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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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