The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s hard to hear ‘Minnesota Nice’ without undertones of irony and despair

People gather at a memorial for George Floyd at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on Wednesday in Minneapolis. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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I was born and raised in Minneapolis, 10 blocks from the intersection where George Floyd had the life squeezed from his body. So it’s hard to hear the phrase “Minnesota Nice” now without undertones of irony and despair.

Not after four police officers have been charged in the brutal choking death of an unarmed black man suspected of passing a phony $20 bill, not after the city has erupted in more than a week of explosive protests and looting, not after a black CNN reporter was arrested on live TV while his white colleagues standing nearby were allowed to carry on with their work.

I am so proud to hail from a place that nurtured such a long line of openhearted, civic-minded luminaries and humanitarians: Hubert H. Humphrey, Roy Wilkins, August Wilson, Bob Dylan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Yara Shahidi, Sinclair Lewis, Gordon Parks and, of course, Prince. With superior schools, a solid standard of living, a thriving arts culture, a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, and some of the best hospitals in the world, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have consistently been named among the best places to live in America.

That is . . . unless you’re black. African Americans are worse off in Minnesota than in almost every other state in the nation. A report released by the NAACP in December found that “racial disparities are among the worst in the nation in every key indicator of quality of life: Employment, Education, Criminal Justice, Juvenile Justice, Income, Poverty, homeownership and Health.”

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The Twin Cities’ numbers tell the story. The black poverty rate is five times higher than for white residents. A quarter of black residents own their homes compared with three-quarters of whites. Only 57 percent of black students in Minneapolis and 70 percent of black students in St. Paul complete high school in four years, compared with around 85 percent of their white peers. Black youth represent 11 percent of the under-18 population but more than 30 percent of those detained in the juvenile justice system.

Police are assaulting journalists covering the George Floyd protests. We used to condemn this in other countries. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: CNN/The Washington Post)

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

How did this happen in a state that was known as a model for integration throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s?

Minnesota made a determined effort to avoid the mistakes other northern cities made during the Great Migration as African Americans who fled the Jim Crow South were funneled into declining communities. The Twin Cities adopted a plan where the cities and the suburbs created their fair share of affordable housing to avoid minorities being cordoned off in warrens of blight and decay. And the Twin Cities created an aggressive and impressive model for integration that helped ensure that school funding and resources were equally distributed. In those years, Minneapolis was a mecca for middle-class blacks drawn by integrated schools and a strong white-collar employment base.

But beginning in the 1990s, Minneapolis and St. Paul began abandoning the integration model under pressure from parents and political groups that argued that there was “no compelling government interest in K-12 education absent intentional discrimination.” Instead, the schools moved to a system based on open enrollment and the promise of increased funding for lower-income schools. That coincided with an increased population of immigrants and poor black families and a subsequent wave of “Blight Flight,” as white and middle-class blacks abandoned once-integrated classrooms for the suburbs or higher performing city schools. It was an extreme example of a trend that has taken hold elsewhere — a shift toward segregation in schools, in housing, in elder care and early childhood education.

The killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests have put an international spotlight on resulting disparities. The marchers who took to the streets to protest Floyd’s death at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue came from all over the city, but will white or affluent residents visit, support and invest in neighborhoods that burned with rage, areas that are increasingly segregated? History suggests otherwise. Will the massive media herd in town to cover Floyd’s memorial service on Thursday return to monitor the rate of rebuilding and reinvestment in the coming years? Will the Minneapolis police force, with more than 90 percent of its officers residing in the suburbs as recently as 2014, ever be able to convince cops to move inside the city they are supposed to protect and serve?

It is clear that my beloved home state has been coasting on its reputation as a social nirvana for the past two decades — even as life for black residents has deteriorated in almost every dimension. A dedicated army of foundations and public servants in the Twin Cities have known this and have tried mightily to reverse this trend. Perhaps their efforts will gain momentum now that this smoldering moment has peeled back the “Minnesota Nice” veneer in the same way paint has buckled and blistered around all those burning buildings.

I left my hometown decades ago after graduating from college, but Minneapolis has never left me. I love that place. But here’s the thing: Minneapolis lives in all of us now. That image of George Floyd dying on the pavement is in our memories forever.

Let’s pray that his daughter was right when she said “Daddy changed the world.”

Read more:

The Post’s View: How to bring institutional change to a police force impervious to reform

Wil Haygood: The police no longer need the cover of darkness to kill innocent black people

Karen Attiah: #BlackOutTuesday was a case study in how performative solidarity goes awry

Molly Roberts: The best white statement to make right now may be to shut up and listen

Alyssa Rosenberg: Shut down all police movies and TV shows. Now.