University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Minnesota Paradox

Many believe our state offers an unparalleled quality of life, but that may only be true if you’re white.

U of M Economics Professor Samuel Myers Jr. at Rondo Commemorative Plaza in St. Paul. The site memorializes the Rondo neighborhood, which was largely demolished in the late 1950s to make way for the I-94 freeway. Hundreds of Black families lost their homes and businesses.
Photo Credit: Nancy Musinguzi

In 1992, Samuel Myers Jr. moved to the Twin Cities to become the director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Myers, who earned his doctorate from M.I.T., was attracted to Minnesota’s history of progressive, egalitarian politics. He also was impressed that Minneapolis had a vibrant Black middle class—at the time the University’s medical school graduated the highest number of Black doctors west of the Mississippi.

During his interviews, the search committee introduced Myers to prominent Black Minnesotans, including Matthew Little, the longtime president of the Minneapolis NAACP, and then-Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. The connections were appealing to Myers, who grew up in Baltimore and remembers water fountains designated for “colored” students at his mostly Black elementary school—a painful reminder of the city’s segregated history. (His father, Samuel Myers Sr., was one of the first Black people to receive a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and later became president of Bowie State University in Maryland. His mother was from a prominent Creole family in New Orleans.)

As Myers contemplated his move to the Twin Cities, he says the region’s reasonable housing prices played a role in his decision.

“I’m an economist,” he says during a Zoom meeting, sitting in his expansive home in a St. Paul suburb. “The economics of moving here were actually quite attractive.”

But while Myers was able to purchase his house for a steep discount to the over $1 million it would have cost on the East Coast, he soon realized that a significant portion of Minnesota’s Black community wasn’t even close to enjoying the similar social and economic benefits of the state’s vaunted good life.

“I started thinking about how if it’s true that this is the best place to live, how then do you explain all of the disparities in [school] test scores?” he says. “How do you explain the disparities of home ownership rates? How do you explain the disparities in arrests?”

Those disparities persist today—despite the Twin Cities’ reputation for a high quality of life, fueled in part by being home to numerous Fortune 500 companies and a vibrant arts scene.

In August, an analysis by NBC News found that roughly 76 percent of white Twin Cities households own their homes, compared to about 25 percent of Black households—the largest gap in the nation. U.S. Census figures also show that the median income for a Black Minnesota household is about $38,000 a year, compared with white families’ $84,500.

And according to a June NPR report, “Minnesota as a whole has the second biggest income inequality gap between Blacks and whites in the entire nation; only the District of Columbia is worse.” Minnesota is also one of the worst states in the country for education achievement gaps when measured by race and socioeconomic status, according to a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Using applied econometric techniques in an effort to understand the disconnect between his new city’s liberal self-image and the realities of the data launched Myers into a decades-long examination of what has been termed the Minnesota Paradox. Myers is one of a number of U of M researchers who have long understood that the killing of George Floyd last May by a white police officer and the subsequent uprisings it triggered wasn’t an anomaly. In fact, if you look at the work of these researchers, the entrenched inequalities have long been a part of this community.

How Could This Happen Here?

For many white Minnesotans, as well as countless others across the U.S., the events sparked by the killing of George Floyd may have felt as if our cities and towns exploded without notice.

However, for researchers who study racial inequity, the massive outpouring of rage and ensuing protests were anything but unexpected. It wasn’t a question of if, but of when.

To understand how the Twin Cities boiled over in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, it’s important to note that numerous studies show that in fact, there are two Minnesotas—one for white residents, and a second for Black and other people of color.

Why have racial inequalities persisted in Minnesota? In part, scholars say, because Minnesotans tend to believe that racial injustice is less likely to happen here than in, say, the Deep South. And the roots of that injustice—from disparities in tests scores to less wealth in communities of color to worse health outcomes—require taking a hard look at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

“We in Minnesota want to believe that we are so progressive and liberal that it is hard for us to acknowledge and then really take responsibility for the racial injustices in society,” says Douglas Hartmann, sociology professor at the U of M.

Hartmann, who is white, grew up in southern Missouri and moved to the Twin Cities 20 years ago by way of Chicago, where he went to graduate school and studied race, particularly with regard to how it plays out in sports.

As one example of inequity, he says for years he too believed the sentiment that says the scholastic achievement gap in Minnesota between Black and white students is not caused by Black kids doing poorly in school, but by exceptional white students scoring much higher than other white kids across the country.

“We [as Minnesotans] allowed ourselves to believe ... that Black folks and other people of color didn’t have it that much worse [here]— and maybe even had it better than folks of color in the rest of the country,” he says. “And that belief absolved us of having to worry about the opportunity and privilege that was clearly tilted towards white Minnesotans.

