Minnesota, we have a problem


Paraphrasing the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission, “Minnesota, we have a problem,” — an embarrassing, shameful blot on our carefully crafted and maintained image of forward thinking government, progressive corporate leadership, generous philanthropic partnerships and active civic engagement on matters of equity, fairness and quality of life.

The problem is the existence of an African American shadow state within the state of Minnesota, an alternative reality where Black citizens live below the poverty line at a rate three times greater than that of White citizens.

In shadow Minnesota, African American citizens experience the worst income, housing, education and poverty disparities in the entire country, ranking dead last  — 51st — among the states and the District of Columbia when combining household income, home ownership, poverty and educational attainment, this, despite the fact that African American Minnesotans pay an estimated $500 million dollars annually in taxes.

A September 18, 2015 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press put a spotlight on shadow Minnesota, summarizing the findings of 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data that showed African American income in Minnesota dropping 14 percent between 2013 and 2014. Median income for Whites in Minnesota was $64,281 compared to $27,026 for African Americans. In other words, median White income was 138 percent higher than African American income.

African Americans are the only racial group in Minnesota to experience a decline in income between 2013 and 2014 and with that sharp decline the median income of African Americans in Minnesota is lower than that of African Americans in Mississippi, a state perennially at the bottom of the 50-state ranking of socio-economic indicators.

St. Paul and Minneapolis had the highest Black/White unemployment disparity of the 19 largest cities in the United States. Nationwide, African American income declined 1.4 percent (to $35,398), compared to Minnesota’s 14 percent slide — 10 times higher than the national average. It is clear that Minnesota government, private and philanthropic sectors and African American communities fell asleep at the switch and allowed an array of appalling racial disparities to become the dominant and persistent reality for Minnesotans of African descent.

We have become inured to the point of complacency. There was no community outrage or call for more analysis in 2012, when Black median family income was less than half that of Whites. It has taken a precipitous and embarrassing drop to grab the attention of policy makers and leaders.

So, what can we do? To begin, we can stop gasping at the problem and wringing our hands over the complexity of the challenge. We must stop consciously and subconsciously believing the problem is intractable.

Here are five concrete measures that don’t require further research to commence that can be implemented within and across sectors while we helplessly wait for the problem to fix itself.

One: Institute aggressive hiring in the public and private sectors to reflect the racial diversity of the state. African Americans represent 5.9 percent of the state population according to the 2015 U.S. Census and statewide employment in the public and private sectors should reflect the same. In Ramsey and Hennepin Counties, where African Americans make up 11.7 percent and 12.6 percent of the population, respectively, African American employment in the county government workforces should be commensurate with those percentages.

Public school district employment should, likewise, be representative of the student populations served. In the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park school districts, for example, where the most egregious disparities in employment-to population-served exist, African American students are 37 percent, 30 percent and 31 percent respectively.

In the private sector, Minnesota is home to some of the largest companies in the United States, including Cargill, United Health Group, Target, Best Buy, 3M, General Mills, and Medtronic. Their local hiring goals and results should reflect the diversity of this community.

Two: African American businesses in Minnesota must be awarded a share of public and private contracts commensurate with their representation among Minnesota businesses. Minority businesses hire minorities at a rate significantly greater than majority-owned business. African American-owned businesses make up 12.7 percent of small businesses certified by the State of Minnesota; and, 27.4 percent of targeted businesses certified by the state.

Three: The Minnesota House and Senate must pass and the governor sign comprehensive legislation comprised of short- and long-term strategies, of both proven and innovative approaches to end economic disparities. The State Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage proposed African American economic stimulus legislation last year (H.F. 945 and S.F. 1819) which could serve as a template and minimum effort for engaging state resources in this effort.

Four: Minnesota-based philanthropies, private, corporate and community foundations, that collectively are endowed with billions of dollars in assets and make grants in excess of a billion dollars annually, must prioritize the income gap and devote resources to African American and African American lead organizations to solve this problem.

Five: Public, private and philanthropic enterprises in partnership with African American organizations must publish an annual report card on the status of efforts to achieve these results.

African Americans — individuals, families and business, community and faith leaders — must take charge and be accountable to prepare ourselves for employment and business opportunities when they become available. We must engage every resource at our disposal and remain vigilant to fight the regression of economic parity and move our community forward — one child, family, neighborhood and community at a time. We must take responsibility for our success, partnering with those who would help, defying those who expect us to fail, but moving forward always with unstoppable determination to achieve equity.

All these measures combined will go a long way toward helping African Americans move out of shadow Minnesota and end the shameful maintenance of a de facto state of apartheid.


This article was written by Steven L. Belton (interim president of Minneapolis Urban League), Jeffrey A. Hassan (executive director of African American Leadership Forum), and Gary Cunningham (CEO and president of Metropolitan Economic Development Association.)