The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Midwest nice’ hides a history of racial terror and segregation

Decades of policies and practices have excluded and disadvantaged Black Americans in the region, and they still reverberate today

Protesters stand outside the Warren E. Burger federal building and courthouse on Jan. 22 in St. Paul, Minn., before opening arguments in the civil trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights. (Eric Miller/Reuters)
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Over the weekend, hundreds of people took to the streets in Minneapolis to protest the police killing of Amir Locke, a Black man, in his apartment as police carried out a “no knock” warrant. This new killing happened even as a federal civil rights trial is underway in Minneapolis that is focused on the roles played by three police officers in the killing of George Floyd. This trial comes on the heels of the conviction of Derek Chauvin in state court for Floyd’s murder, and more recently, the conviction of former police officer Kim Potter, who was found guilty of manslaughter of Daunte Wright.

These instances of police violence are emblematic of the persistence of racism and white supremacy in the Midwest. While the Midwest consistently ranks among the best places to live in the United States, the region is home to some of the worst White-Black racial inequalities in the nation, with Wisconsin ranking last in the disparity between Black and White children. While the region is commonly considered homogeneously White, approximately 7 million Black Americans live in the Midwest, and the Black population continues to grow.

Despite a deep and startling history of racism and the present-day reality of racial violence, the region has managed to avoid much scrutiny because of the myth that it is mostly White. Many White Midwesterners can live their lives with little or no interaction with Black people, failing to see the lack of racial diversity as a problem. This leads to some White Midwesterners constructing a narrative that “race is not a problem here.” Indeed, the “Midwestern nice” trope has helped some White Midwesterners see themselves as outside of the racist structures of our country.

But in reality, the lack of racial diversity is often actually the result of the historic maintenance of White spaces through racial segregation and the threat of violence in “sundown towns.” Policies and practices kept those spaces all White, and their legacy still plays a major role in shaping the Midwest today.

During the middle of the 20th century, some 6 million Black Americans fled the terrors of the Jim Crow South in search of better economic opportunities in Northern states, including cities throughout the Midwest. This migration was met with great hostility and violence from White Midwesterners. Although their labor was sometimes welcomed, Black Americans were often denied access to resources and struggled to meet basic needs. In particular, it was difficult to find decent housing, as Midwestern communities and governments worked to maintain strict residential racial segregation.

At the same time that the Black population continued to grow in the Midwest, the federal government established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), an agency designed to promote homeownership, in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Instead of helping increase Black access to housing, however, the FHA deepened racial residential segregation. The agency denied Black Americans mortgages to purchase property in the neighborhoods that would permit them to, an act commonly known as redlining. Simultaneously, as scholar Richard Rothstein documented, the FHA subsidized home builders who constructed Whites-only subdivisions with racial covenants that prohibited homes from being sold to or occupied by Black people, an act of government largesse that boosted White wealth while diminishing Black opportunity.

Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, many of these housing policies left an enduring legacy of racial residential segregation across the Midwest. Today the region is home to six of the top 10 most segregated cities in the country, and it remains a landscape which limits interaction between Black and White Midwesterners.

Yet it wasn’t just formal policies that shaped Midwestern spaces. White Midwesterners enforced the color line through the practice of “sundown towns,” where Black Americans could provide labor during the day but were expected to leave after “sundown,” lest they face violent assault or worse. Some of these towns also relied on formal local or state ordinances to exclude Black Americans and keep spaces all White. White Americans sometimes murdered Black Americans who violated the unwritten rules and were found in sundown towns after dark. As sociologist Heather A. O’Connell notes, “Sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States.”

Martinsville, Ind., was known within the Black community as a sundown town with a long history of Ku Klux Klan activity. It became a site of horrific racial violence when a young Black woman, 21-year-old Carol Jenkins, found herself in the town in 1968.

Jenkins was in town for only a matter of hours for work. She was traveling with colleagues, including two White men and another young Black woman. The group was selling encyclopedias door to door in a residential neighborhood when they chose to split up to cover more ground and agreed to meet at a local gas station later that night.

But something went wrong. Jenkins realized she was being followed by White men in a sedan and sought shelter on the doorstep of Don and Norma Neal, a local White couple who dialed the Martinsville police department, which offered little help. After trying but failing to reconnect with her colleagues in the surrounding blocks, Jenkins thanked the Neals for their time and help and began walking to the gas station. Only a block away from the station, two men jumped out of a car, held Jenkins down and stabbed her in the heart with a screwdriver, leaving her to die on the street.

Unfortunately, Jenkins’s killing was one of many others like it. Such violence helped maintain strict spatial segregation, making it too dangerous for Black Midwesterners to exist in spaces that sought to exclude them.

For decades, Jenkins’s case went unsolved by the Martinsville police department. It wasn’t until 2002 that one of the killers was arrested after their daughter came forward to identify her father. The other killer was never identified. Only belatedly in 2017 did the city present a memory stone in honor of Jenkins to her parents, with plans for a matching stone commemorating her life and death to be placed near Martinsville’s City Hall. Yet, while the city is finally acknowledging this history, the generational trauma remains, and the policies and practices of racial residential segregation and sundown towns have legacies that endure.

When a town is nearly all White today, it can appear to its residents as natural, rather than an outcome that has been engineered and enforced over time. When White Midwesterners navigate their lives without interacting with Black neighbors, it becomes easy for them to believe that their predominantly White communities have no problems of racism — certainly not like the South.

When White Midwesterners deny the histories of structural racism that shaped their region, they can see themselves as being outside of racism. But people can disdain racial slurs and embrace the trope of “Midwestern nice” politeness — and still be embedded in a broader system of exclusion and violence that harms Black Americans. Until White Midwesterners can face these hard histories and begin supporting systematic changes toward racial justice, white supremacy and divisions will persist, and so, too, will racial violence, like the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright.

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