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Reappraising ‘The state that works’: Part II, racial disparities belie ‘the good life’

Fifty years after the Time magazine cover story touting Minnesota as the nation’s model state, it’s time to reassess.

Reappraising ‘Minnesota: A State That Works’

Reappraising Minnesota” is a commentary series that seeks to re-evaluate Minnesota’s basic condition today and its evolution since 1973, when a Time magazine cover story praised it as “A State That Works.’’  The author is Dane Smith, who wrote about politics and government as a reporter from 1977 to 2007 for both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. Smith, now retired, also served for 10 years as president of Growth & Justice, a think tank that advocated for a more equitable and sustainable economy. Read other pieces in the series here.

No people of color were visible in the many photographs of smiling and prosperous Minnesotans in Time magazine’s 1973 cover story celebrating “The State That Works.” 

Every single one of the 10 overachieving citizens in a photo collage inside was a white male (that’s right, no women either). This august assemblage featured seven generous corporate leaders, including five brothers of the Dayton family dynasty, also the University of Minnesota president, Minnesota Orchestra conductor and Guthrie Theater artistic director. Pictured elsewhere were happy middle-class white families and random folks in the IDS Crystal Court, on Lake Minnetonka, filling cargo ships with grain in Duluth, on Sauk Centre’s “Main Street” and other iconic locations.  

Time’s love poem to our “good life” probably rang true or held promise for most white Minnesotans 50 years ago. It surely sounded hollow for many of about 80,000 Blacks and other folks of color in 1973 (and who number about 1.4 million now).

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Just a few years earlier, Interstate 94 construction had destroyed a relatively prosperous and cohesive Black neighborhood (Rondo) in St. Paul. In the late 1960s, Black protests against police brutality and other injustices spilled into the streets of Minneapolis a couple of times. In 1968, desperate conditions for Native Americans sparked the creation in Minneapolis of a bold new American Indian Movement, a national organization that began to inspire Indigenous people across the nation.   

Civilians and National Guardsmen on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, July 1967.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Civilians and National Guardsmen on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, July 1967.
Signs of white backlash were already here, but overlooked by Time. The Minneapolis mayor was Charles Stenvig, a white cop who had vowed to crack down on “racial militants” in an upset election victory in 1969. And the state had just voted in 1972 to re-elect Richard Nixon, who had begun developing a “Southern Strategy” to help Republicans capitalize on white resentment against the Civil Rights movement and integration of schools and communities. (Minnesota has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since). 

Charles Stenvig
Minnesota Historical Society
Charles Stenvig
Time did not completely miss the fact of racial tension. A few paragraphs described problems for Black and Native American minorities, hinting that comeuppance might be in store if we became as diverse as the rest of the country. 

“Some argue that Minnesota works a bit too well and too blandly, that its comparatively open and serene population is a decade or two behind the rest of the U.S. The place lacks the fire, urgency and self-accusation of states with massive urban centers and problems. Minnesota’s people are overwhelmingly white (98%) most of them solidly rooted in the middle class. Blacks rioted in Minneapolis … but they have not yet forced Minnesotans into any serious racial confrontation. Or at least not an apocalyptic confrontation.” 

Steeper diversity curve 

The single most important demographic change since 1973 for Minnesota has been its steep growth rate in racial diversity. This transformation has enriched us culturally and spiritually, given us a younger population than the national average and a higher population growth rate than any Midwestern state through most of the past five decades. Moreover, the labors of newcomers have helped boost our rankings since 1973 in average overall income and wealth and business profitability. 


This latest wave of non-European immigration also seems to have dampened white Minnesotans’ previous enthusiasm for egalitarian distribution of resources and economic security for all. Our inability to embrace and include has resulted in the perpetuation of our nation’s original sins: genocidal conquest and oppression of the original people, and racism in many forms – from slavery and segregation to more subtle forms of structural and institutional exclusion, extending in some degree to all groups of color. 

