Frustrated by life in Kansas City, her hometown, LaDonna Funderburke decided to migrate from Kansas north to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. It was a logical choice: The area has a reputation for progressive politics, healthy lifestyles and a thriving cultural scene.
“Where I’m from, people are pretty much forthright about how they see your place as a Black person,” says Funderburke, 53.
It didn’t take long, however, for her to realize the good life in the Twin Cities was harder to achieve if you’re African American. Racially tinged microaggressions – subtle insults cloaked by “Minnesota Nice” politeness – jacked up Funderburke’s stress levels and eroded her confidence.
“The (racial) lines are very blurred, and sometimes invisible,” she says. Crossing them “was like walking into a minefield. I fell into a severe depression.”
Funderburke’s move to Minnesota decades ago illustrates a quality-of-life contradiction borne out even today in the 2021 U.S. News Healthiest Communities rankings, an annual analysis of communities nationwide across dozens of factors that fuel and form health and well-being. While Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, ranks among the top 500 Healthiest Communities nationwide at No. 342, it achieves a dismal score of 15 out of 100 points in the equity category of the analysis, indicating an unequal burden across racial and ethnic groups in areas like poverty, educational attainment and premature death.
The story is similar in neighboring Ramsey County, home to St. Paul. Though not in the top 500, the county still scores within the top 26% of the nearly 3,000 counties included in the analysis. Yet it, too, performs poorly in equity, posting a score of just 28.
What had been a painful open secret among the area’s minority residents and public health officials, however, became front-page news in 2020, when George Floyd, a Black man, died when a white police officer knelt on his neck on a Minneapolis street corner.
Caught on bystander video, the murder touched off months of unrest in the area and nationwide: Protesters demanding justice for Floyd clashed with police cracking down on unruly demonstrations. The chaos unfolded amid a global pandemic that ravaged African Americans, exposing the vast gulf between Blacks and whites – and shining a spotlight on a region that had prided itself on racial equanimity.
Locals mourn the death of Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center on April 14, 2021, after he was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop on April 11.(Andrea Ellen Reed)
As outrage over Floyd’s death continued, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, acknowledged the underlying problem at a press conference a year ago.
“We have social determinants of health. You are born in this state – two babies sitting next to each other in the hospital – we can predict one’s going to live longer by the color of their skin,” Walz said last June.
Samuel L. Myers, Jr., an economist and public policy professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, affirms Walz’s assessment. He says Minnesota’s reputation as a great place to live has overshadowed the struggles of Black and other people of color in the state.
“Only after George Floyd did a national spotlight shine on the concept of the ‘Minnesota Paradox,'” Myers says. “Part of the national interest and attention seemed to reflect surprise and puzzlement by outsiders unfamiliar with the problems of racial inequality in Minnesota.”
Among experts, the paradox “has been known about and discussed for at least 20 years,” he says. “It’s about places like Hennepin County being one of the best places to live,” even as Blacks perform more poorly than whites in “mortality rates, morbidity rates – even drowning rates.”
Enter a cadre of nonprofits, community groups and philanthropic organizations – some mobilized by recent events, others stepping into the spotlight after previously working behind the scenes – that are trying to dismantle the paradox, one community, one household and one person at a time.
They range from organizations like The Family Partnership – a Minneapolis-based social services nonprofit that focuses on providing early education and improving behavioral health in underserved communities – to Black Visions, a group that describes itself as a “Black-led, Queer and Trans centering organization” committed to organizing “powerful, connected Black communities” and to dismantling “systems of violence.”
The McKnight Foundation, a locally based philanthropy, is doing its part: It’s committed to award $1 million in grants to organizations it believes are putting in the work to eliminate racial gaps in Minnesota.
The foundation “wanted to honor this moment,” says Tonya Allen, its president. The 10 grants of $100,000 each, she says, “will go to those who lived by or were affected by the uprisings” following Floyd’s death in May 2020, as well as organizations that are dedicated to advancing racial equity and justice.
