MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd’s May 2020 death beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee cast a harsh national spotlight on the Twin Cities, exposing what people of color here have long complained about — the region’s troubled history with race and policing, including several high-profile police killings of Black men, and a state that boasts some of the nation’s deepest racial disparities between Whites and Blacks, including in housing and income.
And in the days after Floyd’s murder, White politicians publicly grappled with how a state known for its progressive politics and economic opportunity could become the ugly epicenter of an American reckoning on race and justice.
At the news conference after Floyd’s death, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) spoke emotionally of how a state long ranked as one of the best places to live in terms of jobs and education did not deliver for people of color and joined other elected officials in vowing to fix those disparities.
“We ranked second in a survey of the 50 states, second in happiness behind Hawaii. But if you take a deeper look and peel it back … all of those statistics are true if you are White. If you’re not, we ranked near the bottom,” he said. “Those two things can’t operate at the same place. You cannot continue to say you’re a great place to live if your neighbor, because of the color of their skin, doesn’t have that same opportunity.”
Walz ascribed those disparities to “small hidden racisms” for which the “ultimate end … is the ability to believe you can murder a Black man in public.”
But two years later, many Black Minneapolis residents say little has changed since Floyd’s killing. The signs that featured images of Floyd’s face or demanded justice for his death have vanished from front yards, even as many of the same tensions over race, policing and inequality linger. While many believe the commitment for change is still there, some question the urgency.
“Although everybody’s heart seems to be in the right place, their actions are not matching up as fast. … We’re dealing with big, deep cultural issues, systematic issues that have built up for hundreds of years and that takes time,” said PJ Hill, an adviser at NorthRock Partners and vice-chair of the Minneapolis NAACP. “You worry about the time that it is taking and whether we are missing a moment.”
While Chauvin is now in prison serving a 22½-year murder sentence and the three other officers at the scene were convicted in February on federal civil rights charges related to Floyd’s death, a recent state investigation found the Minneapolis Police Department continues to engage in racially discriminatory policing — targeting and using force on Black people at a higher rate than Whites even though Blacks make up just 19 percent of the population. Since Floyd’s death, two other Black men have been killed by police, inflaming the trauma of a city that remains deeply on edge.
That includes that fatal shooting of Amir Locke, who was killed as officers executed a no-knock warrant inside a downtown Minneapolis apartment in February. Locke wasn’t the target of the warrant, though police initially described him as a “suspect.” Locke’s death, which sparked fresh protests, resulted in no charges against the officers involved.
Scott Redd, a former Minneapolis Public Schools official and a relative of Locke’s, told reporters that Locke would be alive if he weren’t Black and echoed what other Black residents have long said about systemic racism in the state, which they say has been concealed by its reputation for being “Minnesota nice.”
“We often call it Mississippi with snow,” Redd said as he stood with Locke’s parents the day after their son was killed. “We have some of the largest disparities when it comes to education, employment, homeownership and now justice. And we’re tired of it.”
Jeff Hayden couldn’t always find the words to explain what it is like being a Black person in Minneapolis, especially to his White friends. And then one day, the former state senator saw a film that struck him as an apt metaphor.
“It’s like that movie, ‘Get Out,’” Hayden said, referring to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 racial satire, which depicted a Black man arriving into a world that appeared nice on the surface but turned out to be ominous underneath.
“In the film, everything is pleasant — just like it is here. Minneapolis is a beautiful city, with downtown and the lakes. People are pleasant. It has this history of great mayors. We have this disproportionality of Fortune 500 companies here, so there are great jobs,” said Hayden, who until late 2020 represented the area where Floyd was killed “But for Black people, it’s like, ‘What is going on here?’ … You look around, and you dig into the data, and you realize Black people are doing terrible here.”
As the nation has slowly moved to reopen after more than two years clouded by the covid-19 pandemic, Minnesota has enjoyed a robust economic rebound, including a record $9.2 billion state surplus that Walz and lawmakers are debating how to spend.
The state recently marked its lowest unemployment rate on record — 2.2 percent in April, one of the lowest rates in the country, prompting celebratory statements from Walz and other elected officials. But the Black unemployment rate was still more than double that of White Minnesotans — 6.7 percent versus 2.8 percent, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Across the Twin Cities, the median Black family income was just under $42,000 in 2020, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by DEED, far from the nearly $90,000 averaged by White families that year. In Minneapolis, the disparities were even sharper — with Black families on average earning just under $28,000 in 2020, compared to the nearly $79,000 median income reported by White families — one of the largest income gaps in the nation and one made worse by the pandemic, which hit Black Minnesotans harder than Whites.
Less than a quarter of Black families own their homes in the Twin Cities, one of the lowest homeownership rates in the nation and one that has been in steady decline over the last two decades, according to a 2021 study of property records and census data by the Urban Institute. In contrast, the region’s homeownership rates among Whites has remained above 70 percent since 2000 — one of the highest rates in the country.
