The Resegregation of America: 50 Years After Civil Rights Movement, Cities Remain Stubbornly Divided Along Racial Lines

Officer Tim Biermaier lets kids sit on his motorcycle during a St. Paul Police Department community engagement program in the city’s Hazel Park, which is intended to foster better relations between the police and residents they serve. (MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/STAFF)
Officer Tim Biermaier lets kids sit on his motorcycle during a St. Paul Police Department community engagement program in the city’s Hazel Park, which is intended to foster better relations between the police and residents they serve. (MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/STAFF)

When Michael Kleber-Diggs heard about the police shooting of Philando Castile not far from his house in this Minnesota city, an uncomfortable truth hit him: That could have been me.

Mr. Kleber-Diggs, a risk manager for a logistics company, is black and married to a white woman. The couple has a teenage daughter and lives in a predominantly white neighborhood close to Falcon Heights, the suburb where Mr. Castile had been pulled over for a traffic stop with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter when Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him multiple times.

“Within our house, we have two fairly different experiences,” says Kleber-Diggs, sitting in the parlor of his Craftsman-style home in the Como Park neighborhood. He says he is regularly followed home by squad cars after dropping off his daughter at dance class or visiting his mother, who lives two blocks away from the place where Castile was killed.

His wife, however, has never faced these problems. She grew up in Northfield, south of the Twin Cities, and is a “prototypical Minnesotan,” he says. “Her interaction with the police, her life with the police, is significantly different than mine has been.”

The couple’s different experiences speak to a growing gulf between the lives of white and black people in the Twin Cities – and much of the United States as a whole. While the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is known for its prosperity and well-educated population, it also has some of the worst racial disparities in the country.

The state has one of the largest gaps between African-
American and white incarceration rates in the US. Blacks in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region have some of the highest poverty rates among the nation’s large metropolitan areas. And no city in the country has a worse record of race-based mortgage-lending discrimination.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” says Yusef Mgeni, who serves on the board of the St. Paul branch of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “One of them is bright and hopeful and the other one horrific, if you’re poor or a person of color. The evidence is too thoroughly documented to debate.”

Mr. Mgeni says that Castile’s death and the police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis last November are examples of that “horrific” reality.

But while both President Obama and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton called race a key factor in Castile’s death, less attention has been given to the role of another fundamental force in American society – segregation. More than a half century after the civil rights era, many urban neighborhoods and institutions in American life remain unintegrated and, experts say, segregation is a primary driver in creating economic and social disparities and straining relations between police and the communities they serve.

The enduring forms of segregation – and in the case of many schools, resegregation – contribute to mistrust between the races and a lack of understanding and empathy, and can lead to violent encounters between law enforcement authorities and residents. Indeed, researchers and community organizers like Mgeni say that segregation is an often overlooked common denominator in many of the cities that have seen high-profile police shootings in recent years.

“You’re kind of looking at the greatest hits of segregation: Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis,” says Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, referring to the police killings of Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and Castile. “They are places where the black and white realities are really different for people for both race and class.”

These different realities can become flashpoints when police officers living in white neighborhoods work in predominantly black neighborhoods. Suspicion and fear sway the thinking of both sides as communities and officers struggle to understand each other.

“When you live in a society where there are really distinct communities on the basis of race, distrust grows and the potential for incidents like this are much higher,” says Mr. Orfield. “In places in the country that are less socially and racially segregated, I think these things are less likely to happen and less likely to have such an enormous outcry if they do.”

In a study coming out this fall, Orfield found that police are much more likely to shoot people of all races in segregated neighborhoods, and they are much more likely to shoot black people in white neighborhoods than anybody else.

“We have a lot of African-Americans who are feeling occupied in their communities by police,” says Natalie Y. Moore, author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” Chicago has seen several high-profile police shootings in recent years, including the killing of teenager Laquan McDonald on the city’s South Side.

“Segregation is the common denominator that we see in these communities,” she says. “If we’re going to effectively address race relations, we have to address our separateness.”

That separateness can be seen along the east-west artery of Lake Street in Minneapolis, which becomes Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. The road starts in Cedar-Isles-Dean, an 88 percent white neighborhood on Minneapolis’s west side, and continues east through the predominantly black neighborhood of Philips and the white neighborhood of Longfellow before becoming Marshall Avenue. In St. Paul, the road cuts through the 78 percent white neighborhood of Union Park before ending in Summit-University, a historically black area that is now a more integrated neighborhood.

“Lake Street is a microcosm for the rest of the city in a lot of ways,” says artist and storyteller Jeremiah Bey Ellison. “You could probably see the entire wealth gap driving down this street.”

Mr. Ellison is standing in front of his newest mural, a black-and-white painting on the side of an abandoned warehouse on Lake Street in Minneapolis. He painted the mural with a group of nine other artists the night after Castile was killed.

In bold, stylized letters the piece demands: “What do we tell our children when education didn’t matter, compliance didn’t matter, age didn’t matter, your guilt/innocence didn’t matter, our outrage didn’t matter, straight up HD evidence didn’t matter?”

The question speaks to Ellison’s frustration with racism and segregation in the place he calls home. Ellison grew up in a politically active household in north Minneapolis, a neighborhood with a large black and Asian population. His father is US Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first African-American to be elected to the House of Representatives from Minnesota and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.

“I was raised in this bubble of Minneapolis, which is a city that was mostly white. But from my vantage point as a 6-year-old or a 7- or 8-year-old, it was a very black and brown city,” he says of the neighborhood where he grew up.

Ellison says that it wasn’t until high school that he started to see the city differently. He went to a private college preparatory school in another neighborhood where he was one of only two young black men in his graduating class.

“In high school, I came up against a lot more overt racism that started to instill [in me] a good degree of resentment and distrust that maybe wasn’t there before,” says Ellison. “Anything from rates of suspension, to interpersonal dynamics between you and your classmates, to the curriculum not fully reflecting the history that you know about yourself back to you. Those are the ways in which I really feel like I started to relate to white people in a different way, when I got to an age where I started to recognize those things and compare those things to the neighborhood that I was going back to each day and saying, ‘There’s a large discrepancy here between the history I know and what I’m learning at school.’ ”

When Jamar Clark was killed last November by Minneapolis police officers, that discrepancy became even clearer. Mr. Clark was shot just four blocks away from the house Ellison grew up in and he used to party in the row houses there. Ellison decided he needed to do something. He joined the scores of protesters who camped out in front of the Fourth Precinct police station for weeks.

After police killed Castile just eight months later, Ellison again went out to the large protest that was forming, this time outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul. But ultimately Ellison decided he wanted to make a bolder statement with his artwork.

“We’re trying to tell the story of how people feel and how out of control people feel and unsafe,” he says. “There’s a general feeling that if things don’t change, the language we’re using is going to move away from reform and toward [advocating the abolition of police forces altogether]. They’re that fed up.”

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SOURCE: Nissa Rhee
Christian Science Monitor