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Minnesota Had Some of the Nation’s Worst Racial Disparities. Then Came the Pandemic

The disparate impacts of COVID could ensure this battleground state stays blue in 2020.

Beti Ali was doing fine at the start of this year. The 42-year-old had a stable job that provided a decent income and health insurance for herself, her 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Since emigrating from Ethiopia on a lottery visa in her early 20s, Ali has made a career in the hospitality industry, mostly at hotels. 


Ali has called Minnesota home for nearly a decade. She now lives in Woodbury, a Twin Cities suburb, with her longtime partner and kids. For most of her time in the state, Ali has worked as a server at Rival House, a bar and restaurant on the bottom floor of the downtown St. Paul DoubleTree hotel. 


“Since we opened, I’ve been there,” she said. “I love my job … I have seniority and I get my day off when I need and personal days.”

On a normal day, Rival House is bustling by five o’clock with office workers taking the skyway paths for happy hour or hockey fans grabbing some beers before the Minnesota Wild play at the Xcel Energy Center a few blocks away.


But when the coronavirus infiltrated Minnesota and forced the state to shut down, Ali’s work was slashed to a shift or two a month – making her one of the millions of people in the U.S. who were laid off or had their hours cut.

87 in 100,000 Black Minnesotans had died of COVID-19 as of Oct. 14, a death rate second only to that of the state’s indigenous population.

In Minnesota, COVID-19 is devastating communities of color at significantly higher rates than it is white people, laying bare the state’s longstanding racial inequalities and likely playing a role in how Minnesotans will vote this presidential election. 


Black Minnesotans have been far more likely to lose their jobs than any other group. They’re dying at higher rates, too – 87 in 100,000 had died as of Oct. 14, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.


As the pandemic continues with no end in sight, President Trump’s handling of the crisis appears to be costing him votes in this swing state.

Polls have shown Joe Biden’s lead over the president growing significantly in Minnesota. The top issues on voters’ minds is COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s response, said Kathryn Pearson, a political analyst and University of Minnesota associate professor. 


“Here we are now in the fall and it continues to be a serious problem,” she said. “I think the same dynamics that are causing him problems in national polls are causing him problems in Minnesota specifically.”

However, the polarization of four years ago remains, and Pearson said that should drive Minnesotans, a historically high-turnout electorate, to the polls. “The policy differences are so stark that I think voters on both sides are getting energized,” she said.

Minnesota voters are among the nation’s whitest. Only 14.8 percent of eligible voters are people of color.

The president’s repeated attacks on Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police might once have made his base confident that he would take the state on Election Day.


“If I lose Minnesota, I’m never coming back,” Trump told a crowd at his rally in Duluth earlier this fall. 


Minnesota voters are among the nation’s whitest, which would ordinarily bode well for the president – his base in the state “was and is predominantly white,” Pearson said. Only 14.8 percent of potential voters are people of color, according to the APM Research Lab.


But now, given recent polls, confidence might be lagging. It appears if he wants to turn Minnesota Republican for the first time since 1972, Trump will need votes from the state’s communities of color.

*  *  *

In 2016, Trump nearly became the first Republican presidential candidate favored by Minnesotans since Richard Nixon. But the North Star State’s blue roots proved too deep as Hillary Clinton won by the narrow margin of fewer than 45,000 votes. 


Along with its Democratic leanings, Minnesota has a reputation for scoring high on quality-of-life measures. It’s regularly at the top of rankings like WalletHub’s “Best States to Live In” – Minnesota hit No. 2 on its 2019 list, second only to Massachusetts.

But measures like that don’t take into account that Minnesota has been and remains one of the nation’s worst places for Black people to live. There’s even a name for this phenomenon – the Minnesota Paradox, a phrase coined by University of Minnesota economist Samuel Myers Jr.

Jacob Wascalus, a research scientist at Minnesota Compass, a nonpartisan research group, traces the paradox back to the inequality present at the state’s inception. 


“Before Minnesota was anything, it was a land occupied by Indigenous peoples,” he said. “This notion of ownership and property was brought here by white European settlers.”


Minnesota’s statehood came just a few years before the 1862 Homestead Act, which Wascalus said paved the way for tens of thousands of white people to swarm the state with the promise of land for no cost except a small registration fee. They quickly became the dominant population.

“White Minnesotans had a 100-year head start on peoples of color,” Wascalus said. “They established political norms, social norms. This is a state that, for all intents and purposes, the culture was white European.”


