FERGUS FALLS, MINN. – When Tim Brennan buys groceries, volunteers at the local food pantry or eats at his favorite restaurant, he almost always sees people he knows.
As a retired police chief in this city of fewer than 15,000 residents, people often approach him to chat about their kids, their health or their latest round of golf. Like many of the nearly two dozen officers on the city’s force, Brennan coached his son’s youth sports team, participates in local civic organizations and attends church in the same community where he responded to calls for help and cited people for doing wrong.
“When you live and work in the community, you’re much more recognizable,” Brennan said.
That recognition is partly why many rural Minnesota residents see racial justice issues differently from those living in the state’s core cities, those who study the urban-rural divide say. Months after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, polls showed that voters in rural areas were less likely to believe racial disparities exist in the justice system or to see Floyd’s death as a sign of a broader problem in the treatment of Black people.
Diversity levels, social norms and politicization also play a role in shaping attitudes in both big cities and small towns.
“For people in rural areas, they think, ‘Well, I don’t see that much of a problem. I know cops and I think they’re good people,’ ” said Kristin Lunz Trujillo, who has studied the urban-rural divide as a Ph.D. student in the Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota. White people in urban areas are more apt to have co-workers, friends and neighbors who aren’t white, she said, and glimpse things from their perspective.
Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer, who has prioritized making his community welcoming to more diversity, said it’s a delicate issue that demands more understanding and less polarization.
“Can’t come at it and say how discriminatory our communities are. That automatically puts [people] on the defensive,” Schierer said. Most local residents want to be welcoming, he said. “They want to have a community that is equitable for all. They don’t see one that’s not.”
‘Completely uncalled for’
At a recent preelection rally, longtime area resident Wendy Fogard stood bundled against a cold wind in front of City Hall, holding a sign supporting law enforcement.
She knows the former sheriff, she said, and wanted to show her support for those who protect the community. She said she doesn’t see a systemic problem involving race.
“I do not live in the Cities, so I really don’t know,” she said, adding later that she believes people of color are probably treated “much more equally in rural areas.”
But one thing that was clear: “I think that the violence was completely uncalled for,” Fogard said.
In northern Minnesota, 65% of likely voters responding to a Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll in September said they believe civilian violence against people and property in U.S. cities was a bigger problem than police violence against Black people nationwide, compared with 36% in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
And 43% of northern Minnesota respondents said they believe the justice system does not treat Black and white people equally, compared with 84% of Minneapolis respondents in an August poll.
People around Fergus Falls didn’t talk much about racial inequality even after Floyd’s death, local residents said. But the burning and looting of buildings that followed made some here lose sympathy for racial justice causes, even though some of the violence was allegedly instigated by people who were not supporting that cause.
“One thing that I noticed almost right away … some people I would talk to … they think it’s just awful, the rioting and the violence,” said Peggy Underwood, a retired teacher who started a group to talk about equity and human rights. “They viewed that as the issue rather than the social justice.”
Many in rural areas see discrimination and mistreatment as isolated incidents from a few bad officers, Underwood and others said, and they believe many confrontations wouldn’t happen or escalate if suspects cooperated fully with police.
Many here seem to agree that Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin wasn’t acting reasonably when pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck, the mayor and retired chief said. But the calls to “defund” police don’t sit well, even if those calls are actually meant to reform how public safety works.
Spurred by a racist post
Underwood said she felt empathetic toward the social justice cause but didn’t engage in much conversation about it initially, not wanting to pick fights with neighbors.
Then a local business owner posted a racist rant on Facebook about Twin Cities riots.
“I was just very troubled by that,” Underwood said. “I think if somebody posted something like that, there’s other people that definitely agree with that sentiment.”
The post was shared and rebuked locally before the owner apologized, saying he was intoxicated and upset as he watched news coverage.
Underwood and a friend organized conversations about equity and human rights. Some 60 people attended the first virtual meeting.
“We’re a ways from the Twin Cities, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have our own issues … we have people who aren’t welcoming,” Underwood said.
With more than 95% of Otter Tail County’s 59,000 residents identifying as white, diversity isn’t seen or felt by most here. Underwood said she doesn’t have any close friends who are people of color.
“I need to be educated, too,” she said. “This was like, it couldn’t be ignored … I’d say we have a long ways to go, but at least the question has been asked and there are things we can do.”
Such sentiments are a relief to Victoria McWane-Creek, a Black resident and director of campus housing and residential life at the local community college who has been working on the issue since moving to the area 14 years ago.
Through the years, she said, she has noticed “a lot of minimizing in this area around issues of race, around issues of justice.” While people believe it isn’t an issue in small communities, she said, she can attest otherwise.
At a Labor Day picnic that she hosted for new students far from home, a car drove past with people shouting racial epithets, she said.
In her first two years living in the area, McWane-Creek was pulled over by law enforcement six times, she said. Reasons for the stops included something dangling from her rearview mirror, making a wide right-hand turn and speeding, she said. She never got a ticket.
McWane-Creek said she believed law enforcement was “just wanting to know who I was, this Black woman with an Afro driving around.”
The business owner’s Facebook rant felt personal, she said. She frequented the business and knew the owner, the parent of a high school friend of her son.
“I was devastated,” she said. “That’s what it is to be Black in rural communities. There’s no safe place.”
She cited other incidents, too, when law enforcement was called to check on people of color who weren’t doing anything wrong — something she calls “weaponizing the police.”
The dominant narrative on justice in the United States is individualistic — a view that bad individuals get what is coming to them, said Rob Eschmann, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at Boston University. In places where there are few people of color, the counter-idea — that there are underlying systemic problems that unfairly target minorities — doesn’t take hold.
“If you’re in a community where police know your name and they treat you with kindness and respect all the time and you’ve never heard of anyone having a different experience … then it would be easy for you to assume this is what everyone’s experience is when you are a law-abiding citizen,” Eschmann explained. “There aren’t very many Black folks that I’ve met that don’t at least know someone who has been mistreated by police.”
The incidents McWane-Creek faced in rural Minnesota underscore white privilege, she said — something many rural residents don’t realize that they live with.
Local leaders and experts agree that concept doesn’t hit home in rural areas where some resent the big cities and often feel their needs and perspectives are overlooked in infrastructure, economic gains and changing social norms driven by urban areas.
People everywhere face social pressures to conform with the communities around them, Lunz Trujillo and other experts noted.
Schierer said that even among white rural residents who are open to learning about systemic problems “some, in their lived experiences, don’t see the inequities that others experience in their daily lives.”
Though he said rural areas will be better off by being more inclusive and rural people have a role to play in stopping societal inequities: “It’s hard when they’re being accused of being a problem that they don’t recognize.”
Schierer and others trying to bring more diversity to the area are working to find commonalities in a debate where the loud voices often represent the extremes, he said.
People getting to know each other better and talking in person — not shouting on social media and not immediately pointing fingers — can make the difference, he believes.
“I think we know each other well enough to have conversations that are necessary,” Schierer said. “If we don’t do it at the local level, it’s not going to happen.”