The Minnesota Paradox
Many believe our state offers an unparalleled quality of life, but that may only be true if you’re white.
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
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
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
“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
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
The U of M’s Mapping Prejudice Project (mappingprejudice.org), 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
“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 (cura.umn.edu).
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
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.”
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
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
(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.
“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
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.