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How Minneapolis, One of America's Most Liberal Cities, Struggles With Racism

08:25 02 June 2020 Author :  

MINNEAPOLIS — Residents of Minneapolis swell with pride over their city’s sparkling lakes, glassy downtown, beautifully kept green spaces and bicycle-friendliness that draws comparisons to Copenhagen, Denmark. They see themselves as public spirited, embracing of multiculturalism and inspired by Minnesota’s liberal icons, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone.

The Minneapolis City Council, made up of 12 Democrats and a member of the Green Party, includes two transgender members, both of whom are black. The city has for years held a popular community celebration and parade for Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery.

But there remains an extraordinary racial gap for Minnesotans when it comes to education outcomes and health care. Black families own their homes at far lower rates than white families, among the largest such disparities in the country. And the city’s predominantly white police force, which has been accused of racist practices for decades, rarely disciplines officers with troubled records.

“Minneapolis has ridden this reputation of being progressive,” said Robert Lilligren, who became the first Native American elected to the City Council in 2001. “That’s the vibe: Do something superficial and feel like you did something big. Create a civil rights commission, create a civilian review board for the police, but don’t give them the authority to change the policies and change the system.”

Events of several long days and nights, as Minneapolis was rocked by protests, destruction and overwhelming police crackdowns, were forcing a reckoning over the city’s complicated identity.

Markers of sophistication in the city of 430,000 people draw newcomers: an enviable landscape of food, arts and public radio, a robust business and philanthropic community, and a growing diversity boosted by immigrants from East Africa and Asia. From one angle, Minneapolis has been booming, a Midwestern magnet for transplants seeking job opportunities and culture.

With a range of industries including health care, agriculture and finance, residents are immensely proud of their distinction as one of the cities with the most Fortune 500 companies per capita.

Minneapolis residents pride themselves as welcoming; the state took in nearly 110,000 refugees from 1979 to 2018, a resettlement effort that is largely the work of Lutheran and Catholic social services agencies.

It was the city’s embrace of diversity and job opportunities that attracted Orlando DeWalt, 49, who moved to Minneapolis last year from his hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois.

“All the different mixed cultures, the different foods — and it’s got a nice school system,” he said.

DeWalt said he liked that white people stand next to black people to fight for police reform, and that when he lost his wallet in Walmart, a white man who returned it would not accept the money that DeWalt offered as a thank you.

Yet the city was also the backdrop to a horrific scene on Memorial Day, of a white police officer pressing his knee against the neck of George Floyd, a black man, for nearly nine minutes. Furious demonstrations rippled beyond Minneapolis to scores of cities across the country. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with third-degree murder.

“The things that are great about it are great,” Betsy Hodges, a former mayor of Minneapolis, said of the city. “And it is also a city that has deep challenges, especially regarding race.” In 2016, Hodges, who is white, devoted her State of the City address to the troubling dualities of the place.

The current mayor, Jacob Frey, took office in 2018 vowing to repair ties between the police and the community after two fatal police shootings. Within a day of the death of Floyd, Frey, a civil rights lawyer, quickly denounced the officers involved. “Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” he said. “I believe what I saw and what I saw is wrong on every level.”

Frey has also laid out plans to address Minneapolis’ lack of affordable housing, a byproduct of its growth: Since the 1990s, Minnesota has attracted a surge of immigrants from Somalia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Laos and Mexico. Minneapolis is about 60% white, 20% black, 10% Latino and 6% Asian, according to census data.

The legacy of policies discriminating against people of color has lingered.

“The racism has been around for a very, very long time," said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “You can see it in the redlining of neighborhoods, the education system, the transportation system and, obviously, policing.”

Even lifelong residents who brag about their city say that Minneapolis’ friendly exterior masks deep-rooted problems.

It is not uncommon to hear residents say how much they love the multicultural nature of Minneapolis in one breath, but that they feel threatened because of their race, ethnicity or religion in the next.

“Racism with a smile” is how Leila Ali, 42, a Somali immigrant who has lived in Minneapolis since 1998, described it.

As another night of fiery unrest in the Minneapolis streets gave way to a cloudless, picture-perfect Saturday, hundreds of residents, brooms in hand, descended upon a Wells Fargo Bank branch on the South Side that had burned the night before.

Water from the sprinkler system was flooding out of the building, and people formed channels out of mulch and used brooms to direct the water into drains. Others hauled furniture out of the building so it would not be ruined.

One resident, Peggy Madden-Olson, 59, who is white, arrived at the cleanup effort with memories of a previous chapter in her city’s history fresh in her mind: In fifth grade, she had to leave her familiar, mostly white South Minneapolis neighborhood to be bused across town to school in a black neighborhood.

Before that, she said, her perceptions of African American people had been shaped by protests and uprisings that she had seen in the media during the civil rights era. She said those images led her to imagine that black children might hit her, a notion that was quickly dispelled.

“We were friends,” she said. “We played on the playground, we went to each others’ houses. I realized that we weren’t any different, and they accepted us.”

The demonstrations ripping through her city have been an awakening for her, she said, and a realization that Minneapolis has stalled in its progress.

“Throughout my whole life I’ve considered myself not a racist and considered myself somebody who appreciates the diversity,” she said. “But I’m realizing that that is hardly enough. It’s time to get uncomfortable, it’s time to listen.”

White liberal residents of Minneapolis point to policy changes that have been praised for their progressivism. A measure in 2018 eliminated single-family zoning, long believed to have perpetuated segregation. Lawmakers voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2017, the first major Midwestern city to do so, and mandated sick leave for workers.

Yet a shift in influence and representation has been slow coming. In 2018, Minnesotans elected Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Somali American and Muslim, the first woman of color from the state to serve in Congress. And disparities in employment, poverty and education between people of color and white residents are among the worst in the nation.

“The Twin Cities pride themselves in being diverse,” said Maddie Hankard, 24, an environmental engineer who is white, as she stood outside buildings damaged during Saturday’s protests. “But there’s been a whole generation not respecting communities of color.”

For Gus Cole, who is originally from Liberia but has been in Minneapolis for 13 years, the fact that he is married to a white woman is both a reminder for him of the promise and problems with his city.

He finds it to be a place where people embrace friendships across racial lines. His friends in other states usually stick with other black people, he said. But his friends in Minneapolis are black, white, Asian and Mexican, he said.

“People get along here,” he said.

At the same time, he said, when he is with his wife in the car and they get pulled over by police, he views her with a degree of envy.

“I want to have that same feeling to how she feels,” he said. “She’s not scared. Her voice doesn’t shake. She speaks to the cop how she wants to speak to the cop. But me, I’m so afraid. I want to get pulled over and not think that I’m going to die.”

Bodunrin Banwo, 38, an educator who is black, stood at the back of a crowded protest Saturday afternoon, struggling to hear what speakers were saying through a weak megaphone.

He said that Minneapolis is a pleasant place. He said he feels comfortable going on regular walks in his Minneapolis neighborhood, something he had not always felt when he used to live in Baltimore.

To Banwo, Minneapolis is the sort of place that might set aside formal protest spaces with sound systems to accommodate crowds. Its elected officials are often participants in demonstrations.

But what has unfolded in the last week is something entirely different, he said, a wake-up call for the elected leaders.

“I don’t know if they really understand the seriousness of what has to change,” he said./NYT

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