The Little City That Couldn't

           THE SUNDAY NEW York Times piece on Minneapolis was so chock-full of commonplaces about the north country that one might have thought it was written by our own Chamber of Commerce were it not for the unfortunate pegging of the story to the local murder rate. But what a town it used to be. To the faint but unmistakable strains of Aaron Copland wafting off the page, one local lady was given to lament, "This was a place where people cared about each other, where you left the doors unlocked and let the kids play outside." All in all the reporter's impression was strikingly different from that of the black woman producer from NBC's Dateline who came to town last fall for a story. "Most racist city I've ever been in," she muttered just seconds after sitting down to coffee. She proceeded to describe what she deemed a surprisingly consistent mien of hostility and condescension encountered during her two days in town, ranging from clerks in the city bureaucracy to lawyers to cabbies.

           I bring her up because it's really skin caste we're talking about, though the Times with characteristic gentility declines to put it quite that way. The 1995 spike in Minneapolis's murder rate is no particular mystery. It's understandable in terms of the growing size and continued poverty of the local black populace, which is one of the very poorest in the country in per capita terms. The Times dutifully repeats the charge that it's "bad-apple newcomers from out of state" coming for the generous welfare benefits who are causing all the trouble. Governors and legislators the country round, take heed!

           Enough of this racist claptrap already. Yes, there has been a sizable migration from other, more beleaguered cities around the Midwest in the past 15 years, particularly as manufacturing jobs have left urban centers such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago/Gary. And yes, there has been an influx of gangsters looking to develop and conquer the local market in illicit substances. These are two separate phenomena. To conflate them into a conspiracy of the black hordes to lay waste to Lake Wobegon, as cops and commentators invariably do, is absurd. It's as if no one here can possibly imagine that a black family might relocate in the interest of finding work, not to mention safe living accommodations, as opposed to merely cadging welfare or selling crack.

           All the liberal preening aside, Minneapolis remains a pretty wretched place to be black. This cuts across socioeconomic strata. At the street level one can cite local black poverty statistics, the quasi-martial law of Operation Safe Streets, the urban policy mandate for "deconcentrating poverty," or the drastically skewed drug arrest figures mentioned here by Jennifer Vogel last week. On up the class ladder a bit, there are still more signs of a culture of reaction, at least in city government. The cost of settling civil rights-based employment claims against the city reportedly rose from the low five figures in the mid-1980s to over $2 million in 1993. The city just doesn't learn. The police department is presently facing civil suits filed by two black officers, Alisa Clemons and Don Banham, over treatment palpably different from that accorded to white officers. Tensions between Chief Bob Olson's administration and its black officers are running so high that a citizens' liaison committee has been asked to intervene.

           It isn't just the police department by any means. Sources close to City Hall say affirmative action director Larry Blackwell was recently dressed down for continuing to make an issue of the apparent falsification of records involving a number of self-professed Native Americans in the Minneapolis Fire Department. This is a matter of particular sensitivity now, because the Fire Department is the one city agency under a legal mandate to diversify its ranks, and if the apparently bogus Native American certifications are allowed to stand the city may be able to terminate the court-ordered program once and for all. The city's institutional memory seems trapped in the days when Minneapolis had a minuscule minority population that could be treated imperiously without threat of reprisal. The times may indeed be coming back around to Minneapolis's way of doing things, as the Supreme Court's latest pronouncement on affirmative action attests, but that's hardly an endorsement, is it?

           ONE OF THE things I treasure most about Annabelle, my stepdaughter-to-be, is her fondness for really gruesome toys, which recently led her to fix her sights upon Chaos, a plastic ape with a pink punk 'do. Reading the box later, we discovered that Chaos was one of a series of beasts in the Primal Rage line. The copy was a lesson in the poetics of ideological indoctrination. "In the near future," it went, "a great meteor collides into Earth--a cataclysmic chain reaction causes civilization as we know it to crumble.... From out of the rubble emerge immense dino-beasts, who have lain dormant for 60 million years deep within the earth. It is their fate to battle each other for control of the new 'Urth'.... [R]aw animal instincts become the only hope for survival. It is a time of fury, where all existence is governed by the brutal struggle for domination and the answer to one question: Who shall survive in the world of Primal Rage(TM)?"

           There you have it: the end of civil society and the ruthless encroachment of the market, where all accounts are settled by quick wits and "animal instincts." It seems there's no corner of the culture that market-think hasn't permeated by now. A principal function of ideology, as Marx noted, has always been to render man-made power relations as natural fact and therefore immutable. In that regard it's interesting to note that Darwin, who is always invoked whenever the natural order is transposed on the social, actually borrowed the phrase "survival of the fittest" from Herbert Spencer, who coined it to describe the workings of the economic system he would most like to see.

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