesota niceness that is very homogenized. You see that in housing, in education, in employment, in net wealth, in incarceration — we have the largest racial disparities in the nation. And with those disparities, there’s a culture that people don’t want to look at it.

You can’t imagine how frustrating it is. I have all the degrees, all the things that U.S.A. society has said I need to have in order to access citizenship — what I loosely call whiteness, because whiteness is a constructed identity — but that is still never enough. That still never protects you. And that’s what the paradox is. You’ve achieved all this, and you have these things, but it doesn’t make you safe. Even with my privilege, I still don’t have access to that.

Green: People are surprised by the depth of anger and grievance when a police officer abuses an African American or kills an African American and there’s a human cry in the community. Many people in Minnesota and even in Minneapolis are surprised at the intensity of the anger. What that tells me is that to a large extent, even though this is, for the most part, a progressive/liberal city, it’s also a city in which the races live in parallel universes. It is possible for white people to have no contacts at all with blacks unless they have kids in the schools, or at my university, or they’re in the military, or prison.

Kirsten Delegard, co-founder of Mapping Prejudice, which tracks racial housing covenants in Minneapolis: In the early part of the 20th century, Minneapolis was not trying to market itself as a model progressive metropolis. It was quite the opposite: In 1946, the city was named the “anti-Semitism capital of the United States.” It actually had a profound reputation for intolerance, and there was a very powerful group here that brutally repressed all labor organizing.

It was in response to that very bad publicity in the ‘30s and ‘40s that you have this young mayor by the name of Hubert Humphrey who’s elected and makes his political career on trying to change the racial climate of Minneapolis.

He launches what was hailed at the time as this really innovative sociological experiment with these black sociologists and tries to get every Minneapolitan to do a self-audit of their own feelings about race, and all their organizations’ practices about race. This experiment really puts Minneapolis on the map as this progressive metropolis — but it was all about feelings, it was all about attitude. It did nothing to address the material conditions of life for black people. When I read those reports from the 1940s I was really struck by the fact that while they had people do all these rankings of their attitudes, there was basically a passing reference to the fact that 40% of the city at least had been restricted by these racial covenants.

Racial covenants are a legal clause that specifies that land can never be occupied or sold to anyone who’s not white. The first one that Mapping Prejudice has found was introduced in Minneapolis in 1910. Before that moment, Minneapolis was not a particularly segregated place. But after, racial covenants were in use for 40 years. A lot of these contemporary disparities that are so pronounced and brutal have roots in the history of deliberate efforts to make sure that all land in the city remained in the control of white people.

Bergin: You start to see this map taking place, where black folks and other people of color couldn’t buy, couldn’t build, weren’t allowed to even occupy. Then, as history shows us, the redlining that the Federal Housing Authority implemented during the Depression literally follows these profiles and these boundaries and barriers in terms of what neighborhoods were worthy of investing in and underwriting loans in. What we learned recently is that it wasn’t just informal patterns of occupancy — it’s all based on the systemic racism of the 19th century. And then it shows up later in the 20th century, in terms of the growing disparities.

Delegard: You could tell the story that I told you about almost any American city: Racial covenants are not unique to Minneapolis, redlining’s not unique, white violence is not unique, real estate steering is not unique to Minneapolis. But the way they were used has created a different environment here.

When they first started to be used, there were just very few African Americans in this city. Because the restrictions were adopted in such a universal, overwhelming way, where so much of the land as it developed in the city throughout the 20th century was just off-limits to anyone who was not white — the fact that that happened at a really critical moment in the city’s history in the way that it did really created a different geography of intolerance in this city, a segregation of opportunity.

Because of that, it became very, very hard for African Americans to find a place to live and buy a home — and very hard to buy a home where they could actually amass wealth over time, rather than homeownership being a financial burden.

