For Black people, Minneapolis is a metaphor for our world.
We at Data for Black Lives are enraged by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. We join other organizations in urging Hennepin County DA to charge the officers that murdered George Floyd immediately. We believe that is necessary to support demands to defund and abolish the police. But it cannot stop there. We have to recognize that murder at the hands of law enforcement is only one form of state sanctioned violence.
Policing is a byproduct of larger, more insidious, but often less visible systems. Police exist to protect white capital and to reinforce already existing economic and political conditions. We know that when we see aggressive policing practices — behind it are the most brutal forms of economic and social inequality.
We will not wait for another tragedy to be in solidarity with Black communities in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. Because for Black people all across America, the recent tragedy in Minneapolis and the ongoing injustice that Black Minnesotans have faced for years, is a metaphor for our world.
Data for Black Lives is a movement of scientists and activists working to make data a tool for social change, instead of a weapon of political oppression. Since the inception of Data for Black Lives, a major focus of my work as Executive Director has been to keep my ear to the ground — to seek out and learn from leaders in cities across this country who are working in the trenches of the most oppressive conditions. Through our hubs program, conference and other movement building, I find ways to support and amplify their leadership at the national and global level.
I had the opportunity to travel to the Twin Cities and learn about what it was like to be Black, Native and Latino there after Ramsey County elected officials announced a joint powers data sharing agreement that would aggregate data across different agencies to create “risk ratios” that would be used on students.
The school-to-prison pipeline that organizers had been fighting against would become the cradle-to prison-algorithm. Community leaders knew that the risk ratios would only reinforce long existing racial inequality in a city that ranks amongst the highest in the country for racial disparities. The campaign resulted in a victory — the coalition, now known as the organization Data for Public Good, forced the mayor and other agencies to dissolve the agreement.
Now the whole world is witness to the material conditions faced by Black Minnesotans. A confluence of social, political and economic factors — policies set in place long ago, have undermined the humanity and denied the dignity of Black people, relegating entire communities to bottom caste status.
I learned from Black leaders about ‘Minnesota Nice’, a term describing the friendliness and aversion to confrontation that many Minnesotans tout, a politeness that has also been effective at masking the hostility of racial sentiments and denying the existence of structural racism.
Many people all over the US see Minneapolis and St. Paul as liberal, free from the history of racism that characterizes the south. But the data tells a different story¹:
- Black people Minneapolis are four times more likely than white people to live below the poverty line
- Black households in Minneapolis earns $34,174 a year, 43.4% of the median for white household and $4,000 less than the median among Black households nationwide
- Black people are more likely to be incarcerated, and are disproportionately likely to experience police brutality.
- Only 24% of Black people own their homes in Minneapolis, compared to 74% of whites
- The unemployment rate for Black people is nearly four times higher than the state’s unemployment rate.
While Black people in Minneapolis have been reduced to bottom caste status, white communities have thrived. While white residents of the Twin Cities metro area are better off than white Americans nationwide in a number of measures, the area’s Black population is worse off by several metrics compared to the Black population nationwide. The typical white household in Minneapolis earns $78,706 a year, over $17,000 more than the national figure, while Black people in Minnesota earn $4,000 less than Black people in other states nationwide².
This is unacceptable considering the wealth of the state and the abundance of opportunities available in the Twin Cities — opportunities that have been routinely denied to Black people.
The state of Minnesota is the tenth richest state in the entire nation — home to 6 billionaires and Minneapolis St. Paul Metropolitan is the country’s 13th largest economy based on GDP³. Minnesota is also among the states with the highest number of Fortune 500 companies that call it home, including Target, Best Buy, Cargill, General Mills and United Health⁴.
Meanwhile, 1 in 3 Black Minnesotans have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 crisis began⁵, while a relatively low number of white workers have filed claims, revealing which communities are getting the worst of the pandemic economy.
Jim Crow of the North
How did it happen that Black people in Minneapolis face some of the most violent economic realities while white people have built substantial wealth, outpacing white economic mobility in many other states?
As we have also learned from the COVID-19 crisis in Black communities, the root cause of these disparities are grounded in long histories of aggressive public policy that successfully established a system of deeply entrenched structural racism, resulting in not only the degradation of Black communities, but the upward mobility of whites.
While at this very moment Black communities in Minneapolis are being demonized for rioting in response to the death of George Floyd — riots as a tactic of white mob violence are endemic to Minnesota’s history. In fact, Minnesota in the early 20th century was defined by a level of racial violence and terror that today has made it known as the Jim Crow of the North. June 15th of this year will be the 100 year anniversary of the Duluth lynchings — the murder of three Black workers Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie⁶. After a white woman lied and made accusations of rape, six Black men were arrested and detained in the Duluth city jail.