Righteous as Minnesotans have been since statehood in 1858 with anti-racist laws and policies – producing national racial justice heroes from Roy Wilkins to Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone – we are still very much part of the United States. We proved unable to separate ourselves from growing inequality between the rich and everyone else, beginning in the 1970s. And too often too many of us indulged in the self-destructive white backlash – or more subtle “benign neglect” and paternalism – that has driven conservative and neo-liberal resurgence in policy and politics since the 1960s.

Minneapolis Star
“Premises shall not be sold, mortgaged, or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.”
Culture shock and reactionary attitudes may have been intensified because diversity increased so dramatically, from 2% in the 1970 census to 24% in 2020, as people of color from other states and nations flocked to Minnesota, attracted by its reputation for the good life. Minnesota is still not as diverse as the nation (42% non-white in the 2020 census), but the 12-fold increase in the percentage amounts to one of the steepest rates of diversity growth in the nation.    

Another distinctive aspect for Minnesota is the diversity of its diversity. Blacks are the largest non-white ethnic group in the former slave states of the South, and in many northeastern urban centers. Latinos and Asians predominate in the Southwest and West. Minnesota’s mix has remained remarkably even between Blacks (7%), Latinos (6%) Asians (5%) and multiethnic (4%).    

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This evenness might make it more difficult to understand the complexities of inequalities and to find solutions. Disparities vary widely between and among these groups, with some sub-groupings of Asians ranking slightly above whites on income and educational attainment. The Minnesota State Demographer’s office in recent years has documented with precision and insight the intricacies of diversity and disparity. 

As our colorfulness increased, conservatives complained, often with racially coded accusations. They blamed generous welfare benefits for attracting “thugs” and “welfare queens” from Chicago and Gary. Or frightened us with the specter of “illegal aliens” invading our space and taking our jobs. Or raised the specter of Islamic immigrants imposing “Sharia Law” on Christians. Most recently, an “anti-woke” crusade warns that diversity training or learning about injustice in schools is anti-American and divisive, building a sense of “victimhood” and “entitlement” for people of color, along with white guilt. 

Our more hospitable voices responded all along that the shift was a positive change, driven by good people simply seeking better lives in a more livable place. Mainstream Christian organizations, such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, and nonprofits such as the American Refugee Committee played a crucial role in welcoming and settling immigrants. 

Perhaps most important, the private sector beckoned too. Agribusiness and service sectors took full advantage of cheaper unskilled labor, employing new Minnesotans by the hundreds of thousands. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce issued several reports in recent years documenting the need for and value of immigrants, even though many of its business owner members continued to donate mostly to conservative candidates who minimized the importance of racial inequality and promised lower taxes and less regulation.   

Disparities by the numbers, and excuses 

Charts with this commentary list key disparity rankings compiled recently by news media and various research and advocacy groups. The widest disparities are for Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos, and for some sub-groups of Asians, especially the Hmong, who fought alongside U.S. troops and became refugees after the Vietnam War. The degree of disparity correlates roughly to the degree of severity of historic persecution and exclusion. 

Minnesota ranks near the very top (worst) in gaps for Blacks and Native Americans, in car and home ownership, on standardized school test scores and higher-education attainment and income and wealth. On more comprehensive multifactor rankings, Minnesota scored fifthworst overall in inequality for Blacks ( and fifthworst for Hispanics (24/7 Wall Street). 

Explanations for Minnesota’s disparities include some exculpatory factors, none of which should be taken as excuses for complacency or inaction. 

Most of the states with the worst disparities are in the Upper Midwest. All shared to some degree Minnesota’s embrace of the New Deal, and even more radical Farmer-Labor policies, and other 20th century liberal reforms aimed at economic security and more equality between white economic classes. As a result, white people in our five-state region have tended in recent decades to score considerably higher than whites in other regions, especially the South, in socio-economic condition. A rapid increase in new people of color with fewer resources and little education would naturally create wider gaps than in states where white people were less well off or where larger long-established communities of color were able to create at least some measure of middle-class prosperity, despite exclusion and oppression. 

