By almost any measure, Minnesota is plagued by racial disparities. In unemployment. In the percentage of people in poverty. In homeownership. And in other areas as well.

Several readers wanted to know what’s behind the inequities and contacted Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project.

First we needed to verify that the inequalities are still among the nation’s worst.

We analyzed disparities between whites and blacks using the American Community Survey that was conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau between 2013 and 2017.

We found that while conditions of black residents are frequently no worse in Minnesota than in other states, the disparity — the gap between whites and blacks — is among the largest in the country.

For example, poverty among whites in Minnesota is about 7%, while the rate is more than four times higher at 32% for blacks, the third biggest gap in the country.

Statewide unemployment was 8% for blacks compared with 3% for whites, the fourth biggest gap; and U.S. Department of Education data show reading test scores of black fourth-graders are much lower than whites, the second widest gap of the 41 states that tested enough black students.

Gaps also exist between Hispanics and whites, though not as pronounced. American Indians are poorer than any group, but it’s difficult to compare because the Indian population is too small in many states.

The reason for Minnesota’s very large black-white disparities, compared with other states, has been a puzzle.

It’s referred to as “the Minnesota paradox” in a 2018 book co-authored by Samuel L. Myers Jr., director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Myers contends that the large gap is largely due to special benefits made available over time to the white population that led to substantially higher wealth than blacks. And he argues that wealth results from the favored treatment whites have long received from banks in making loans.

In a 2015 study he co-authored, lending practices of the 50 largest banks in the Twin Cities from 2008 to 2013 were analyzed. The study found that minorities are disproportionately more likely to have loan applications rejected, and the gap in denial rates is not solely due to socio-economic characteristics, such as credit risk or income.

“How is it possible for poorly educated whites to have homeownership that is higher than middle income, well-educated blacks?” Myers asked.

Roots of those disparities go back decades, he argues.

Indeed, homeownership rates underscore gaps: 76% of households headed by a white person own their home, compared with 24% for blacks, the third widest gap in the nation.

“Owning the land is what gives people stability in their lives, to build community and to build wealth,” said Kirsten Delegard, a public historian and director of Mapping Prejudice, a project that uncovered 30,000 so-called racial covenants in deeds in Hennepin County. The covenants, which barred blacks from buying in white-designated neighborhoods, were written into deeds from 1910 to 1950.

The privileges of whites go back much further, Delegard and Myers argue, to when American Indians were forced off their land in the 1860s.

“You have a legacy of asset accumulation in Minnesota [by] white people [that] can’t be explained by education, by training, by family structure, by native ability or intelligence,” Myers said.

The country was founded on white supremacy, says Mahmoud El-Kati, history professor emeritus at Macalester College. Whites in Minnesota, he says, expect the problems to be solved by black people, but the problems cannot be solved without help from white people and institutions controlled by whites.

Doug Hartmann, chair of the sociology department at the U, said “the real privilege, wealth and general success of whites in Minnesota is at such a high level that it creates a gap.”

He said that a more subtle “post-civil rights” racism exists among Minnesotans, who often like to think of themselves as liberal.

“It actually kind of blinds them to not only these racial gaps as well as the problems in our society and institutions, which are perpetuating those gaps,” he said. “Basically we so want to believe we are not racist, we are blind to color. We don’t even see the way that race still matters.”