As news spread of the allegations, and although there was evidence that a rape had not occurred, a riot ensued — an angry mob of 10,000 equipped with clubs and other weapons broke into jail with the help of the police commissioner and dragged Clayton, Jackson and McGhie out of their cells, and lynched them over a light pole. A grand jury indicted thirty seven for rioting while no one was convicted of murder. No one served time in jail.
Terror took on forms that were outright and violent but also subtle and institutional. Racial violence was written into the fine print of deeds and contracts of homes in the form of racial covenants. Enforced by of white mob violence and local lawmakers (groups that were not mutually exclusive) these covenants kept Black people out of most neighborhoods in the Twin Cities and were used to deny access to homeownership, sequestering entire communities into neighborhoods that were disinvested, policed and segregated.
Racial covenants began in 1910, and by 1940, Black people were confined to three small neighborhoods including North and South Minneapolis. And even though federal courts ruled racial covenants illegal in 1948, the impact is still felt today⁷.
George Floyd was murdered in the South Minneapolis neighborhood of Powderhorn Park. The area along East 38th Street and Chicago where Cup Food is located was once a thriving historic Black business district that was later devastated by the construction of Interstate Highway 35W⁸. Today, Black businesses are fighting to hold onto the 38th and Chicago commercial corridor as an influx of private capital, rising rents and real estate development has threatened to totally transform the area⁹.
According to a study done by the University of Minnesota, Powderhorn Park is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, and as white residents move into the South Minneapolis neighborhood, rents have risen¹⁰. While white people are able to move back into the city from the suburbs and other groups may be able to take advantage of neighborhood changes, data from 2016 revealed that there was not a single neighborhood in the city of Minneapolis where a black household with the median income for black renters could afford to live¹¹ (see chart below).
The Other America
At this very moment protests arise all over the country in response to not only the murder of George Floyd, but Breonna Taylor and other victims of police violence. Social media and news reels are filled with footage of riots, stores being looted and police precincts burning to the ground. But our question remains: who started the fire?
We believe that to condemn the actions of the protestors — but to refuse to condemn the conditions that created the crisis of despair, hopelessness and rage — is irresponsible, heartless and immoral. On March 14, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King gave the speech “The Other America”, and from the speech has emerged a necessary phrase to define the protests of the past, present and future: riot is the language of the unheard.
We must continue to share this phrase, to take it to heart. But we must also read it in context. In the speech given at Gross Point High School in Detroit, Dr. King describes two Americas:
“There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and dignity for their spirits…
“But then there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America, men walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist… And so in this other America unemployment is a reality… So the vast majority of negroes in America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity…”
He goes on to speak about the bitterness, the ache and anguish that we as Black people have felt, have moved about the world every single day, as we face conditions that deny our humanity, making it impossible for us to thrive, to survive, to breathe. More than fifty years later, this speech rings true — these are the conditions that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. The question resounds: if riot is the language of the unheard, what has American failed to hear?
I started Data for Black Lives three years ago out of desperation. I was desperate to see the thing I loved the most — data and technology, used to fulfill what I believed was its true promise: as a tool for social change. I was desperate for a new form of activism that could truly change conditions and empower people. When we held the first Data for Black Lives conference in November of 2017, I knew this idea would be about something more than data, more than algorithms — but about people, about asserting life.
Data for Black Lives is about using the datafication of our society to make bold demands for racial justice. It is about building the leadership of scientists and activists and empowering them with the skills, tools and empathy to create a new blueprint for the future.
But at its core, Data for Black Lives is about life, and the sanctity of life. It is about asserting life in a system that demands death, human bodies as its tribute. For us, asserting life means exposing and dismantling all conditions that have left Black people in a state of perpetual inequality. But most importantly it means to resurrect the hope, the possibilities that we buried with our dead loved ones.
And we do not lose hope, only gain power. We are committed to making sure that if anything comes out of this moment, it will be more than temporary reform, but long-term structural change.
I hope you can be a part of what we are building.
Yeshimabeit Milner is the Founder & Executive Director of Data for Black Lives. She has worked since she was 17as a movement builder, technologist and data scientist on a number of campaigns. She started Data for Black Lives because for too long she straddled the worlds of data and organizing and was determined to harness the power of data to make change in the lives of Black people. In three years, Data for Black Lives has hosted two sold out conferences at the MIT Media Lab, built a movement of over 10,000 scientists and activists and has changed the conversation around big data & technology across the US and globally.
As the founder of Data for Black Lives, her work has received much acclaim. Yeshimabeit is an Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellow, an Ashoka Fellow and joins the founders of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street in the distinguished inaugural class of Roddenberry Foundation Fellows. In 2020, Yeshimabeit made the Forbes 30 under 30 list for social entrepreneurs.
- These metrics were used to rank Minneapolis as the fourth worst city for Black people to live in. Read more about the methodology of this ranking and how census data and other sources were used here.