My degree in public administration not yet a dream, I grew up poor and black in Minneapolis, taught by my mother to “look down, know your place and be obedient” if stopped by police.
That humiliating lesson barely saved me when police assaulted me during my first year of college at the University of Minnesota. They said I looked like a suspect they were pursuing, put me in the back of a squad car and beat me.
That event changed my life trajectory, such that by 1999 I became director of Planning and Development of Hennepin County, home to the largest affluent population in Minnesota. Part of my job was to figure out why deep pockets of black poverty also persisted there.
I could relate to being poor. A vivid childhood memory is looking out of our house while men dug up the street to turn off our gas. We couldn’t pay the heating bill. The men were white. My mother, four siblings and I — at 10 the youngest — shivered in the cold nights of 1967. The water pipes froze. We were evicted and moved to another of the poorest streets in town.
By 1976 the many incidents of police brutality against black people in Minneapolis caused the Civil Rights Commission to hold hearings. I testified. Not much changed. Fast forward to 1987 when Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser asked me, then 30 years old, to join the first advisory committee tasked to respond to citizen complaints.
We created a civilian-police panel to investigate allegations of police misconduct. It was called the Police Review Authority and had the power to issue subpoenas — that is, until the police union lobbied the Legislature, which stripped out that power. Thousands of complaints came before the board, but few police officers were disciplined. Instead, the city paid millions of dollars to settle claims of excessive force. To this day, that oversight board remains a paper tiger.
Seven years ago my wife, Betsy Hodges, who is white, was elected mayor of Minneapolis. Between 2013 and 2017 she instituted police training in procedural justice, unconscious bias and methods of de-escalation, and appointed the city’s first black police chief. Today, Minneapolis employs these and other best practices for policing yet, as we all saw, episodes of heartbreaking violence still occur. Police brutality has long existed hand-in-hand with racial economic disparity.
Now, as the CEO of an organization dedicated to prosperity for all Americans, my work is to dismantle racial economic disparities and uncover why they become systemic. History offers clues.
Between 1910 and 1970, 6 million blacks migrated from the rural south to the U.S. Northeast and Midwest to escape the Klan, Jim Crow laws and dead-end sharecropping. My grandfather, one of those risk-takers, worked 20 years in Minneapolis as a shift worker in a clothing factory. He raised six children on $9,000 a year, owned his own home and car, and kept his family intact.
But over the decades that followed, tight-knit family structures deteriorated, exacerbated by the wide gap between black and white employment, homeownership and education. Minnesota ranks 39th out of 50 states in the portion of blacks who have a college degree; 45th in the portion who are employed in the labor force and 48th in the portion who own homes, according to the American Community Survey conducted through 2017 by the U.S. Census Bureau.
To put a finer lens on Minneapolis, data shows nearly 60% of the city’s white families owned their homes last year, while only 20% of blacks did. The 2019 median white family income in Minneapolis was $99,500, but only $28,500 for black families.
Given those racial disparities now, how will the Twin Cities cope in 2040 when people of color comprise 40% of its population? Economic disparities and police brutality are inseparable, so both will need to be addressed.
To begin where George Floyd’s life ended, Minneapolis needs the state to give its city oversight board real clout to investigate police misconduct and recommend disciplinary actions. Absent that, we tinker around the edges, changing behavior individual by individual rather than by re-engineering police culture. I believe by requiring officers to live in the communities they patrol, they would know many blacks as good people rather than view any black male as a potential perpetrator.
When I saw the video of George Floyd brutally killed, I relived my own beating and the fear and loss of dignity it generated. I hope if we pull together we will not need to condition another generation to accept police violence as inevitable or poverty as intractable.
Gary L. Cunningham is president and CEO of Prosperity Now, a research and policy nonprofit in Washington, D.C.