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Again, no excuse. Our gaps are not due entirely to whites in Minnesota being better off than whites nationally. Much of the data shows that conditions for Blacks are actually worse relative to Blacks in other states and comparable to numbers in the Deep South. Minnesotans who are proud of their exceptionalism should not be taking cover with these kinds of rationalizations. Morally, we should be embracing and partnering with fellow humans who seek the quality of life we established for ourselves when almost all of us were white. Also, it’s in our own best long-term economic interest. 

How could this happen? 

A flood of new research and analysis, more than ever from authors of color themselves, both nationally and in Minnesota, has helped us better understand the cause and extent of racial inequality and what to do about it. 

Rough consensus exists that the main factors are: overt old-fashioned racism, cold-shouldered indifference and neglect, more subtle forms of institutional and structural racism, and well-meaning paternalism from white progressives who violate the rule, “Nothing about us without us.’’ That maxim conveys the idea that racial justice requires full equity partnerships in which the parties have equal standing, not just charity. 

Samuel L. Myers, Jr.
Samuel L. Myers, Jr.
Among the more perceptive frameworks for understanding what happened is “The Minnesota Paradox,” a theme developed by Samuel L. Meyers Jr., a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice. His lifetime of observing race relations in Minnesota informs research and recent commentaries in the New York Times and online.  

Myers puts high value on Minnesota’s progressive history and the quality of life it created.  His 2020 commentary in the New York Times describes Minnesota as a very attractive place for Blacks when many other states still forbade inter-racial marriage and when Minnesota corporations were “unabashed recruiters of African-American talent.” Those attitudes changed as the numbers increased and poorer Blacks sought better lives and encountered more subtle “baked-in” racism. 

“The structure of many of Minnesota’s policies and institutions – like police policies, housing policies, even regulations about driver’s licenses and renewal of tags – has a disproportionately adverse impact on nonwhites. These effects are not overcome by Minnesota’s progressivism. … Our history and legacy of egalitarianism make it harder for us to see racial disparities as manifestations of racism.” 

Nekima Levy Armstrong
Courtesy of Nekima Levy Armstrong
Nekima Levy Armstrong
Other thought leaders have been taking Minnesota’s white progressives to task for inaction and timidity, or for paternalistic policies that have failed or widened gaps. Among them are Nekima Levy Armstrong, a lawyer and one of the most prominent racial justice activists in the Twin Cities, and Myron Orfield, a law professor and director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. 

In a recent piece also published by the New York Times, Levy Armstrong faulted white progressives for reckless pursuit of a “defund the police” initiative that neglected to take into account Black demands for better, not necessarily less, policing. “What we got was progressive posturing of a kind seen throughout the country and a missed opportunity to bring about real change and racial justice,” said Levy Armstrong.

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Orfield attributes increasing disparities to neo-liberal “third way” policies, pushed nationally by President Bill Clinton that caved in to white resistance to integration. Strong social justice policies that required more integration of schools and housing in the Twin Cities suburbs were abandoned in favor of charter schools and profit-driven housing developers, resulting in more segregated schools and neighborhoods, Orfield argues. In yet another Times op-ed, Orfield wrote that Minneapolis “abandoned its vision of an egalitarian society, stopped enforcing civil rights rules and let inequality and division fester.’’ 

Turning the corner at last? 

All-out efforts by conservatives in Minnesota to create “anti-woke” resentment have not fared well, at least so far. In the 2022 elections, under conditions highly favorable for more backlash, Minnesotans as a whole kept their cool, re-electing by a comfortable margin a governor who stressed racial equity as part of a “One Minnesota” theme. They also elected many more new legislators of color, with representation in the Legislature now approaching the racial composition of our population.

