About that "Miracle"

An article was published on the Atlantic’s site yesterday called The Miracle of Minneapolis.  The post, written by Derek Thompson, lauds the Twin Cities metro area for its success in the areas of education, social mobility, affordable housing, tax policy, and water-power-harnessing, to name a few.  

The claim that the Twin Cities are, and have been, such dynamic places to live is likely to ring hollow to at least one large category of Twin Cities residents: people of color.

Indeed, within hours of Thompson’s post going up, critics on Twitter began to point out, rightly, that for people of color, life in the Twin Cities is, and has been, a far cry from miraculous.

For many, the more realistic assessments came when Minnesota was recently named the second-worst state in the country for Black people to live.  Or when statistical studies confirmed the lived educational experiences of people of color here: that Minnesota has the worst educational inequity for Latino students in the country; that Minnesota ranks dead last in the country in graduating Native American students. 

The list of disparities goes on and on.  In Minnesota, very HIGH income Black people were 3.8 times more likely than very LOW income White people to be given subprime loans when purchasing a home.  Black Minneapolis residents are over 11 times more likely than White residents to be arrested for marijuana possession.  The overall arrest rate for Black Minneapolis residents is over six times higher than that for non-Black residents.

The Twin Cities is, indeed, a place where youngish White folks can thrive.  One need only take a walk through the Minneapolis skyways over the lunch hour to find them teeming with thousands of twenty- and thirty-something professionals, dressed to the nines, an overwhelming proportion of them white.

But the history and present day story of Minnesota, like the rest of the United States, is a story of the exploitation and oppression of people of color by White people.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, compellingly and repeatedly (at The Atlantic, by the way), the oppression and exploitation of people of color aren't incidental or ancillary to the history of the United States.  Nor are they to the history of the Twin Cities.  They are foundational and essential.

To investigate the success of the Minneapolis project, Thompson looks to history.  But it is a very specific and narrow history.  He goes back to the 19th-century, but focuses his attention only on the mill owners who set up shop on the Mississippi.  Sadly (and, unfortunately, typically), his brief venture to the past does not include the first governor of Minnesota declaring “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”  Nor does it include Abraham Lincoln condoning the hanging of 38 Sioux after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, nor the United States Congress, in the aftermath of that war, passing an act declaring that the Dakota had “made an unprovoked, aggressive, and most savage war upon the United States” and therefore abrogating all treaties with the Dakotas.

This abrogation of treaties and seizure of lands represented not only individual tragedy for the people involved, but a tangible transfer of exceedingly valuable land from Native people to White people.

Many Latino families in Minnesota can trace their ancestry back to the end of the 19th century, when huge agriculture companies, like American Crystal Sugar (then called Minnesota Sugar Company) recruited migrant workers from the U.S.-Mexico border to come work in Minnesota.  The ag companies used their political influence to ensure that labor laws weren't applied to these migrant workers (which allowed them to put children to work), and government officials would often give the companies a heads-up before coming to inspect the dilapidated housing they provided for their workers.  When the Great Depression hit, Latino workers on farms and in cities were often the first to be fired.  In some cities, unemployment levels passed 80%.

This history represents not only an unfortunate reality for the migrant agriculture workers at the time, but also, in the words of Coates, a specific transfer of wealth from the workers to whom it was owed to the White owners and managers of the ag companies.

At the same time that the heroic businessmen were building their mills, White homeowners were using racial restrictive covenants in home deeds that mandated that homes could not be sold to Black people.  These covenants were used in both urban areas, like Minneapolis, and suburbs, like Edina.  Through these covenants, and other means, White Twin Cities residents were able to ensure they had access to the highest quality housing in the locations of their choosing.

It’s not just that racial restrictive covenants made desirable housing stock less accessible to people of color; it’s that, by definition, it made that stock more accessible to White people.  Generations of racist housing practices have been a huge contributor to the chasm in wealth  disparities in our country.  The wealth that many Black families would have accumulated had they had access to the housing they wanted was instead transferred to White people.

None of this is to say that every analysis of urban policy must include an exhaustive history of all of its peoples.  But any analysis of the success of a community, particularly when that success is so clearly demarcated along racial lines, must spend as much of its energy investigating taking as it does investigating creating.  And that, to me, is the great flaw in Thompson’s post.  He treats the “miracle of Minneapolis” solely as something that was built and created, without bothering to examine how the current social reality is the product of both building and taking simultaneously. 

Yes, the mill owners built their mills.  Yes, innovative tax policies were enacted.  But the relative strength of the prospects of White Twin Cities residents is also the product of taking land and wealth from Native Americans, taking labor and wages from Latino workers, and taking housing wealth from Black residents, to name just a few.

Here is a brutal reality with which we White folks need to grapple: you cannot disadvantage one group of people without advantaging another.  You cannot look solely at what has been built, without also looking at what has been taken, from whom and by whom.  And you cannot treat that taking as an exclusively historical phenomenon.

In his article, Thompson doesn't acknowledge the realities of racial disparities and injustice in the Twin Cities at all.  But I’d argue that any serious analysis of the “miracle” of Minneapolis must go several steps past acknowledging the realities of racial inequity and grapple with this question: to what extent do White people in the Twin Cities experience disproportionate prosperity as a result of the oppression and exploitation of people of color?  It’s not enough simply to note that one group is in a position of advantage relative to another; we must consider how one reality may have led to the other.

I submit that the dual realities that the Twin Cities are home to both strong White prosperity and also some of the worst racial inequity in the country are neither coincidental nor incidental.  Those two realities are profoundly intertwined.

As White people, we have a prevailing inability to perceive the role race and power are playing in the world.  Too often, we interpret this lack of perception to mean that race is playing no role.  This is true in how we interpret and present our history as well.

I know this post may seem like a lot of rain on a miraculous parade.  And I don’t think that we shouldn't celebrate anything.  But we must do it within a forthright accounting.

There are most certainly topics here—tax policy, affordable housing, city planning—that are very much worth discussing.  But discussing them without exploring the history (and current reality) of racial oppression and exploitation isn't just incomplete; it’s dangerously deceptive, and almost miraculously self-perpetuating.