A Minnesota paradox: Progressive history and deep racial inequality

MayKao Hang
MayKao Hang is vice president and founding dean of the College of Health at the University of St. Thomas. Hang moderated a recent conversation with economist Samuel Myers and professor Joe Soss about Minnesota’s history of progressive leaders and policies and its deep racial inequality.
Courtesy Greg Helgeson of University of St. Thomas 2019

Minnesota has a history of progressive leaders and policies. But Minnesota also has some of the worst racial inequality in America. The University of Minnesota Humphrey School brought together several people — by zoom — to explore how, and why, this happened. They dubbed it “The Minnesota Paradox.”

The moderator is MayKao Hang, dean of the College of Health at the University of St. Thomas, and she spoke with economist Samuel Myers, who is director of the Roy Wilkins Center at the University of Minnesota and professor Joe Soss of the Humphrey School.

When Myers, who is Black, moved to Minnesota, the land of human rights activist Hubert H. Humphrey, he said he was “surprised when I discovered the wide racial gaps in virtually every measure of social and economic well-being — unemployment, sentencing, incarceration, test scores and even drowning rates.”

He asked himself: How is it possible to be such a great place to live for the majority? It is “one of the best places in the world to be— for white people— but relatively, one of the worst places for Blacks to live.”

Myers said it wasn’t always this way in Minnesota. In the 1930s and 1940s, homeownership among Black people was the highest of any place in the country.

Soss stressed that the racial covenants, of course, dictated where Black people could actually own those houses. Residential segregation and social exclusion were commonplace.

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In 1970 only 1.8 percent of the Minnesota population was classified by the Census as non-white. In 1980 it was 3.8 percent, Soss pointed out.

The research Joe Soss has conducted leads him to conclude that in Minnesota the “overall success rates look good because so many people are white. In education, he said, “many disparities are driven by white students doing so much better than in other states. For example, white people in Alabama fare poorly.”

Many government policies and safety-net systems have actually helped white people, he said.

After conflict such as we’ve seen recently, Soss said, “progressive policies have the intention of addressing racial gaps … but the irony is, progressive responses are often short-lived … the responses are not about the problem.”

Myers said a dominant theme in the economic profession is to focus on — “what’s wrong with Black people?” Myers made a distinction between discrimination and racism: “Minnesota people deeply believe in egalitarianism and fairness. It is possible for there to be discrimination without being a discriminator. It’s possible for there to be racism with there being a racist.”

Moderator Hang said the key is to “look at relationships— and how we treat each other.”

The zoom event was hosted by the University of Minnesota Humphrey School on June 30.