The gaps in economic progress between whites and minorities in the Twin Cities are partly explained by factors other than racial bias, such as the youth of communities of color, a major new research study suggests.

Even after accounting for those differences, many disparities in employment, income and homeownership persist — especially between white and black residents — the Metropolitan Council study concluded.

The research, to be unveiled Tuesday by Gov. Mark Dayton, was prompted by questions from members of the Met Council: Why does a metro area as progressive as the Twin Cities wind up with some of the nation’s starkest racial and ethnic disparities?

“If you equalize on issues like education, or age, if you hold those constant, can you determine what is actually causing the differences in outcome?” asked Gary Cunningham, an African-American who has long pursued issues of racial justice and now leads a key Met Council committee.

The research is relevant for the Met Council as it seeks to make racial equity a major focus of its planning efforts in the Twin Cities, in housing, parks and other areas. Dayton, who appoints Met Council members, has offered up a $100 million plan to tackle racial disparities.

Last year, data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that median income for black households in Minnesota fell 14 percent in a single year, deepening the divide among ethnic groups.

The new study, which shows blacks with a much more stubborn set of gaps than Asians or Hispanics, already is drawing criticism.

Bruce Corrie of Concordia University, a native of India who has long been a leading voice on immigration, said the quest comes off as a theoretical exercise, not fully tethered to reality: an effort to “prove how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin.”

To treat Asians as a single group, for instance, is to sidestep vast differences, he said. “The Hmong came as refugees. Indians came via fiber-optic cables, so to speak, and have high levels of economic assets. Two different groups within ‘Asians.’ ”

Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of HACER, Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, also was wary. “This is theoretical work that can overlook realities on the ground,” he said.

Met Council analyst Matt Schroeder said the research aimed to grapple with the question, “ ‘If we could wave a magic wand and make 98 percent of black residents born in the U.S. like whites, what would the outcomes look like?’ And for many different characteristics.”

At times, the research found, an apples-to-apples comparison makes a big difference. Analysts wrote:

“Removing the influence of eight demographic differences completely eliminates the gap for Latino residents relative to white residents, but the employment rate for blacks and Asians would remain below that of white residents.”

Similarly, “Adjusting for differences in age, immigration profile and English skills eliminates the wage gap between white workers and Asians, somewhat closes the wage gap for Latino workers, but barely closes the wage gap for black workers.”

Tom Gillaspy, former state demographer, said the new research is useful as far as it goes but, given the U.S. census data used as its source, it cannot account for such factors as criminal records, which heavily influence people’s lives. Criminal records can result from racial bias, he added, but illustrate the challenges in tracing the reasons for gaps such as income.

“It is important to remember,” he said, “though not noted in the report, that this is not an academic paper but an attempt to determine what types of policy actions might work and what their impact might be. And, of course, recognition that we have a problem is the first step in addressing the problem.”

The Met Council’s Schroeder acknowledged the validity of some of the critiques but did say that he ran numbers of the Hmong separate from Asians as a group and found them to look more like Latinos than like most Asian immigrants.

A key finding, Cunningham said, is that racial and ethnic gaps are long-standing issues in the Twin Cities, long predating the immigrant population waves of the past 20 years or so.

If gaps for blacks work out to be far harder to deal with than for the other groups, he said, one must look to decades of history.

“I once did an analysis of ZIP codes in north Minneapolis that showed the ratio of men to women in 2000 was 75 men to 100 women, where everywhere else it was 106 to 100,” Cunningham said. “That’s the dynamics of the criminal justice system, the ‘war on drugs,’ which took a huge toll. It’s a wicked problem: No one agrees what the definition of the problem is, so therefore we don’t agree on a solution.”

Cunningham recently published an article in a national newsletter declaring:

“It is the time for all of us to wake up, to not just admit we have a problem but to name it and own it together. It’s time to change the old patterns that have wasted so much human potential. It is time for a new narrative that spells out how we can move forward together.”

 

Staff writer Shannon Prather contributed to this report.