House Republican Minority Leader Lisa Demuth and Senate President Bobby Joe Champion in an image from the beginning of the 2023 legislative session.
House Republican Minority Leader Lisa Demuth and Senate President Bobby Joe Champion in an image from the beginning of the 2023 legislative session.
The 2023 Legislature produced laws and public investments of historic proportions for racial equity. A summary of those achievements was released by the recently formed People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, now comprising about 15% of the Legislature. Setting the stage for these reforms, many nonprofit and business groups in recent years have pivoted toward greater emphasis on racial equity, and some newer Black-led and business-oriented organizations, such as the Center for Economic Inclusion, are focused entirely on erasing disparities in our economy. 

Direct racial reparations, considered radical and unthinkable just a few years ago, are gaining traction among local governments and philanthropic foundations. The Bush Foundation has earmarked $50 million to be granted to descendants of slavery in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Star Tribune recently published a powerful op-ed by St. Olaf professor Dan Hofrenning making the “Conservative Case for Reparations.”

The Black Maternal Health Caucus
Minnesota House Media Services
The Black Maternal Health Caucus, left to right: Rep. Hodan Hassan, Rep. Ruth Richardson, Rep. Esther Agbaje, Rep. Athena Hollins, and Rep. Mary Frances Clardy.
Younger white Minnesotans are by most accounts more supportive of race equity policies than their parents. Getting more older white Minnesotans on board remains a challenge. For years, progressives debated whether to close gaps by emphasizing color-blind universal economic security policies or whether to double down with stronger appeals to racial justice and targeted policies that improve conditions for people left further behind. The more color-blind policy approach has fallen short.  Blacks with exactly the same education attainment as whites, for instance, still fare much worse in employment and income.  

In the end, having to choose between universalism and more specific racial equity policy may be a false choice. A former University of Minnesota law professor, john a. powell, has produced a large body of research and instruction about how to do both, lifting the fortunes of lower- and middle-income whites and people of color through “targeted universalism.’’          

Elevating racial equity and explaining how “We all do better, when we all do better” might never win over all Minnesotans. But emphasizing that racial equity is good for white people too will be the key to building more consensus for racial equity policy.  And it is a sound recipe for economic growth.  Numerous nonpartisan studies, some with corporate support, have predicted that erasing racial disparities will produce GDP growth in the hundreds of billions nationally, and in the tens of billions for Minnesota. 

The path toward racial equality has always been difficult but the tide seems to be turning as more white Minnesotans come to appreciate the mutual benefits of racial equity. In the words of former NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who grew up in St. Paul’s old Rondo neighborhood, “The talk of winning our share is not the easy one of disengagement and flight, but the hard one of work, of short as well as long jumps, of disappointments, and of sweet success.” 

Next: Minnesota by the rankings, then and now 

Sources and Links 

List of U.S. states by non-Hispanic white population – Wikipedia 

Economic Status of Minnesotans 2023 ( 

Systemic racism haunts homeownership rates in Minnesota | Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis ( 

Minnesota’s education system shows persistent opportunity gaps by race | Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis ( 

How did Minn. become one of the most racially inequitable states? ( 

 TwnCities_01_09mech (Page 1) ( (Mind the Gap report by Minnesota business leaders, 2005) 

 The economic impact of closing the racial wealth gap | McKinsey 

Minnesota’s job market is amazing, unless you’re Black ( 

Examining U.S. Economic Racial Inequality by State | St. Louis Fed ( 

Center for Economic Inclusion 

targeted_universalism_primer.pdf ( (Targeted Universalism framework by john a. powell) 

Lawmakers tout Minnesota Legislature’s accomplishments to reduce racial disparities – Minnesota Reformer 

Bush Foundation, Nexus Community Partners will give $50M to descendants of slaves | MPR News 

State of Black Minnesota, Urban League Twin Cities, 2021 

Racial disparity in household incomes of Minnesotans is starting to narrow ( 

Minnesota’s Moment: Roadmap for Economic Expansion ( 

The Economic Gains from Equity: 

Opinion | Black Voters in Minneapolis Wanted Better Policing, Not Posturing by Progressives – The New York Times ( 

Opinion | George Floyd and Derek Chauvin Might as Well Have Lived on Different Planets – The New York Times ( 

A conservative case for reparations (