In the Spotlight

News & Features
Moving Up: Part Two
By John Biewen
August 7, 1997

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The black population of Minnesota has nearly tripled in less than two decades - growing by almost 100,000 since 1980. More African-Americans are migrating to Minneapolis-St. Paul than to any other Northern city. In the second of two reports, Minnesota Public Radio's John Biewen looks at how the growth of the black population is affecting race relations in the Twin Cities.

Minnesota's image as a Scandinavian- and German-American enclave is so entrenched, that people are often surprised to learn blacks have lived in the state as long as whites have. In 1846, 12 years before Minnesota became a state, a St. Paul schoolmaster wrote back East in search of teachers - saying applicants would have to be free of prejudice because their students were not only of European, but also of Indian and African stock. Pilgrim Baptist, Minnesota's oldest black church, was founded in 1866. It's still going strong in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood.

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But blacks have always been a tiny minority in Minnesota. James Griffin has lived all of his 80 years in St. Paul. He's a retired Deputy Police Chief. When he was a child in the 1920s and 30s, about 1% of the city's population was black.
Griffin: You could go downtown when I was, say, ten years old, spend a whole day downtown St. Paul. If you saw one or two black persons, why, you'd remark about it. That's how thin we were.
Like almost any black man of his generation, Griffin can tell of many encounters with bigotry. But most of the overt racism he's experienced came during travels outside of Minnesota: getting kicked out of a whites-only railroad car in Ohio, being refused a hotel room in Las Vegas. Griffin says he did run into housing and job discrimination in St. Paul, but he believes racism has been more spotty and less systematic in Minnesota than in most parts of the country. It's not because white Minnesotans were somehow more enlightened. Griffin says whites were so dominant in Minnesota, they didn't need to bother excluding blacks.
Griffin: You're in the minority like that, you have less problems 'cause you're not a threat to anybody.
Minneapolis-St. Paul is the largest metropolitan area in the country to have remained so white for so long. Even now, after 20 years of substantial growth in the African-American, Asian and Latino populations, barely 10% of the region's 2,500,000 million residents are minorities. As Minneapolis and St. Paul finally begin to look more like the rest of the country, opinions vary on whether Minnesotans can learn from the troubled racial histories of other regions, or are bound to repeat them.
powell: People are having to face this issue for the first time in any real way. And yet I think people would like to figure out how to do it differently, but they're afraid.
john powell (sic) moved to Minnesota four years ago to found the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School. He grew up in Detroit, and has lived in cities on each coast. In a study earlier this year, powell found that almost 90% of blacks and whites in the Twin Cities said they wanted to live in integrated neighborhoods, and send their children to integrated schools. He says that's well above the national average in similar surveys.

But the reality doesn't match the survey results. As blacks and other minorities move in to Minneapolis and St. Paul, whites are heading for the distant suburbs as fast as anywhere in the country. In 25 years, the enrollment in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools has flipped from 85% white to almost 70% minority. powell says some voices in the local debate over school desegregation sound eerily like those heard in the Deep South a generation ago.

powell: All the old arguments about "people just want to be with their own," and "you shouldn't force people to be together," and - those arguments that we rejected in the 50s and 60s and saying, "they're just making excuses because they don't want their white children to go to school with black children."
powell says many white Minnesotans have deeply internalized their state's image as a haven of Northern Europeans to the point where they can only see blacks as visitors, at best, not "real Minnesotans." Twin Cities playwright and newspaper columnist Syl Jones agrees. He points out the scarcity of minority reporters and anchors in the local broadcast media, from Minnesota Public Radio to the commercial television stations. Jones says black friends from out of town express shock when they see billboards showing all-white TV news teams.
Jones: That's not the way it would be in any other market, and this is the 14th largest media market in the United States. It certainly shouts to people who visit this city that there's something different here. Some of it is just based on plain old racism, not wanting people who are different to be on television.
But by some measures, Minnesota is a center of black success. In 1990, black Minnesotans had by far the highest college graduation rate in the country - 44%. That's almost twice the number-two state, Massachusetts, and almost double the white college graduation rate in Minnesota. Sharon Sayles Belton was elected Minneapolis's first black mayor in 1993, though the city's black population was less than 15%. She boasts that the quality of life for educated blacks is nowhere better than in the Twin Cities.
Sayles Belton: So an African-American person, Hispanic person, Asian person, any person of color, who wanted to come and settle in Minnesota and get a job with a big company and all that, they'd find that opportunity here. If they wanted to live in a nice neighborhood, they'd find that opportunity here. In the city, in the suburbs.
Some say Minnesota's doors may be open to blacks with money and education, but not to poor African-Americans moving to the state from Chicago and other cities. Bill Green, an African-American history professor at Augsburg College and Chair of the Minneapolis School Board, says Minnesota is more welcoming to middle-class blacks than to those in poverty. But Green points with pride at a school referendum last November, in which Minneapolis homeowners - still mostly white - voted themselves a tax increase in order to cut the size of public school classrooms.
Green: 80% of the homeowners in this town have no kids in school, let alone public school. They voted by 70%, more than 70%, to support a referendum that would benefit kids in the public schools - most of whom are of color and poor, and not originally from this community. So there's a special kind of attitude.
Green says white Twin Cities residents are increasingly divided between those who live in fringe suburbs, who he says tend to be uncomfortable with minorities, and those committed to staying in the core cities and making them work as integrated communities.
Green: We are literally a Tale of Two Cities when you look at the Metropolitan area - the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on one hand and the suburban community on the other.
Leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul are debating how to disperse low-income housing and slow de factosegregation in the schools. Some suburban politicians and business leaders are involved in those discussions. But powell of the University of Minnesota says too many local politicians, police, and media figures continue to associate blacks with urban decay, playing on fear and encouraging whites to isolate themselves.
powell: There is a lot of good will out there. But it's tied up with all these other issues - crime, property values, schools. Let's deal with crime, let's deal with property values, let's deal with schools, but not as a trope for maintaining a segregated society.
powell says the racial attitudes of many Minnesotans are still malleable. And he says the Twin Cities economy is so strong that, with the right housing and transportation policies, poor blacks could be hooked up with jobs all over the region instead of being confined to urban ghettos. He says the Twin Cities have a rare opportunity to set a new pattern in race relations, and avoid becoming more polarized along the usual lines - white and black, rich and poor. But, powell says, the early signs are not encouraging.

Part Two