The 12-hour drive to Detroit is always a chore, but on the last day of March, the pandemic gave a sinister hue to even the most banal elements of a Midwest road trip. Every time we used a bathroom, grabbed a gas pump or bought a snack was an opportunity to get infected. Making things worse, Detroit was seeing an explosion of coronavirus cases.
My grandmother had just died unexpectedly at the age of 82 — raised on a farm in Louisiana, she had always been healthy; to me, she seemed indestructible. Nana raised us — not just my dad and uncles, but nearly the whole family. Skipping her funeral didn’t seem like an option.
Nana was so beloved. She could have easily packed Gesu Catholic Church under normal circumstances. Instead, we sat in the James H. Cole Funeral Home, a beautiful little spot near the Motown Museum, but not where I would have imagined having her funeral. All in attendance sat 6 feet apart and in every other row; nearly everyone wore a face mask. Funerals have, all of a sudden, become tricky — dangerous even.
As unusual as it all seemed, the history of Detroit could have helped you predict its future when it came to this crisis.
I hope it won’t surprise anyone to hear that Detroit has a history of racial violence — interpersonal, economic and institutional. The short version goes something like this: Black people began to make incremental economic and political gains; white Michiganders became incensed, fled as fast as possible into the surrounding area and bled the city for every drop of wealth on their way out. There’s more, but that’s really a story for native Detroiters to tell.
Given that history, it’s no wonder Detroit — and places like it — are underwater in this crisis. Milwaukee, Chicago and New Orleans have all seen black people absorbing the full force of the outbreak. This virus is poised to rip through every black neighborhood in America.
Quietly, on the North Side of Minneapolis, sits one of those neighborhoods.
I represent the Fifth Ward on the Minneapolis City Council, but where I’m from, people just call it the Northside. The short version, again, goes like this: Our corner of the city has always been plagued by flooding and weak soils, so naturally, it’s where the city parked its “undesirable” populations. In the early part of the 20th century, that population was Jewish, then black, then Southeast Asian.
Today the Northside is about half black, a quarter Hmong and a quarter everything else. It’s a neighborhood challenged by low wealth and some violence, but we’re not defined by that.
The Northside is where Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis created the Minneapolis Sound that Prince would later make famous. The Northside was the home of the underappreciated but behemoth civil rights figure and union organizer Nellie Stone Johnson. It’s the place my parents were told was “the hood” when they arrived, but coming from Detroit, it was the only place in the city where they felt comfortable raising us.
In 2015, an Atlantic article called “The Miracle of Minneapolis” said that “no other place” in America “mixes affordability, opportunity and wealth so well.” But that wealth has always eluded Northsiders. And by eluded, I, of course, mean, it has been denied.
Minneapolis is not unique in its use of redlining and restrictive covenants that kept blacks from owning property. Minneapolis is not unique in using the construction of highways to annihilate black neighborhoods. Minneapolis is not unique in placing its worst polluters in and near its black and brown neighborhoods. And unfortunately, we are also not unique in our failure to seriously seek a remedy to these harms.
Minneapolis hosts some of the worst disparities between black and white success in America. Educational outcomes, wealth and wages and homeownership gaps shouldn’t be this wide, much less in a place so prosperous for white people. It should be noted that disparities between whites and Latinos, and whites and Southeast Asians, are also incredibly pronounced here. And it should be doubly noted that Native Americans are the poorest residents in the city. Black people are not the only ones left behind in the “miracle of Minneapolis.”
During every crisis, well-meaning white people here make a ritual of acknowledging the city’s steep inequities, but we’ve been hearing the same “woe is you” sentiment for a long time. It’s as if people think the mere acknowledgment is the work. But as north Minneapolis prepares to brace ourselves for the grim future Detroit and Milwaukee have shown us, the death tolls suggest that acknowledgments don’t mean a thing. I want to take us back to this notion of remedy.
When I joined the City Council two years ago, I focused on housing stability and environmental justice. Last year we became the first city in the country to end single-family zoning, making more housing units possible. We passed inclusionary zoning, which requires a percentage of affordable housing on every project. The council president and I rewrote our housing-inspections approach to focus more on creating livable conditions, not just issuing citations. This allowed us to keep renters in place while holding their landlords accountable for safe, dignified conditions — a proposition that had previously been an either-or deal.
I stood with my constituents to fight a major polluter in the neighborhood, Northern Metals. It had been caught lying about its emissions — spewing lead, cobalt, chromium, nickel and other dangerous particulates that can cause asthma.
The courts seemed determined to give the company a soft landing. It had been given years to shut down, but when the deadline came, the company asked for an extension and kept operating. Then it was caught lying about its emissions again. Finally, on Sept. 23, 2019, more than 30 months after it had first been caught, Northern Metals was sent packing.
Northern Metals paid nearly $3 million in fines to the state, but just a fraction of that went to the people most harmed. Given their lifelong health issues, it was pennies when fortunes are owed.
We’re now learning that underlying conditions like asthma can be a death sentence for people of any age if they come down with COVID-19. Staring down the barrel of this threat, it feels like we’re too late. The real fight isn’t won by defeating Northern Metals. The real fight is won when the air is clean — an ask that is always made to feel far-fetched.
Discrimination shouldn’t just end; the inequity it causes should be remedied.
In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicled the carefully designed circumstances that have placed black people, by and large, in a position of low wealth in America. It’s not a force of nature, it’s not even a puzzle — the how we got here is known and the path out is knowable.
In modern American politics, the concept of reparations is still more fantasy than viable policy option. Name-dropping it may get you applause from certain crowds, but the discussion typically ends there. We should have found a way to pay out reparations long ago. Now this pandemic is bringing forward the full horror of our inability to reckon with America’s history of racial terror. For many black people experiencing the disproportionate impact of this crisis, any solution will come too late; the consequences of our inaction are too final.
Leaving Detroit, I thought about the disproportionate number of black folks dying from the coronavirus because they had asthma, diabetes or hypertension. Because they had limited access to affordable, healthy food. Because they lived near factories. Because they couldn’t afford to visit a doctor or because they couldn’t afford to miss work. Because their blood pressure was perpetually too high from a lifetime of being stressed out by all of the above.
I thought about how predictable this all was. How preventable.
Remembering the funeral, the absence of hugs, the absence of a full church and the absence of Nana, I pictured all the funerals happening — or being postponed — in New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee and elsewhere.
Last week, I learned that Nana had tested positive for the coronavirus, and knowing that makes me angrier — as if she didn’t truly pass but was snatched from us.
In my last conversation with Nana, about a month ago, she called to tell me she’d seen a clip of me on CNN giving a speech at a Bernie Sanders rally: “Guess who just saw your black behind on TV all the way from here in Detroit?”
She teased me, about my shirt and my facial hair, and told me they didn’t actually play any of the audio from my speech, but that she was excited anyway. Before hanging up, she took on her serious tone, where her voice gets just a little deeper but you can still tell she’s smiling ear to ear: “I’m proud of you, kid. Keep doing great work.”
It’s a simple instruction. And no matter how futile the work can feel, I’m not going to let those words leave my mind.
Jeremiah Bey Ellison is a member of the Minneapolis City Council. He wrote this article for the New York Times. It was part of “The America We Need,” a Times Opinion series exploring how the nation can emerge from this crisis stronger, fairer and more free.