Sunday, May 31, 2020

When Nothing Seems to Change: Some Thoughts About Minneapolis

I've always found it amusing to read "let's predict the future" articles-- newspaper and magazine editors throughout history have looked into their proverbial crystal ball to tell readers what the world of tomorrow had in store. Often, their predictions didn't quite pan out-- I recall a 1900 newspaper article that predicted flying cars within the next fifty years; and the ability to make contact with other planets by telephone was supposed to be coming along very soon.  But I also recall a 1921 article that predicted by the late 1970s, there would be a small, radio-like device that would fit in your pocket and be able to read stories to you (an audacious prediction at the time-- radios back then were large, cumbersome to operate, and the technology for listening to a recorded program hadn't been invented).

I recently found my copy of the January 2000 copy of Emerge, a news magazine aimed at the black community. This was their futurist edition, where they predicted what life would be like 20 years from now, in society in general and in the black community in particular. They got it right when predicting the technology 20 years into the future: they predicted the "smart home," where you could get appliances to work just by giving a command, and they said by 2020, your computer and your TV and your phone would all have merged into one unit (the word "device" was not yet in common use in late 1999). Emerge also predicted a black president (although they didn't name anyone in particular-- Barack Obama was not well-known yet). And the writers predicted that the Black middle class would continue to grow.  In fact, the articles were generally positive and optimistic, with lots of practical suggestions for preparing the next generation of young Black leaders.

Unfortunately, there would be no follow-up issue in January 2020 to assess how accurate those earlier articles had been:  Emerge suddenly, and unexpectedly, went out of business a few months after the January 2000 issue came out-- something that, evidently, nobody at the magazine predicted.  And sad to say, the optimistic vision in the magazine was only partially accurate: while the black middle class has continued to grow, a huge wealth gap between white and minority families persists. This is especially true in Minneapolis, the scene of ongoing protests the past few nights, as anger intensified over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police.  I am not going to comment on the protests-- many others have done so already. But I'd like to discuss what life is like for minorities in Minneapolis, where the wealth gap is one of the biggest in the nation:  The median income for African-Americans there is $36,000, compared to about $70,000 for the average white family.  And only 19.8% of African-Americans in Minneapolis own their own home, while as many as 70% of whites do.

Over all, Minneapolis is a beautiful city; I've been there many times, and still have friends there. But Minneapolis has a problem I've seen all too often: like many cities (including Boston), its Black residents have generally been relegated to some of the worst neighborhoods, with below-average schools and less access to transportation or new technologies.  They were often blamed for their own poverty, as if public policies and systemic racism had not contributed to their situation: it is well-documented, for example, that even in elementary school, Black kids are suspended for behaviors that are excused in white kids; and later on, Black young people who get in trouble are more likely to be sent to jail than their white counterparts. (Mr. Floyd was accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill; four officers went to the scene to arrest him-- a reaction that I doubt would occur if someone from a "nice" neighborhood had been similarly accused.)  Yes, on some levels, we've come a long way from what life was like in the era of segregation: there are more minority members of congress, more minority mayors, doctors, business executives, and college graduates.

And yet, the future for the average African-American kid in 2020 is still not what it should be.  For far too long, many people (especially certain politicians around election time) have given lip service to promoting equality and combating racism; but when it came time for finding and implementing actual solutions, it was just more of the same.  I hope that doesn't happen again this time. I hope that even amid the chaos and the anger, there will be the will to create something better.  I'd like to see that optimistic vision the writers in Emerge offered finally become a reality.  And while I can't predict the future, I know if we keep doing the same thing that we've done before, we'll get the same result; and innocent people will once again pay the price for our society's unwillingness to change.

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