In 2015, 87 percent of white students graduated from Minnesota public high schools in four years, while only 62 percent of Black students did. In 2019, those numbers were 88.4 and 67.4 percent, respectively. A 2019 Federal Reserve report also showed 68.9 percent of white students graduate ready for college, but only 24.7 percent of Black students do.

“This, to me, is the essence of white privilege, white complicity,” Hartmann says. “We can easily live with the big gaps and inequities in our midst because we don’t think we’re racist, we don’t think folks of color have it that bad, and we don’t want to give up any of the privileges that we have that are part of the system creating the gaps and inequities in the first place.”

Myers’ work on the Minnesota Paradox started in earnest in the 1990s, when he was prompted by Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson (M.A. ’80; Ph.D. ’97) to look into test score disparities between white and Black students. The issue was getting a fair amount of attention in the press, and Myers felt the conclusion being drawn that poverty rather than race was the driving issue was misguided.

Johnson helped Myers get a grant to do a Minnesota-specific analysis, which was followed by another project sponsored by the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis. One of the first challenges Myers encountered was that the state aggregates all nonwhite students into a group called “people of color,” a term he hadn’t heard before. He was concerned that using that terminology “created an impression that there was a uniform experience of deficiencies and defects and of poor performance” amongst such a varied group.

Myers also objects to the term for reasons that have less to do with economics and more to do with racial justice: “’People of color,’ in an interesting and subtle way, averts attention away from whiteness and ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege,’” he says.

During his research, Myers also came to an important conclusion about the source of the Minnesota Paradox, where white and Black people in the state have such different experiences: “It wasn’t about any deficiencies in Blacks themselves, but rather the barriers and roadblocks and structural factors where a [community] didn’t admit that there’s something called white privilege that gave benefits to whites that were not accrued by Blacks.”

That disparity includes the fact that Black Americans have historically been denied the right to buy property, which is the primary way white Americans have been able to build wealth and pass it down through generations. This inequity goes back to the founding of our country, and continued into Reconstruction, when former slaves were not allowed to purchase property after they were freed. At the same time, white European immigrants were receiving land incentives to come to America.

Later, many cities also put in place racial covenants and redlining laws to prevent Black Americans from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Federal lending policies also discriminated against Black people in qualifying for mortgages.

The U of M’s Mapping Prejudice Project (, based in the John R. Borchert Map Library, documents these racist housing practices. Its initial analysis laid bare an unsettling truth behind Minneapolis’ reputation as an idyllic oasis of parks and easy access to nature: Early maps of the city show that some of the area’s most beloved natural assets, including Lake Harriet and the Mississippi River near West River Parkway, were bordered by neighborhoods that barred people of color from owning homes there. One common Minneapolis covenant of the time reads: “[T]he said premises shall not at any time be sold, conveyed, leased, or sublet, or occupied by any person or persons who are not full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race.” The project’s research further shows that the demographic patterns set in place by those covenants remain largely unchanged today. (The project recently received a $324,478 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand its work and tools to other communities.)

In addition to this longstanding practice of denying people of color the right to move into some neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, in other cases, their traditional neighborhoods were simply destroyed by official acts in the name of “progress.”

In St. Paul, the primarily Black Rondo neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for the I-94 freeway; more than 600 families lost their homes. In Minneapolis, the construction of 35W in 1959 also demolished one of the few neighborhoods where Black people could own and rent homes.

“Rondo would have been the most burgeoning middleclass community in Minnesota, period,” says Alisha Volante (B.A. ’07; Ph.D. ’18), who as a graduate student specializing in Black history researched Rondo for the U of M’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (

Volante, who is now the national research coordinator for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which represents restaurant workers across the country, understands these housing disparities not just from the perspective of a scholar. As a child growing up on the North Side of Minneapolis, her family was evicted from their rented home when the landlord stopped paying the mortgage. Her mother was later able to purchase a house in Northeast, a historically white neighborhood. “The dream of owning a place and not being able to be kicked out overrode the fear of being harassed because we were Black,” she says.

Today, Volante still lives in that house in Northeast. “We’re trying to build Black wealth [through passing on assets] as best we can in the Twin Cities,” she says.

Given the widespread protests over the past months, and the University’s role in helping lead change in the community, Volante feels the U of M has crucial opportunities to help communities of color move forward. In particular, she would like to see a greater commitment to recruiting and supporting Black students from Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“I know students who say, ‘We love the diversity of the Black perspective [at the U of M] because there’s a lot of Somali and Eritrean students from the diaspora,” she says. “Which is really great, but folks who are not descended from those who were enslaved have a very different perspective.”

In 2014, U of M President Eric Kaler commissioned a Campus Climate Report in response to BIPOC students (an acronym that refers to Black, Indigenous and people of color) saying they didn’t always feel supported on campus. Addressing that issue became a key point of the University’s strategic planning process in 2014, after campus groups and other grassroots efforts voiced their concerns.