Shannon Smith Jones, executive director of the nonprofit affordable housing organization Hope Community: We can tout this as a really great space to live. Minnesota is absolutely beautiful: We do have beautiful parks, we have walkable places, bikable places, all of these lakes. But who and how we get to access those things has always been a part of it. Green spaces look different in North Minneapolis than they do in other parts of the city. Even up until recently, when they started investing in inner-city parks, there are huge disparities in what parks look like in North Minneapolis vs. Southwest Minneapolis. There’s been a value laid in the infrastructures that have allowed for those that succeed and those who that don’t to be held along the racial lines.

Coleman: I want to say this: Blackness is complicated. It’s not just color. It’s also what class you are, where you live, what you look like, where you work. I have a colleague who lives in St. Paul, who told me [last week] that the police were outside her house in riot gear with bullhorns telling them to stay inside and not come out of the house. Where I live, in the Nokomis neighborhood, that wasn’t happening at all. Would that ever have happened to Mr. Floyd if he was in my neighborhood?

I would argue that this is how segregation works in Minneapolis or Minnesota: It re-inscribes the racial stereotypes, because it keeps peaceful people isolated, so that not only are they the other, but then I’m convinced they’re the other, because I never see them where I live. When that police officer was doing that to Floyd, yes, he should be held accountable, but he could not get away with his actions if other people were not complicit in allowing him to do that.

When people are othered, you can watch a man kill in front of your face and literally not see it. You can be in a room with different people, and based upon your skin color, your geography, where you grew up, where you live, you’re going to see something completely different. This is a symptom of a bigger systemic disease. We need to get justice for Mr. Floyd — but we got a big problem, because [Chauvin] couldn’t get away with what he did if we didn’t have a culture that perpetuated that type of action and made it possible.

Green: George Floyd’s death is not a turning point in policing. Right after the passage of the black suffrage law in Minnesota [in 1868], there was an article that appeared in the newspaper of note saying that in police court, we have a lot of “unsavories,” and they used the n-word. It was an example of — and a reflection — of the disproportionate arrests of African Americans. We’re talking about a small population, and yet per capita, more blacks were arrested for crimes for which white people who committed the same crimes were not arrested for.

Then you also have a series of incidents where cops were especially brutal to African Americans who were detained or who they were seeking to arrest. Again, we’re talking 19th century, but to read the events of those arrests, you might as well be looking at what just happened on 38th and Chicago.

And of course, the message conveyed there is that these cops are doing their job because the African American is a threat to social order. And that the cops are given the license to manhandle, and to be abusive of the “black miscreants.” That sensibility has been in Minnesota, just beneath the surface, since the Civil War.

Bergin: There is a lot we can learn from movements of the past, and I think it’s kind of urgent, in fact, because what we need to get to is the community-building that follows. We had unrest in Minneapolis in the late 1960s, as many Northern cities did. And now we can see what resulted: Some spaces and places and people never healed. And then — there’s the paradox again — there were also really really powerful outcomes that were black-led in solidarity with others.

After the Northside riots in ’67, white businessmen and others, together with black leadership said, “what can we do?” And they formed this organization called the Metropolitan Economic Development Association — an incubator that helps to educate and hopefully launch minority- and women-owned businesses. That organization is still here today, still helping diverse businesses get off the ground and supporting them. It is an outgrowth of the disruptions of the late 60s.

[Another outgrowth] is the election to mayor of a former cop and head of the Minneapolis Police Federation, Charles Stenvig. He was a late-‘60s law-and-order proponent and got elected because of some of the civil unrest — he ran on the catchphrase, “taking the handcuffs off the Minneapolis police.” You had political leadership emerging out of police culture.

Coleman: When the governor was saying, “We have to get back to normal,” I know he was well meaning and well intentioned, but that scared me. I said, “No, this is normal for black people.” You’re always afraid.

As Mr. Floyd’s choking out on the street, think about Covid. People of color are [three] times more likely to die from Covid. They’re being choked out the same way — they, too, cannot breathe. And are we seeing it? Is it important, or is it business as usual? States are reopening. People are going around as if it’s no big deal. Because we’ve been socialized to say those deaths, those bodies, those people don’t matter.

I don’t condone what the protesters did. But if that is the metaphor for equality and enfranchisement, people of color are always on fire.

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