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Some context for why Minneapolis became the spark igniting so many protests

A history of structural racism brought the Twin Cities to this boiling point. In my sample of white residents, even those who express understanding of white privilege tend to minimize the struggles of their black neighbors.

Protesters gather outside the Minnesota Governor's Residence
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
Protesters gathered outside the Minnesota Governor's Residence last week.
Minneapolis is ground zero for the kind of large-scale protesting around racism and police violence that we haven’t seen since the civil rights movement. While this political moment seems unique, it is not the first time that the extrajudicial killing of a black man by police has sparked protests here — the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile come to mind. And yet nothing has substantively changed for blacks in the Twin Cities. 

The culture of race and politics in Minnesota is itself unique, and a history of structural racism brought the Twin Cities to this boiling point. There are significant disparities between black and white Twin Cities residents on employment, per capita income, and homeownership. Minnesota is also home to one of the largest educational achievement gaps in the nation, and the Twin Cities are marked by a historical and enduring pattern of racial segregation

In February and March of this year, I recruited and interviewed 41 white residents of the metropolitan area between the ages of 18 and 85 as part of my dissertation research. I used a combination of convenience sampling (reaching out to existing networks and posting fliers) and snowball sampling (recruiting from my participants’ networks). My sample skews male (59%), older (49% over 55), and more Democratic (61%). I asked respondents about their political identities and attitudes with the aim of understanding how they conceptualize their race and understand racial politics. My findings from these interviews provide some context for why Minneapolis became the spark that started the fire of racial justice protests now happening nationwide and abroad. 

1) My respondents are not put in the position of thinking about their race in any significant way. For example, a woman in her late teens conceded that “it’s just never come up in a situation where it’s really mattered or been a factor of … important life changes or decisions that I’ve had to make.” This was a common theme among respondents. A man in his late 50s said that he doesn’t consider his whiteness an important component of his identity because “I don’t think skin color has much to do with the heart.” This does not mean that the respondents don’t sometimes understand that white privilege exists. One respondent, a man in his early 20s, thought of his whiteness as “part of a big package of privilege” he was “handed when he was born.” Similarly, a college aged woman recognized that her whiteness “changed the way that the world interacts with me and the way I interact with the world but … because it’s seen as the default, I’ve kind of been unaware of it for a long time.” 

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2) In my sample, even those who express understanding of white privilege tend to minimize the struggles of their black neighbors. In some cases, this manifested as failing to recognize the structural nature of racism and believing that racism can be directed at whites. In other cases, it was changing the narrative entirely. A male in his 60s claimed that “white privilege ain’t nothing to American privilege … the difference between whites and anybody else in America is nowhere near as stark as the difference between any American and the average person in the world.” Another older male similarly changed the narrative by arguing that “black males have always come ahead of white and black females in making progress in the government system.” 

Geneva Cole
Geneva Cole
3) This minimization extends to outright criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement for previous nonviolent but disruptive protests around police violence. Over the past week we’ve heard these same kinds of criticisms: Disruption is fomenting polarization and hurting the innocent. Some respondents, like this young woman, suggested that “there’s not a reason to have Black Lives Matter without actual oppression.” Most, however, recognized the need for BLM but even while occasionally disagreeing with the tactics of the movement. Many complained about the protests that shut down I-94 and blocked traffic around the State Fair. Several also complained about the use of anti-police rhetoric, with one older male bringing up pigs on Colin Kaepernick’s socks as an affront. About these nonviolent disruptions, respondents largely agreed: “It’s not fair.”

Like many Americans, those I spoke to in Minnesota often don’t recognize their whiteness as an identity. Minnesota in particular has a history of structural silence around issues of race, instead embracing the reputation as a liberal stronghold, the culture of ‘Minnesota Nice,’ and the Minneapolis Miracle. At the same time, Minnesota is a microcosm of some racial dynamics playing out at the national scale. Growing diversity is evident in the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in America. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s election thrust this community into the national spotlight. Minnesota is also home to high profile police violence that resulted in protests multiple times before. 

It’s important to recognize the limitations inherent in a qualitative interview study for making population-level inferences. However, the structural conditions of the Twin Cities — growing diversity, disparities in almost every outcome across race, and historic silence on racial issues — are not unique to Minnesota or even the Midwest. These structures shape how my interview respondents understand their own race and the fight for racial justice that we are engaged in, and they contextualize white lack of empathy toward the protests. Minneapolis may be on fire now, but it’s been burning for a long time. 

Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Chicago, where she studies American politics with a focus on political identity and public opinion.

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