The ensuing report from the U of M’s Campus Climate Workgroup, released on Jan. 15, 2015, found that students of color sometimes felt less welcome and respected than white students on campus. It also said BIPOC students felt campus would be more welcoming if they saw more people like themselves, including more professors, staff, and other students. Over the past five years, and continuing under President Joan Gabel’s leadership, the University has continued to work to implement both the short- and long-term recommendations created by the workgroup. (You can read more about this work at

As the U of M continues working to address racial disparities both on campus and in the larger community, Volante also encourages alumni to get involved in the cause of racial justice in whatever way they can. She recommends seeking out organizations that promote racial equality, including Black Lives Matter and Renters United.

“If you cannot give them money, give them your expertise,” she says. “If you’re a researcher, help them with some research. If you are a graphic designer, help them with graphic design or branding. If you are an accountant or you’re really good with numbers, help that way.”

John Wright voiced his support for renaming several campus buildings at a Board of Regents meeting in April 2019.
Photo Credit: Jack Rodgers / Minnesota Daily

While Samuel Myers’ research uses economics as a tool to impact public policy, U of M Professor Emeritus John Wright (B.E.E. ’68, M.A. ’71, Ph.D. ’77), who retired in 2019, examines the issue of systemic racism through the lens of a cultural, social, and intellectual historian.

“We need a more holistic outlook that requires the vantage point not just of social scientists, but of humanists and historians in order to understand this issue,” he says, “and begin to try to save us from further social catastrophe, which is the trajectory that we have been on for a very, very long time.”

Wright sees the late-May killing of George Floyd by a white police officer as part of a continuum that started when this country was founded by white settlers. He says those new arrivals repeated European patterns of conquest and exploitation, first killing and displacing American Indians, and then enslaving African people. He also likens the current moment to the aftermath of Rodney King’s brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, another racially charged event that was videotaped and later broadcast on television.

“[That] was another circumstance in which an unemployed young Black man with a police record, primarily of misdemeanors and so forth, who, when stopped by the police, feared [that] getting a traffic ticket would result in the revocation of his parole,” Wright says of King.

Wright’s Minnesota roots stretch back four generations: His father and aunt attended the U of M in the 1930s, during the period when then-University President Lotus Coffman enforced policies that prevented Black students from living on campus. When Wright arrived at the University in 1963, the country was being shaken by both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. He remembers walking across the campus the fall of his freshman year and learning that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Two years later, it would be Black activist leader Malcolm X.

Wright notes that there were few Black students on campus during those years. Figures from 1974 show only 2.16 percent of undergraduates enrolled on the Twin Cities campus were Black.

According to the U of M’s Office of Institutional Research, in fall 2019, 6.3 percent of Twin Cities campus undergraduates were Black, 12.6 percent were Asian, 4.3 percent Hispanic, 1.3 percent American Indian, and the rest identified either as Hawaiian, “international” or unknown. White students accounted for 65.3 percent of undergraduates. Figures from fall 2019 also show that for both undergraduate and graduate students on the Twin Cities campus, 60.2 percent were white. 5.5 percent identified as Black, 10.82 Asian, 3.7 Hispanic, and 1.4 percent American Indian.

In 1966, Wright was part of a group of students that founded Students for Racial Progress (STRAP), which called out racial disparities at the University. The group brought both Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael to campus. When King was assassinated in 1968, Wright wrote a list of seven demands, ranging from increasing the numbers of scholarships for Black high school students to the creation of an African American Studies program. When those requests stalled in the bureaucracy, 70 students took over Morrill Hall in January 1969. The group practiced nonviolence and, despite threats from angry counterprotesters, secured two important victories: the establishment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program in the College of Liberal Arts, which provides academic advising services, and the creation of what is now the African American & African Studies department.

Protests and demonstrations in the Twin Cities quickly spread across the entire country after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.
Photo Credit: Steve Davis

(As a present-day parallel to that group’s activities, immediately after the killing of George Floyd, Jael Karendi, the first Black student body president in the history of the U of M, also presented President Joan Gabel with a list of demands. Read more about this here.)

Today, Wright says the U of M is “on Ground Zero for what is now being viewed as the epicenter of a global reaction.” He cites the Board of Regents’ decision last year to not rename Coffman Memorial Union, or Nicholson, Middlebrook, and Coffey Halls, each named for past individuals now widely seen as racially divisive, as one of several issues that should be revisited.

Although the present moment seems fraught with division as America and Minnesota grapple with systemic racism, the opportunities are tremendous, according to Keith Mayes, a U of M history professor who specializes in African American history from the 1960s to the present. Mayes says demand for his courses has exploded over the past several years. “Black history, social movements, and civil rights—everyone wants to learn about them and is learning about them,” he says.

