Last month Minnesota again won national recognition for its quality of life, this time for how well we Minnesotans take care of our children. “State No. 1 for kids’ well being,” read the July 21 StarTribune headline. A subhead added, “Decline in substance abuse, child deaths propel Minnesota to the top in a national ranking.”
Our state, the Twin Cities in particular, has garnered many such high national rankings lately, best or near best among the states in health and healthcare, jobs, exercise, diet, biking, etcetera. The list is a long one and certainly good news — for most Minnesotans.
Problem is — and it’s a big problem — most if not all of this good news applies only to White Minnesotans, something rarely if ever made clear in the laudatory news stories. Unfortunately, people of color in this state are not benefitting from all this recognition.
Minnesota Public Radio has just announced that for the 10th year in a row our state leads the nation in preparing students for college as measured by ACT scores. The report noted that 62 percent of students met three or more college readiness benchmarks.
White students, that is. The comparable number for Black students was 17 percent.
In several of his “Anti-poverty Soldier” columns published recently in the MSR, Dr. Clarence Hightower has commented on the dismaying reality that while in so many ways Minnesota has risen as a shining star of the American Good Life, it has at the same time fallen to the very bottom of state rankings for its hospitality to communities of color, Blacks in particular.
Last December the financial news site 24/7 Wall Street, utilizing 12 measures to determine livability conditions and opportunities for African Americans, ranked Wisconsin dead last and Minnesota right on its heels as second-worst state for Blacks to live. The Washington Post recently reported a WalletHub analysis that ranked Minnesota as the worst state in the U.S. for financial inequality between Blacks and Whites based on income, homeownership and educational attainment.
Minnesota has clearly mastered the art of elevating its White citizens to high standards of living while keeping Blacks in their place well below. This neat trick is accomplished in our state with marvelous efficiency. No need for segregated busses or fire hoses or snarling dogs. It’s all so smooth and subtle and matter-of-fact that Whites can remain effortlessly, blissfully unaware that anything untoward is going on.
We at the MSR have a name for this new style of race-based bias that has so effectively replaced Jim Crow here in Minnesota. We call it “comfort-zone racism.” None of that old vicious vigilante violence required to keep Blacks in their place — here it’s Minnesota Nice and Easy Does It.
Comfort-zone racism dispenses with all the old methods and symbols of White Supremacy. Something entirely new and different has replaced the old protocols. Judging from current ratings, Minnesota has perfected this new style, keeping Jim Crow alive and thoroughly cleansed of its old-fashioned, ugly racism that most everyone is eager to put behind them.
Our understanding of comfort-zone racism comes from many interviews with and stories about African Americans, men and women, who have risen to high positions in government and corporate management. They have consistently told us, when asked what contributed most to their success, that not only talent and hard work but making themselves comfortable and non-threatening to their employers were deciding factors in their success. In addition to their personal excellence, not disrupting their bosses’ comfort zones defined the bottom line.
A May 31 New York Times commentary pointed to how “across cultures and industries, managers strongly prize ‘cultural fit’ — the idea that the best employees are like-minded.” Just such expectations of like-mindedness help makes Minnesota as efficient as it is in elevating Whites while keeping Black and Brown folk down. They protect our bosses’ comfort zones.
Comfort-zone racism operates at all levels of Minnesotan society, from relations between teachers and students and parents to those between search committees and job candidates, supervisors and workers, boards and their executives. At any of these levels and all points between, career hopes can be dashed by any threat, real or perceived, to the comfort zone of any of the teachers, supervisors or board members involved. By a hairstyle or a clothing style. By a choice of words, a look, a glance, an attitude. This comfort-zone screen has proven to be a very effective means of racial control in Minnesota.
Dress for success — just like White folks. Talk proper. Laugh at the right jokes. This is the price of admission to Minnesota’s overwhelmingly White inner sanctums. We invite all those interested in following the strange career of Jim Crow into the Twenty-first Century, including university doctoral and post-doctoral students, to consider Minnesota as a test case and study how this state’s neo-Jim Crow works so well.
Of course comfort-zone racism is operating to the great disadvantage of Black people all over the country, but why not study it where it’s been perfected? Minnesota has the answer. Minnesota does it best!