Jump forward a century and Minnesota remained predominantly white. According to the 1960 Census, just 1.2 percent of the state was non-white.

Nearly 60 percent of Black workers in Minnesota filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and early September, compared to 27 percent of white workers.

Social and political racism, such as racial housing covenants in Minneapolis, created an environment that allowed oppression and inequality to persist in Minnesota. 


Even today, Minnesota remains nearly 84 percent white, according to 2019 Census data. Economically, that majority is faring much better across the state than any minority group, especially since the coronavirus pandemic began last spring. 

Nearly 60 percent of Black workers in Minnesota filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and early September, according to data from Minnesota Compass. More than half of the state’s Native American workers filed for unemployment over that time, as did over 36 percent of Asians and over 33 percent of Hispanics. 


White Minnesota workers fared much better overall, with over 27 percent filing for unemployment during the pandemic. 

The inequality goes past employment – almost 83 percent of Black Minnesotans sometimes couldn’t get enough food to eat (a measure known as food insecurity) in mid-July, according to Compass data, compared to less than 32 percent of whites.

More than 55 percent of Hispanic Minnesotans faced housing insecurity – meaning they missed their last month’s rent or mortgage payment, or have low confidence they’ll be able to make the payment next month – during that time, according to Compass. So did over 46 percent of Black Minnesotans. The state average was just 14 percent, with less than 9 percent of whites having severe issues paying their housing bills.

Meanwhile, many Minnesotans of color who have kept their jobs in the pandemic are in some of the most vulnerable, low-paying and dangerous positions, said Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of the workers’ organization CTUL.

“Employers, even before COVID, were retaliating against workers who spoke up, whether it was about safety, or getting paid properly or getting paid overtime."

~ Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director, CTUL

“They are not receiving sufficient PPE. They’re not getting sufficient time to be able to take breaks and wash their hands,” she said. “They’re being essentially forced to do things that don’t feel safe.”


Mendez Moore said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter have helped workers with pandemic safety measures. However, she said, the next steps for labor rights in the state must include making sure workers have a voice and don’t fear retribution from their bosses.

“Employers, even before COVID, were retaliating against workers who spoke up about their rights, whether it was about safety, or whether it was about getting paid properly or getting paid overtime,” Mendez Moore said. “This moment with the pandemic lays bare how significant the power imbalance is – that workers just can’t speak up because they’re risking losing their jobs.”


In addition to the pandemic exposing Minnesota’s inequalities, Ali said the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police helped catalyze her into activism. Her union, Unite Here Local 17-Twin Cities Hospitality Union, has been organizing around the Black Lives Matter movement and is pushing for diversity in hospitality management. Ali works with other East African immigrants in her industry, translating and helping make their workplace issues heard.

Overall, Ali wants to create more equitable workplaces in Minnesota. She said that should a Democrat wind up in the White House next year, advocating for workers must continue. 


“Even if we vote [in] Joe Biden, we have to work with him,” Ali said. “It doesn’t stop because we have to move those people, even Democrats.”

*  *  *

When COVID-19 left Ali without a job, she knew that unemployment benefits would run out eventually. Her partner is a cab driver, so he couldn’t safely go to work either. 


Ali looked for new gigs and found one through her union – phone banking for Joe Biden’s campaign. Even before the pandemic, Ali said she wanted to get involved with defeating Trump in the 2020 election. 


“I can’t stand Trump. He is a racist. He doesn’t care about the pandemic experience,” Ali said. “He takes care of the richest people.”

Minnesota has consistently ranked at or near the bottom for percent of Black students graduating from high school on time.

Ali has felt pain from the president’s disparaging remarks about East African immigrants like herself. Her daughter has picked up on Trump’s language, too, asking Ali why he’s tweeting mean things. 


The 8-year-old also noticed one cause of the educational achievement gap in Minnesota: teachers that don’t reflect their student body. 


“Mommy, we don’t have any brown people. Can you be the teacher?” Ali recalled her daughter asking. 

Outcomes for white students and their peers of color in Minnesota are among the most disparate in the nation. The state has consistently ranked at or near the bottom on percent of Black students graduating on time. 


Both Ali’s activism in her union and her work on the Biden campaign are done with the goal of making Minnesota a more equal place when her kids are older. 


“I want it to be better for them. So they can have confidence they can be whatever they want to be,” she said. “That’s why I’m fighting.”

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main


Top photo: People visit the memorial for George Floyd on June 9 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

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