The current situation of inflamed racial tensions in Minneapolis is distressing and frustrating. The video of George Floyd being held down with a knee to his neck is sickening. The disregard for the life of another individual is the epitome of pure evil, and thankfully, charges have been brought quickly against at least one of the officers.
There is hope that the riots and anarchy that has permeated the city over the past couple nights will start to calm, now that justice has started to turn its slow wheels. After all, what we really want is for things to go back to the way that they were. We want to get back to our lives and livelihoods. But, let us not for one second think that if the rioting stops that we’ve somehow turned a corner. Read this next sentence very, very carefully.
This. Is. Not. New.
I grew up in Saint Paul, on the “Eastside”, which has never been known as a haven of prosperity and wealth (to put it mildly). I’ve been shot in the back with BB guns, been awakened by the sound of gunfire outside my house, and found passed out drunk people on the steps of our duplex. But even at age 10, there was one thing that all of us knew… we might have it bad, but at least we didn’t have to deal with Minneapolis Police. News reports of cops planting evidence on a suspect that they just shot, or roughing up people of color for no reason were not uncommon. Despite the fact that I’m a white male, it still gave me pause when my friend and I were pulled over just on the other side of the border for a broken taillight. I’ve lived my entire life with this central narrative about the MPD.
Let’s take it back another step though. The history of the Twin Cities is not one that has been kind to people of color. Redlining was a massive problem here, as much as anywhere. Black people were required to stay in their neighborhoods, and were even protested when they tried to move into white ones. The black community also had to deal with institutional discrimination at all levels, which is most visible today in the destruction of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul and the North Minneapolis neighborhood.
Both of these neighborhoods were irrevocably changed with the construction of Interstate 94. The Rondo neighborhood was bisected right through the middle, destroying dozens and dozens of houses, and forever altering the character of a neighborhood and a community. North Minneapolis was also hit with a new freeway through its neighborhood because it was “just working class people and negroes” and was labeled by cartographers as “Slums”. So strong was the prejudice towards people of color, that it was simply deemed OK to crush their attempt at community building. But yet, when Interstate 35 got too close to a very wealthy (and less racially diverse) portion of Saint Paul, no effort was spared to lock the whole thing up in lawsuits until it was turned into “35E Parkway” and the speed limit capped at 45mph.
Minnesota has always been considered progressive. It’s a “liberal bastion” of the great north. Yet, that progressive spirit shouldn’t give us a pass when it comes to racial equity. Minnesota is 84% white (79% when subtracting hispanic origin), and our African American community is only around 380,000 people (6.8%) (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/minneapoliscityminnesota,MN/PST045219). That’s not a lot of diversity, and when you leave the Twin Cities area the percentages skew even more and more white. Yet, you would think that for as progressive as we’re touted as being, that our racial strifes would be minimal. That’s far from the truth, and it’s complicated by our “progressive” ideals and how we’ve responded to other races in our past.
Minnesota and its progressive history is well known for it’s stance on refugees. In the 1970’s Minnesota took on a huge Hmong refugee resettlement initiative and now hosts the largest Hmong community of any metropolitan area in the United States. Again in the 2000’s Minnesota took on another refugee population and now boasts the largest Somali community in the US. We’re proud of what we’ve done for the world by helping these communities resettle in the frozen north. We wear it as a badge of honor, and we should be grateful for all the people who helped make these resettlements possible. But, when looking at our “home grown” minority populations, we’ve fallen way short. Particularly when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans and African Americans.
Our “Progressive Pride” has made us blind to the fact that we’re no different than many other areas of the country when it comes to how we deal with minorities, many of whom are living in poverty. We think that because we have historically generous social safety-nets, long-standing union support, and a strong love of multi-cultural arts, that we must be taking care of every one equally. In fact, we’re not really that different than anyone else. We have a sordid history with desegregation and school busing. We are home to the largest mass execution of Native Americans in history. And, we continue to show that our police forces struggle to treat people of color fairly.
The first step in any type of change, personal or societal, is coming to terms with where we’re at. Many times when people want to lose weight, it’s because they’ve looked long and hard in the mirror and don’t like what they see. The same goes for people suffering with substance abuse, eating disorders, or any variety of mental illnesses. We need to first recognize the problem, as a problem, before we can even consider how to make a change.
We’re at an inflection point Minnesota. We’re being shown the mirror of racial injustice, and we don’t like that fact that it’s our face starting back at us. It’s time to put away the excuses. It’s time to put away the “ya, but…” that we add to all of our pithy social media comments. It’s time to admit that we have a problem, and it’s not a new one. It’s one that we’ve been avoiding, dismissing, or outright denying for far too long.
We’ve been given this moment in time to consider how we want Minnesota to look tomorrow and into the future. Let’s stop, reflect, and take a breath. Unlike Mr. Floyd, we can still breath, and history will be watching what we do next.