Civil rights advocates have spent 50 years warning Minneapolis that segregation couldn’t work.

At first, Twin Cities leaders listened, creating innovative plans to integrate housing and schools. But they eventually abandoned those plans. Instead, the region adopted a separate-but-equal approach that tried to uplift poor neighborhoods by pouring money into poverty-oriented programs, like affordable housing and charter schools. It enriched the wrong people and failed to close racial gaps.

This month, the region’s persistent racial inequality and social isolation broke out into fiery unrest.

In 1967, nationwide rioting broke out in the wake of police brutality aimed at black Americans. In response, President Lyndon Johnson launched a panel, known as the Kerner Commission, to study causes of the violence. The commission’s conclusions were stark.

It attributed unrest to living conditions in segregated urban neighborhoods. It recommended both that the conditions in those neighborhoods be improved, and that the neighborhoods be desegregated. In education, the commission recommended ending so-called “de facto” segregation in northern cities, and efforts to improve what it termed “ghetto schools.”

With regard to housing, the commission recommended both the creation of better urban housing, and the elimination of residential segregation, because “[a] single society cannot be achieved so long as this cornerstone of segregation stands.”

But in Minnesota, only half the Kerner recommendations have survived. To the state’s credit, it spent several decades implementing a regionwide program to integrate housing, and a school desegregation plan. But in the 1990s, state political and philanthropic leaders axed those policies and refocused on improving segregated neighborhoods.

Minnesota leaders described this as “place-based” development. New affordable housing is constructed, but only in areas that are already low-income. School resources are targeted to poor schools, while little effort is made to desegregate white, affluent suburban schools. This approach is politically easier than desegregation, because it leaves rich neighborhoods untouched. But it also leaves segregation in place, and creates powerful institutions with a financial stake in maintaining the segregated status quo.

The Twin Cities region has a well-funded affordable housing industry. In 2020, Minnesota’s governor sought $276 million in housing bonds, in addition to about $150 million in federal tax credits. Much of this kind of funding is awarded to nonprofit community development corporations, which are usually based in poor and segregated neighborhoods with little economic growth. The community developers use their public subsidies to construct affordable housing projects in those areas, restricted to low-income tenants.

For these community developers, low-income housing represents a reliable stream of operating revenue — the public subsidies received for these projects can exceed $500,000 per unit of housing. But for residents, this system provides dubious benefit: It restricts new affordable housing to areas that are already economically struggling, limiting housing choice and preserving the region’s segregated living patterns.

When a civil rights complaint was filed against the state for this practice in 2015, the state’s community development corporations intervened. They argued, falsely, that nothing in the Fair Housing Act required government-subsidized housing to be built in integrated areas. Notably, the people who own and run these companies often do not reflect the diverse communities they serve — one 2007 poll suggested 85% of managers were white.

Segregated schools in the urban core receive resources, but their segregation is left untouched. For example, in 2019, Minneapolis’s poorest high school, which was 89% black, was allocated $20,000 per student. By comparison, the high school in the wealthy suburb of Edina — 82% white and 4% black — spent $13,000 per student.

Despite this, a student in Edina is about 15 to 20 times as likely to be proficient on state tests. On average Twin Cities schools in areas of concentrated poverty receive about $4,000 more per student than schools outside those areas.

In order to address this gap in outcomes, Minnesota invented charter schools. Charters are private nonprofits that were envisioned as a way to close achievement gaps without committing to a metro wide desegregation program. The state exempted charters from desegregation rules in 1999, and 45 of the state’s 50 most segregated schools are now charters.

Standardized test scores in charters are lower than in traditional schools, even after controlling for demographics. Charter schools have fought desegregation in Minnesota courts, with some advocates openly arguing that racial groups learn best separately. Charters even employed the same expert witnesses used by white-run school districts fighting desegregation in the 1970s.

The Twin Cities was not alone in embracing these programs. Today, most subsidized housing construction in the U.S. is conducted through private developers operating in poor neighborhoods, as in Minnesota. Charter schooling has grown rapidly nationwide.

But in the Twin Cities, the singular focus on place-based development has distorted the relationship between segregated neighborhoods and the rest of the region, socially isolating them without curing their disparities. Last month, the futility of these efforts has become clearer than ever. The billions in resources Minneapolis has directed toward its low-income areas were not enough to address their social dislocation. Communities of color were still separate and treated as second-class. Faced with an appalling act of violence, their anger exploded. Now their suffering is the nation’s as well.

 

Myron Orfield is the Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, and Director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. Will Stancil is a research fellow at the Institute.