The Minnesota Paradox

by Professor Samuel L. Myers Jr. 

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer during an arrest. The officer pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for several minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street. Two other officers further restrained Floyd and a fourth prevented onlookers from intervening.   

In the wake of Floyd’s death, widespread protests occurred for several days in Minneapolis and St. Paul – both violent and non-violent – causing considerable damage to property. The events in Minnesota sparked action as protests took place in major cities across the United States and around the globe. For a Midwest state known for being “nice,” it begs the question: How could this happen in Minnesota?

The answer is called “The Minnesota Paradox.”

What is the Minnesota Paradox?

Portrait of Samuel L. Myers Jr.
Professor Samuel Myers Jr.

Minnesota is one of the best places to live in America. It regularly produces some of the highest average scores in the nation on the SAT exams and boasts a disproportionate share of Rhodes Scholars and admissions to MIT and Harvard. The famed Mayo Clinic is an international leader in medical research and development of vaccines for critical diseases such as COVID-19. Housing prices are considerably below the national median, shopping is a delight at one of North America’s largest indoor shopping malls.

It nurtures a large and vibrant arts, theater, and music community, and was home to both Prince and Judy Garland. Good schools. Excellent housing. A strong regional transportation network. Excellent employers like 3M, Best Buy, Cargill, General Mills, Target, and US Bank contribute to a sustained and vigorous corporate giving culture where nonprofits are some of the best known in America.

Surprisingly, Minnesota is also putatively one of the worst places for blacks to live. Measured by racial gaps in unemployment rates, wage and salary incomes, incarceration rates, arrest rates, home ownership rates, mortgage lending rates, test scores, reported child maltreatment rates, school disciplinary and suspension rates, and even drowning rates, African Americans are worse off in Minnesota than they are in virtually every other state in the nation.

The simultaneous existence of Minnesota as the best state to live in, but the worst state to live in for blacks, is the crux of “The Minnesota Paradox.”

Racist policies were 'baked in'

At one point in Minnesota's history, black residents had high home ownership rates, high levels of academic achievement, and impressive contributions to the rest of the world. There were thriving black-owned businesses, a vibrant community of fraternal and social organizations, and leaders in virtually every walk of life.

Unfortunately, the small number of black households faced brutal redlining practices by real estate brokers and lenders, racial covenants, and limitations on what types of jobs they could hold. Historic black neighborhoods were destroyed after World War II to make way for Interstate 94 connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Policing policies evolved that substituted explicit racial profiling with scientific management of racially disparate arrests. Child welfare and public housing policies emerged that resulted in heavy concentrations of poor minorities in a few isolated census tracts.

In short, racially discriminatory policies became institutionalized and “baked in” to the fabric of Minnesota life. When racism becomes institutionalized, you do not need individual racists for there to be structural racism.

Outside influence 

By the 1990s, good liberal whites were outraged by what appeared to be the widening racial gaps in social and economic outcomes. In a characteristically Minnesotan manner, political leaders blamed the problems of rising numbers of violent murders, mounting welfare caseloads, and deteriorating school performance in the black community on migrants from Chicago, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. The problem was a problem of the dispossessed of other urban cores. This was not Minnesota. This was outside influence.

The “outside influence” thesis reinforced among many whites, particularly white public welfare managers, law enforcement officials, school officials, and housing authorities, negative views towards the new migrants. The result was the perpetuation of institutions of racism and racial discrimination wherein disparities began to be normalized within the structure of life in Minnesota. 

The denial of the internal roots of racial disparities is seen in the response to the violence and looting in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. State and local officials invoked allegations of “outside influence” to justify the militarization of law enforcement in the face of mounting violence.

Whether the outside agitators are white nationalists from Montana determined to start a race war, or black hoodlums from Chicago opportunistically making the eight-hour drive to stock up on Johnny Walker Red, is not known with certainty. It eases the narrative to locate the perpetrators among the outsiders.

Lesson to learn

The alternative explanation—similar to findings in a recently published retrospective on the 1967–1968 riots in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences—is that defeated and oppressed people who have nothing to lose will often join in the melee of destruction and violence regardless of how the civil disorders originated. 

The lesson that Minnesota leaders must learn is that until and unless we acknowledge and remedy the internal roots of the racial disparities in our midst, we run the risks of future disorders.  

The violence, looting, and senseless destruction has meaning to African American residents because it elicits the rage and anger that has been building up within us for decades. Explaining the uprising as an external one orchestrated by white nationalists, anarchists, or international forces exacerbates the chaos and undermines the legitimacy of the protest in the court of white public opinion.