Living in America

Meet the neighbors

Tracking arrests for "violent offenses" during the same period, the Council on Crime and Justice reported that for most of the 1990s, blacks were 30 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes than whites. Last month, Mother Jones studied crime statistics from 2000 for all 50 states; Minnesota ranked first in the nation for the greatest disparity between white and black incarcerations.

Earlier this year, Michael Munson, a planning analyst at the Metropolitan Council, put together a study that looked at income levels for metro-area residents going back to 1970. Munson's "Trouble at the Core Revisited" powerfully illuminates the ongoing dynamics of urban poverty and white flight. In 1970, according to the study, there were just a handful of neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul where more than 25 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. By 1980, those pockets of poverty spread to include most of the cores of both cities, encompassing mostly black areas on the north side and in the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, and on the West and East sides of St. Paul. By 2000, poverty had a seemingly intractable hold in those areas. Crime statistics from the Minneapolis Police Department through the same period show that as the city's poverty rate climbed, so, too, did the crime rate.

At the same time, minority populations have been growing in the cities and the first-ring suburbs. By Munson's estimates, some 86,000 more "nonwhites" and "white Hispanics" were living in the urban core in 2000 than in 1980. In the first-ring suburbs, the minority population grew by 58,000. During the same period, the number of whites living in the urban core decreased by 52,000, and another 62,000 fled the first-ring suburbs. In that 20-year span, "developing areas" of the metro--mostly outer-ring suburbs--attracted 465,000 more white residents.

For the last quarter century, the Twin Cities area has had a relatively low poverty rate--just under 7 percent in 1979 and 1999--compared to the national average of 12.4 percent for those years. But this could be attributed to one dynamic: Minimal and decreasing poverty rates for whites, and significant and consistent poverty rates for minorities. In 2000, about three percent of whites in the metro lived in poverty, while for blacks, Asians, American Indians, and Hispanics, that figure was around 20 percent or higher. And in 1990, the year before the USA Today story about drug arrest disparities, nearly 40 percent of all blacks in the metro lived in poverty, compared with five percent of whites.

The economic boom of the mid-1990s lowered overall poverty rates in the metro, but by 2000, the pockets of poverty in the inner cities continued to expand. And these were the neighborhoods where immigrants and refugees tended to settle. In other words, the community financial hardships that have burdened black Americans for decades are now afflicting the new arrivals, introducing scores of new Minnesotans to poverty and limited opportunity.

 

These new Twin Citians live mostly in places like Frogtown and the East Side in St. Paul, Lake Street and Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis--places that for 30 years have represented the worst of what white flight can do to city neighborhoods. In some respects, financial disparities aside, the new arrivals have been a boon: Neighborhoods long left for dead have been revitalized with new cultural identities.

But it's just as telling to note that roughly only one-eighth of Minnesotans live in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Conventional wisdom says, and not without reason, that most Minnesotans have little interaction with our refugees and immigrants, and that's the way they like it.

"It's the hot-button issue right now, this notion of 'assimilation' or 'integration,'" says the Humphrey Center's Fennelly. "This is what we expect the newcomers to do right away. But it's chilling. It doesn't let the immigrants bring with them their various contributions to our culture."

More concretely, open hostility toward foreign-born residents has become the norm. The post-9/11 crackdown on Somali wire services locally was heralded as counter-terrorism, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines: You're not like the rest of us. And Governor Tim Pawlenty campaigned, in part, on his desire to see residential status noted on all new driver's licenses, an idea seriously considered at the Capitol this past session.

Again, the notion had its roots in post-9/11 paranoia, but HACER's Fuentes sees it in a different light. "It's telling people that we're going to root out those illegal Mexicans, and it's a dishonest dialogue," says Fuentes, who was born and raised in St. Paul. "At the very least, it uses race politics to fuel the belief that Mexicans are stealing jobs."

Nearly everyone close to immigrants and refugees is eager to dispel the myth that the new residents are welfare cases. "They are ready to be Americans and work before they come here," Borden says, underscoring his point by noting the English classes, nursing classes, and computer-training classes going on daily at the International Institute. "The idea that they would come here and not work never dawns on them. They want jobs."

Which may be exactly what unsettles so many Minnesotans. Since the mid-1990s, Fennelly has been studying the expansion of food-processing plants in small-town Minnesota, most notably in places like Faribault and Owatonna, and noting what happens as Somalis and Mexicans become the dominant workforce in town.

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