Behind America's racial tensions, a deeper problem: segregation

The Minnesota police shooting is a tale of two cities, and it is not alone. 

Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/AP
Gov. Mark Dayton speaks with Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile (2nd l.) during a press conference at his residence regarding the death of Mr. Castile in St. Paul, Minn., July 7.

In the aftermath of a week of racial tension, a number of leaders have pointed to the need for a deeper mutual understanding between police departments and the black community in particular. 

This series explores efforts to address the issue in the very places where tension has erupted into violence and anger – St. Paul, Minn., and Dallas – and why those tensions stubbornly endure. 

Part 3 of a three-part series. 

Longtime civic activist Yousef Mgeni can tick off from memory the many distinctions Minnesota has when it comes to race.

The state has one of the largest disparities between black and white incarceration rates in the United States. Blacks in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region have some of the highest poverty rates among the nation’s large metropolitan areas. And the Twin Cities have the largest disparity between whites and blacks in mortgage lending discrimination in the nation.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” says Mr. Mgeni, who also serves on the board of the St. Paul’s NAACP. “One of them is bright and hopeful and the other one horrific, if you’re poor or a person of color. The evidence is too thoroughly documented to debate.”

Mgeni says that the police shooting of African-American Philando Castile outside St. Paul is an example of that “horrific” reality. Mr. Castile’s death and those of other blacks killed by police officers have shined light on the disparities between blacks and whites in cities across the United States.

But while both President Obama and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton called race a key factor in Castile’s death, less attention has been given to the role of segregation. Segregation, experts say, is a primary driver in creating these disparities and straining relations between police departments and the communities they serve. And researchers and community organizers like Mgeni say that segregation is a common denominator in many of the cities that have seen high-profile police shootings in recent years.

“You’re kind of looking at the greatest hits of segregation: Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis,” says Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, referring to the police killings of Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and Castile. “They are places where the black and white realities are really different for people for both race and class.”

These different realities can become flashpoints when police officers living in white neighborhoods work in predominantly black neighborhoods. Mistrust goes both ways as communities and officers struggle to understand each other.

“We have a lot of African-Americans who are feeling occupied in their communities by police,” says Natalie Y. Moore, author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” Chicago has seen several high-profile police shootings in recent years, including the killing of teenager Laquan McDonald on the city’s South Side.

“Segregation is the common denominator that we see in these communities,” she says. “If we’re going to effectively address race relations, we have to address our separateness.”

Twin Cities, separate lives

In the case of Castile, segregation was an important backdrop to tensions between the police and communities in the Twin Cities region, say Mgeni and others. Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in the predominantly white suburb of St. Anthony, which is surrounded by more racially diverse communities.

Racial segregation is a relatively new phenomenon in the Twin Cities. Changes to Minnesota’s school desegregation rule and fair housing program in the 1990s led to rapid declines in integration during the past two decades.

In 2000, the Twin Cities had 11 schools that were made up of more than 90 percent nonwhite students. By 2009, that number had risen to 83. Similarly, the portion of low-income black residents living in high-poverty census tracts jumped from 13 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2012.

In contrast, cities like Seattle and Portland – which have similar racial makeups to the Twin Cities – have not dramatically increased segregation levels in the same period. Portland went from zero to two schools that were more than 90 percent nonwhite between 2000 and 2009; Seattle went from 14 to 25.

These differences might explain why blacks have been the victims of police shootings in places like the Twin Cities but not in more integrated areas, says Professor Orfield. While police departments can attempt to mitigate these problems by making their department more representative of the population and hiring more African-American officers, the underlying issues of racial isolation can get in the way of reform.

“When you live in a society where there are really distinct communities on the basis of race, distrust grows and the potential for incidents like this are much higher,” says Orfield. “In places in the country that are less socially and racially segregated, I think these things are less likely to happen and less likely to have such an enormous outcry if they do.”


There is now movement in the Twin Cities to reverse the trend toward segregation. Last November, attorneys representing seven families and a community group sued the state of Minnesota for failing to desegregate schools.

Then this May, Minneapolis and St. Paul negotiated voluntary compliance agreements with neighborhoods groups that had filed federal complaints stating that the cities were contributing to racial and ethnic segregation.

Undoing decades of racial isolation will take time, however, and an effort by political leaders to address all of the issues that segregation affects, from access to jobs, education, and housing to adversarial relationships with the police.

Activist Mgeni says that biggest challenge in addressing segregation is raising awareness about its affects on the wider community.

“Racism and segregation hurt white people too,” says Mgeni. “They hurt the business community, they hurt people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientation, the whole nine yards. This is a community-wide public health life and death issue.”

•  •  •

Part 1: Beyond protests, St. Paul shows how police and community can find solutions
Part 2: Dallas PD's uncertain example on race and policing
Part 3: Behind racial tensions, a deeper problem: segregation

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