A recent report by Urban League Twin Cities found other disparities, including in education and health care. Graduation rates were double for White students compared to Black students, who reported feeling less cared for by educators then their White counterparts. The report also found that Black mothers in the region are nearly three times as likely to die during or after pregnancy than White mothers “regardless of education levels or socioeconomic status,” while infant deaths among Black infants in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, were 3.4 times higher than Whites.
“I don’t think there have been many changes for the plight of African Americans in Minneapolis. … In some ways, it feels like we are in a worse place than where we were two years ago,” said Andrea Jenkins, the president of the Minneapolis City Council who lives two blocks from the intersection where Floyd was killed.
Jenkins, a poet and activist who grew up in Chicago before moving to Minneapolis, made history in 2017 as the first Black openly transgender woman elected to public office in America. She made headlines again in January, when she was elected president of the city council — the first trans person to hold such a position in the country.
“I think that’s progress,” said Jenkins, who ran on a platform of racial equality, including police accountability and affordable housing. “But any progress is always met with opposition.”
And the last two years, the inequality that led her to run for office had been laid at her doorstep — from the repeated complaints that she heard from other Black people about the racism they had endured at the hands of police to the struggles of her low-income neighbors to survive in a city where many are increasingly priced out.
After Floyd’s death, Jenkins led the council to declare racism as a public health emergency in Minneapolis — calling out what she described as systemic issues that have plagued Black residents in Minneapolis and led to Floyd’s killing, and forcing the city to confront head-on the disparities as it crafts future budgets and policies including its approach to public safety.
“Until we name this virus, this disease that has infected America for the past 400 years, we will never ever resolve this issue,” Jenkins said at the time.
Jenkins was heartened to see others around the Twin Cities join in her call. But two years later, she expressed concern about the slow progress in fixing the systemic issues that continue to challenge Minneapolis.
“There have been a lot of foundations, a lot of corporations, a lot of institutions that have made proclamations and statements about addressing racism. But the substantive changes, nothing has really changed,” Jenkins said. “Minneapolis remains this dichotomy because it one of the most beautiful places. … It’s like nowhere else. Minneapolis is it. Except if you’re Black and low income, it could be one of the worst places to live in America.”
Last November, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) convened a working group of outside advisers to suggest how the city could shape its budget to speed up the city’s recovery from both the pandemic and the 2020 unrest while also seeking to dismantle the racial and economic disparities. Frey said Minneapolis could not afford to return back to the “old normal.”
The group’s report, made public in March, recommended the city invest in more affordable housing and work opportunities in communities of color and expand access to funding for entrepreneurs, businesses and first-time home buyers. The group suggested the city’s overarching goal should be to “recreate the Black middle class.”
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we have to start the work,” said Hill, who served as a co-chair of the group.
A South Minneapolis native, Hill played college basketball at Ohio State and then professionally overseas before returning home to work as an investment adviser — a career that he began after the White father of one of the kids he coached suggested he consider a career in finance. It was the kind of opportunity that Hill hopes to pass on to other people of color, describing himself as a “bridge” between the Black community and the corporate world of the Twin Cities that remains overwhelmingly White.
“Growing up, I never saw people who looked like me, who were advisers, who were doctors, anything like that so that’s why I live in the community,” said Hill, who until recently lived two blocks from where Floyd was killed. “I want to show people from my community, all minority kids, that you can be bigger than just an athlete or an entertainer to make it out of this place.”
But Hill also sees himself as a way of connecting wealthy White people to the Black communities that need investment and support. “I think people are genuine in that they want to help make Minneapolis a better city and bridge these gaps, but they don’t know where to begin,” he said.
Still, Hill, who led protests across the Twin Cities in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, continues to be troubled by the racism he sees. In the recent state human rights report into the practices of the Minneapolis police, investigators claimed officers had surveilled Black leaders and organizations in the community and used the department’s covert Twitter accounts to pose as a Black resident and send a message criticizing the local NAACP.
“It’s disheartening,” Hill said. “But it proves that what we have been saying as a community about the police is true. … But we just have to fight to continue towards trust, truth and transparency.”
Hill describes himself as an optimist, but admits he worries about the pace of change. Last month, he and other work group members reached out to Frey’s office to find out how the mayor was planning to implement their suggestions. A city official told them they were still going through the report. “I think the commitment is there, but we have to keep the pressure on,” he said.
Two years ago, he was among the hundreds of activists standing on the Interstate 35 bridge near downtown Minneapolis to protest for accountability over Floyd’s death when a gas truck plowed through barriers and drove into the group, narrowly missing him. Hill had thought of his family, of what could have happened, but as he looked around he marveled at the diversity of the crowd, including more young White people than he’d seen at protests before.
“It gave me such hope,” Hill said. “You have a large group of people here who really do want to make a difference … but it’s not happening fast enough.”
“We have this unique opportunity to really reset the system, but we have to get it right,” Hill added. “We can’t be back here in 20 or 30 years and say we had this chance but did nothing with it.”