In the struggle for civil rights, the federal government has intervened in the practices of many state and local jurisdictions — most of them in the South. When Little Rock, Arkansas, would not integrate its schools, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to escort the “Little Rock Nine” to class. When Gov. George Wallace stood at the “schoolhouse door” of the University of Alabama to deny the enrollment of two black students, the Kennedy administration sent a federalized National Guard to ensure the students could register and attend class. Similarly, Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi faced federal troops as he fomented white segregationist riots and tried to block the enrollment of James Meredith, who would become the first black student at the university.
Looking at these federal interventions in the South, northern white liberals in states like Minnesota have often felt that “we” are the “good guys.” We extol Hubert Humphrey, who implored the 1948 Democratic Convention to adopt a stronger civil rights platform — and sparked a walkout of Strom Thurmond and the southern Dixiecrats. And in the aftermath of Walter Mondale’s recent death, we remember his crucial leadership in passing civil rights legislation — and also his advocacy of policies like school busing and affirmative action even when they were unpopular.
But this year, the federal government has come to Minnesota to investigate the Minneapolis Police Department following George Floyd’s murder. Gov. Tim Walz and Mayor Jacob Frey are surely not standing at the doors of City Hall to block the investigation; indeed they welcome it and cooperate with it. The probe will reveal racist practices in policing. Yet the Minneapolis Police Department is not the only racist institution in our state. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has just called for a broader investigation of other police departments. What about institutions beyond the police? Can the broader polity of Minnesota follow the spirit of the federal inquiry and look more broadly at the state of racial justice?
Comparing Minnesota to southern states — often viewed as racist — reveals prejudice and bigotry that belie our progressive self-image. Starting with our criminal justice system, the Sentencing Project reveals that Minnesota ranks 4th among states in the racial disparity of incarceration rates for black and white residents. Minnesota imprisons 1,219 blacks for every 100,000 blacks in the state, but only 111 whites per 100,000 whites in the population. Minnesota’s 11:1 racial disparity dwarfs comparable ratios in states like Alabama and Mississippi.
Looking at home ownership, the data show that over half of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama own a home, yet only 25% of Minnesota blacks own a home. Why the difference? The Mapping Prejudice Project has revealed the existence of racial redlining in the Twin Cities that thwarted the path toward home ownership among black Minnesotans. If owning a home is at the core of the so-called American dream, in Minnesota it seems more a practice of white privilege than an equitable and inclusive dream for all.
Looking at our education system, the Federal Reserve studied the teaching of blacks and whites in Minnesota’s public schools. Its research showed that the achievement gaps between black and white students in math and reading are among the worst in the nation — behind Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas.
These injustices are rooted in 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow and more; addressing them is never easy. We in Minnesota can be proud of some of our history. Civil rights icons like Humphrey and Mondale do not win elections in every state. Yet while progress has been made, truly great states also have the courage to examine their weaknesses — even their dark sides. Our history includes both explicit injustices and also implicit biases that we do not fully comprehend. Can we identify and acknowledge our prejudice — and then craft public policies and cultural norms that can achieve greater justice?
Dan Hofrenning is a professor of political science & environmental studies at St. Olaf College, Northfield.
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