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Fixing Minnesota's Employment Gap

A recent Star Tribune headline declared that Minnesota and the Twin Cities suffer from the nation’s largest racial gaps in homeownership. It’s the latest in a drum roll of grim news accounts of wide race gaps here — in educational attainment, in unemployment, in health outcomes, in incarceration rates, and in just about everything else that matters.

Apart from the misery these gaps beget in real lives, and apart from the rank injustice they reflect, this is all just wretched PR for our fair cities. It’s bad for business.

Most everybody of goodwill agrees that we must close these disparities, starting with jobs and workforce readiness, for practical economic reasons as well as moral ones. This consensus is joined not just by civil-rights, nonprofit, government and religious leaders, but increasingly by Twin Cities business leaders.

Awareness is coming together with special urgency because Minnesota is undergoing one of the nation’s most dynamic diversity transformations — call it a diversification. And, it’s accelerating.

Less than 3 percent of Old Minnesota (those over 85) is nonwhite. More than 30 percent of Young Minnesota (those under the age of 5) is of color. If we don’t start closing racial gaps soon in education and workforce participation, the disparity will eat away at the broad prosperity and quality of life built by Minnesota’s mostly European (but quite diverse) immigrant mosaic in the 20th century (after, of course, they had displaced and mistreated the original Native American populations).

We have less consensus about precisely why this gap exists in a progressive state — about who’s to blame and how to fix it. Accepting complexity and contradictions behind the “why” is advisable. And we can be certain that solutions will be complicated and multifaceted, too, perhaps even expensive. But that must not detract from our resolve to narrow these gaps.

 

Diverse causes

Racial bias must be admitted and faced head-on. As Minnesota has been transformed over the last 40 years from 98 percent white to a more cosmopolitan colorfulness, we’ve all winced on hearing otherwise decent Minnesotans imply that “they” are just too “different.” In our Upper Midwest parlance, that translates more or less to “inferior,” and at least implies something like an inevitable apartness, a separate fate.

As sources in the Star Tribune’s article on homeownership explained, bias and discrimination are as real, not imagined, in the Twin Cities and Minnesota as they are across our nation. Studies consistently show that even among whites and blacks with the same education and training, significant disparities exist in hiring and employment levels.

We’ve heard it said, too often to dismiss, even by white newcomers, that Minnesotans are polite but standoffish and clannish, slow to include new people in their personal and business networks. And this basic aloofness likely is intensified for new arrivals with a different culture, pigmentation and language.

Prejudice is deeply wrong and toxic; it also makes impossible the collaborative hanging-together that must happen for economic growth. But an overreaction to whatever bias exists also can lead to poisonous despair, something the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. constantly warned against.

I’ve heard some white progressives allege, as the gaps persist, that white Minnesotans are actually worse than the stereotypical racists in southern states, where for 300 years oppression was imposed through brutal economic exploitation, culture and law.

As a native Texan with deep roots in the Deep South, it’s my strong conviction that the essential majority attitude in Minnesota is, in fact, healthier. We started out better, as a decidedly antislavery state, and our political leaders helped launch the civil-rights movement in the 1940s. We simply must get back on track to doing better now.

A case can be made that larger-than-average gaps exist here in part for distinct historic and demographic reasons, rather than some sort of pervasive, passive-aggressive racial animosity in the North Star State.

White Minnesotans have for decades been better off economically, and more educated, than whites in other states, accentuating the gaps. And our distinctive newcomer blend — coming from some particularly distressed regions in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and impoverished urban centers in the industrial Midwest — have tended to be starting from scratch, with fewer assets than the minority composite in other metro areas.

Extensive sociological research shows how assets (money, property, education, skills and networks) compound success, while a lack of such assets compounds failure, making it especially difficult for racial minorities to compete and assimilate.

These assets and networks are developing now. But many of our communities of color did not have the benefit of a large, established middle-class leadership of the kind that Latinos or Asians have in California and the Southwest, and that African-Americans have in cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago or Atlanta. So in that sense, lacking assets, connections and roots, many families of color were worse off from the get-go and more isolated than their counterparts in other states.

And then, just as many of our hardworking newcomers were beginning to get a toehold, the economic collapse of 2008, with its attendant mortgage scandal, wiped out thousands of jobs and foreclosed on hard-won property.

Another possible factor, also hard to quantify, is that Minnesota’s public sector and its nonprofit sector have tended to be a “charity-first” model — more focused on meeting immediate needs and alleviating poverty than on developing workforce skills and pathways to self-sufficiency. Other regions, notably Chicago, Seattle and Boston, are moving ahead with more-aggressive and more-coordinated efforts to address workforce equity and training that matches skills to jobs, and vice versa.

 

Getting to work

Sophistication about the “why” most certainly will help with the “what to do.” The very best news out all of this is that energy and creativity are being applied broadly across the Twin Cities and in statewide policy leadership.

From the Governor’s Workforce Development Council, to the African-American Leadership Forum, to the Everybody In coalition, to the Wilder Foundation’s recent research and recommendations, to the Itasca Project’s business-led refocus on gaps and disparities, resolve is building for moving the needle on workforce equity.

Here are some strategies that show promise:

• Now hiring: Huge infrastructure and public-private development projects are underway, involving billions of dollars in taxpayer investment and employing tens of thousands in construction and long-term jobs. The projects include stadiums in Minneapolis and St. Paul, our light-rail build-out, and expansion at the Mall of America and Mayo Clinic. Much tougher requirements and more incentives — sticks and carrots — for hiring and training practices that move toward workforce race equity already are in place for the stadium and rail projects. This pressure must be vigorously applied to all such projects.

• Education: The workhorses of Twin Cities workforce training are the campuses of the Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Saint Paul College, where some 15,000 youths and adults of color are currently enrolled. Those two campuses are placing virtually every graduate in some construction trades, in biotechnology, in welding and machine tool programs, in sleep therapy, in nursing and in architectural technology. These training programs need more students of color, in a state of academic readiness, and we need to provide all the resources and support possible to ensure course completion, not just enrollment.

• Focus on business clusters: Innovative efforts have been underway for several years to improve equity in specific economic sectors and related business “clusters” that are growing the most and creating the best new Twin Cities jobs, and in places where chronic underemployment has been worst. Models such as the “eds & meds” collaboration between vocational education institutions and health care facilities along the new Central Corridor light-rail line show great promise.

• Internships, apprenticeships and nonprofits: Inspiring stories abound about how quickly disadvantaged young people of color can progress if they can just get a glimpse of the work they can do, plus a little experience on the job. And we need to replicate and expand the best workforce training models in the nonprofit sector, including such standouts as the Summit Academy, Twin Cities Rise, Project for Pride in Living, the International Institute and the Jeremiah Program, encouraging employers to give preference to their graduates.

Prospects for real progress in gap-closing are possible now, because Minnesota and the Twin Cities once again are faring better than most states and regions on most measures of economic vitality, ranking sixth in a recent “index of economic momentum” conducted by State Policy Reports, including third place in income growth and seventh in employment growth.

This is a ripe opportunity. We can harness this growth spurt for disparity reduction and capture the enormous potential of our vibrant communities of color.

Only by facing race and embracing and actually employing this diversity, even if it involves short-term sacrifices and inconvenience and discomfort, will we preserve and enhance the prosperity and quality of life for which we are still famous. The most important things to remember are that our newcomers are not importantly different; we are not essentially racists, and a more equitable workforce will be healthier economically for all of us in the long run.