The liberal arts in particular offer opportunities for students and scholars to develop critical thinking skills to help understand these underlying issues.

U of M Associate Sociology Professor Enid Logan says she didn’t see her experience of Blackness reflected in the media while growing up as the daughter of a professor and a doctor in 1980s Washington, D.C. When she started her undergraduate studies at Yale, Logan planned to major in molecular biology and biochemistry. Then, at the end of her sophomore year, she discovered sociology.

“I was just amazed,” says Logan, who teaches courses in the African American & African Studies department. “There was this discipline that allowed me to make critical, empowered sense of all my sometimes confusing, difficult, very formative experiences.”

That also holds true today. “Sociology has given me a way to explore this devastating reality that being upper middle class doesn’t protect any Black American from the fact that their Blackness, their Black bodies, make them vulnerable to brutality,” she says. “Black racialization, after all, originated in the need to permanently dispossess Black people of control over their own bodies, both through enslavement and also through using those bodies for labor. And then you see this imperative of racialization echo throughout our history. ... It’s very haunting to see these connections so nakedly and clearly.”

Mayes says in his classes, he encourages students to understand the role they can play in changing both this dynamic and society. “I tell students all the time that lawmakers don’t roll out of bed and pass laws—they are forced to,” he says. “They are often forced to because of our young people, because they are bold and courageous.”

As to the future, change will not come easily.

“One hopes that this process of confronting [racism] will be constructive,” Wright says. “But if we’re going to in any way break out of the entrenched cycles of the past, it’s going to inevitably be painful. Both in terms of reckoning with those aspects of our institutional past that we still have failed to grapple with, and the question about the future.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the senior editor of Minnesota Alumni.

White or Black? Examining Race, Wealth, and Legal Disparities

The issues behind racial and wealth inequality drive both Rose Brewer’s research as a U of M professor of African American & African Studies and her life as an activist.

A native of Tulsa, Brewer grew up in a neighborhood that she says was “vibrant but economically very, very, very dispossessed.” She also found herself wrestling with the history of her home area—where roughly 100 years ago, an angry white mob killed an estimated 300 Black residents and destroyed a prosperous financial area in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street.

Brewer went on to study history and sociology, and eventually came to the U of M in the late 1980s.

Photo © Caroline Yang

“Social-stratification, deeply rooted racial inequality, wealth inequality: These are the things that have driven me over the years to try to understand why, in the 21st century, we’re dealing with deep levels of exclusion and dispossession by some groups,” she says. “And of course, we’re in multi-crises now with COVID-19 and police violence and protest. It is quite a moment, to say the least.”

Brewer sees parallels between her Tulsa childhood, where Black people with excellent credentials were denied well-paying jobs, and the economic stratification in today’s Twin Cities.

“We’ve got work to do,” she says.

In 2001, Brewer was part of a delegation at the World Conference Against Racism, also known as Durban 1. One of the more controversial subjects the group looked at was the issue of reparations, a movement which recommends making payments to Black descendants of slaves to atone for centuries of inequity. That work was set aside after 9/11, but she believes now may be a time to revisit it as one piece of “a tapestry of a pretty in-depth, pervasive set of shifts and changes. There’s been no real acknowledgment of what enslavement of African peoples has meant, the tremendous toll it’s taken, and in spite of that, the tremendous contributions, the sturdiness of being here 400 years later,” she says.

“I often tell my students that it’s really inspiring to think that if you take 1619 as a nodal point for the inception of what would be the U.S. slave industry … [and] think that those Africans 400 years later are standing here still fighting these fights.”

The ongoing economic disenfranchisement that exists for many people of color can take many forms, and even extends to the criminal justice system. According to Joe Soss, a professor at the Humphrey School, many fee-based law enforcement techniques came about in the 1990s, when tax reforms led to less money in government coffers. In turn, he argues, local municipalities started to raise money by increasing fineable offenses, anything from increased traffic stops to jaywalking to higher bail and court fees. This “siphoning from the bottom” of the economic spectrum disproportionately impacts the very people already being targeted by the police, namely people of color.

To illustrate his point, Soss says that when Philando Castile was fatally shot in 2016 by a St. Anthony police officer, Castile had received $7,000 in various fines and fees in the years before he was killed. All were for minor violations, including a broken taillight, and a seatbelt violation. Castile had also been fined for driving with a suspended license.

“Philando Castile was in a Catch-22,” says Soss. “He needed to drive to work to pay off his debt to the courts, but he was also then risking more fines by driving with a suspended license. Eventually, those repeated interactions [with the police] proved to be deadly.”

Soss believes in creating a more progressive tax code to raise revenues for disenfranchised communities. “There needs to be a dedicated effort to invest in these communities, because what we’ve done in the past is invest heavily in policing and punishment.” He notes shifting a portion of police funding to mental health services, schools, and other social services would also help.


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