It’s unclear who broke the first shop window or started the first fire. But Minneapolis residents knew two things: They were tired of police abuse, which sparked the unrest. And they were tired of promises of equality, only for them to dissipate. The stores, most of which they did not own or operate, would have to evaporate too.
This wasn’t May 2020, but July 1967 in Minneapolis’s North Side. A police officer mistreated a young black woman at a parade, some accounts said. As the protest migrated to Plymouth Avenue, it became a rebellion. Some of the crowd burned stores, threw rocks and bottles, and sporadically set the neighborhood on fire.
One state over in the same month, Milwaukee would also be in flames after clashes with police officers. Throughout the country in that long, hot summer, urban unrest spread like wildfire. Hundreds of cities that once offered a beacon of light for black Americans escaping the south would become nightmares engulfed in flames for many of these migrants and their children. Over 50 years later, those conditions largely remain, particularly in the Midwest.
Minneapolis is almost 20 percent black, just a few percentage points lower than New York City and Oakland. Despite the “Minnesota Nice” veneer and relatively high average quality of life for the state’s residents, Minnesota has some of the worst black-white inequality in the country. In recent years, it had the highest income gap and highest poverty gap between its black and white residents. It had the country’s second-highest unemployment gap and the fourth-highest incarceration gap. (Two other Midwestern states — Iowa and Wisconsin — narrowly edged it out.) These racial disparities are prevalent throughout the region, with the country’s top nine states with black-white unemployment disparities all in the Midwest.
Yet, up until the past month, when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking protests against racist police violence around the world, much of the popular depiction of the Midwest has been blind to its extreme racial inequality — or that nonwhite Midwesterners even exist.
News outlets, film and television, politicians, and political coverage often failed to acknowledge that black people with policy needs worth paying attention to even exist in the region, opting for archaic tropes of average Joes, white blue collar workers, and moderates who require wooing in Midterms and presidential elections. When a region is symbolized for “real Americans” — by which they mean “working class” or civically engaged, moderate taxpayers who are white — it’s easy to erase black people, who are rarely portrayed as workers deserving of sympathy. The black poor are framed as dysfunctional and underclass. Nonwhites are othered.
Statements from Jonathan Weisman last summer, then the deputy Washington editor for the New York Times, exemplify this sentiment. “Saying @RashidaTlaib (D-Detroit) and @IlhanMN (D-Minneapolis) are from the Midwest is like saying @RepLloydDoggett (D-Austin) is from Texas or @repjohnlewis (D-Atlanta) is from the Deep South,” he tweeted. Instead of acknowledging the changing demographics of the Midwest where, for instance, Minneapolis has the country’s highest population of Somali immigrants, he stripped two Midwestern women of that part of their identity altogether.
When I took a reporting trip to Wisconsin a year after the 2016 Sherman Park uprising, I was forced to confront my own stereotypes about the region. The city of Milwaukee’s black population is nearly 40 percent of the total, considerably higher than Brooklyn, Chicago, and Houston. I saw the central city’s abandoned factories and heard from black retired union workers about businesses settling into the metro area’s suburbs or outside of the country.
To be clear, these regions are vastly white, but there are meaningful black populations who have called it home for decades, largely due to the Great Migration of black Southerners to other parts of the country in the early 20th century. My experience in Wisconsin eventually brought me back to the region, where I followed up a year later in producing the short film “Left Out,” which focuses on black Midwesterners who are left out of larger political and policy conversations.
In reporting on this region, it became clear to me that the political narrative of Midwest deindustrialization wasn’t just a blue-collar white men’s problem; in fact, it was even more pronounced for black men, who were overrepresented in these jobs. Now, four of the top five cities in black male unemployment are in the Midwest, including Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Chicago. Throughout the region, the black unemployment rate is three to four times that of white Midwesterners. Despite a crisis that has been growing for decades, many of the stories of job insecurity, health insurance failings, union decline, and corporate offshoring don’t feature the people hit worst by it.
Erasing the region’s nonwhite residents also erases the region’s black radical tradition and ignores what may be guiding some of its protest today, from Nebraska’s Malcolm X, to Illinois’s Fred Hampton, to Rev. Albert Cleage, the founding pastor of my Detroit-headquartered church and co-founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X’s political organization.
After a series of devastating events over the past six years, the killing of George Floyd was merely the final crack for this radicalism to resurface. There was the police killing of Philando Castile in Minneapolis in 2016, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown two years before. A few hundred miles away in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, black residents erupted after police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown killed Sylville Smith. There was 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio, and John Crawford too. Peaceful protests and viral hashtags followed most of these incidents. Elsewhere, militarized police escalated violence and unjustly arrested protestors.
Before the ninth and final minute Derek Chauvin’s knee dug into George Floyd’s windpipe, the brewing inequality was already prepared to boil over. After peaceful protests and relatively little change, with elected officials who have promised to either return America to “normal” or widen its inequality, those on the verge of imploding found their catharsis. Both in Minneapolis and in cities throughout the country, the winds of historic inequalities along with the coronavirus catastrophe and its subsequent deaths and economic devastation spread the unrest swifter and wider.
Like many cities defined by segregation, Minneapolis’s racist and restrictive housing covenants limited black home-buying to a designated area — the city’s North Side. Some things have changed since, as other ethnic groups have uprooted their lives to call Minnesota home. But much of the city’s inequalities have gone unchanged. Plymouth, a community a bit south of the North Side, and where George Floyd would exhale his last breath, is fairly representative of the city’s racial demographics. Segregation may now be legally invalid, but the attitudes behind the practice — perceiving black people as threats and their lives indispensable — pervade. The 17-year-old filming Floyd’s killing captured this reality for the world to see.
I don’t know what will happen when the mass protests settle. But the crises of capitalism and policing will be ongoing. A deeper understanding of the Midwest could change how the region is covered both during urban unrest and beyond, when people more silently suffer from homelessness, unemployment, undereducation, and over policing. Perhaps it could influence the policymakers who help mold the Midwest narrative and, potentially, improve the lives of people enduring its pervasive job loss. Otherwise, future generations absent from mainstream stories may be forced to repeat the same words of despair of protesters today, moments after the damage has already been done.
Malaika Jabali is a writer, activist, and filmmaker whose first short film, “Left Out,” examines the economic crisis facing black Midwesterners.