Since Floyd’s murder put the area under scrutiny, “there’s been this unbelievable awareness and revelation” about the gulf between Blacks and whites in the Twin Cities, says Atum Azzahir, CEO of the Cultural Wellness Center, a organization focused on improving outcomes for African Americans through a holistic approach. Founded in 1996, its services range from tutoring and mentoring schoolchildren to support for new African American mothers and mothers-to-be, who are more likely to die in connection with pregnancy than whites.
The recent focus on Minnesota has been gratifying for “many of us who have remained invisible for many years,” Azzahir says. But the difficult work must continue, she says, “now that we’ve been found out.”
Data and state history outline the area’s plight.
Posters remembering Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, George Floyd and Philando Castile are seen near E. 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on April 14, 2021. The intersection is the site where Floyd was murdered in May 2020 by white police officer Derek Chauvin.(Andrea Ellen Reed)
Census figures show that Minnesota is more than 80% white, with a Black population of just 7%. Many of those residents, however, are concentrated in the Twin Cities metro area: In Ramsey County, the Black population is nearly 13%, while Blacks make up 14% of the population in Hennepin County – the highest percentage in the state.
“Part of the Minnesota Paradox is related to the fact that most Blacks in the state live in just a few” of the state’s 87 counties, says Myers, the UM professor.
Minnesota’s racial history is complex, as detailed by civil rights attorney Tina Burnside and others for a project of the Minnesota Historical Society. Though slavery was not permitted, military officers and others brought enslaved people to the area, including Dred Scott, who lost an 1857 Supreme Court case for citizenship. Separately, when a judge in Hennepin County freed an enslaved woman, Eliza Winston, who’d traveled with her owners from Mississippi, Winston had to flee an angry mob that rejected the decision.
In 1863, when a steamship towing a boat full of escaped slaves arrived in St. Paul, a crowd forced the ship to keep moving. Later on, as in other areas, discrimination in Minnesota restaurants, hotels and employment was common. Redlining and restrictive deed covenants – legal clauses that barred a home from being sold to minorities – confined Black residents to underserved urban communities and hindered wealth accumulation.
Nevertheless, African Americans were drawn to the area because of “the state’s early adoption of progressive public policies that helped reduce white poverty” in the 20th century, Myers says. As the decades passed, he says, “those policies faced retrenchment, partly because large numbers of Blacks arrived and partly because of (the government’s) financial concerns,” trying to keep the state’s books balanced while providing generous social benefits.
Rachel Hardeman, director of the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity – a newly created think tank at the University of Minnesota – says Minnesota’s self-image as a modern state that transcends race has whitewashed its checkered racial past. The disconnect between how white residents with liberal points of view see the state – and how Black residents experience it – has made the socioeconomic disparities more difficult to see.
“Minnesota prides itself on being incredibly progressive and egalitarian and liberal – the home of (the late Sen.) Paul Wellstone, and all of these incredible progressive or liberal leaders,” Hardeman says. But “white supremacy and liberalism or progressivism can exist together in ways that a lot of white folks haven’t realized.”
Studies have indicated that discrimination can fuel health problems in those that experience it, both mental and physical. And there can be a visceral impact: In 2016, when a police officer shot and killed Philando Castile, a Black man, in Ramsey County, Hardeman was conducting focus groups with pregnant women in the metro area. As news of the shooting raced across the region, Hardeman says, some of the Black women had the same intense reaction.
Azzahir, of the Cultural Wellness Center, understands that pain. Her organization has been working to reduce infant mortality in the Minneapolis area by providing prenatal health guidance as well as culturally relevant emotional support to Black mothers.
A young man dances during celebrations at the Juneteenth Cookout at Phelps Field Park in Minneapolis on June 19, 2020. (Andrea Ellen Reed)
“We started what we call birthing teams,” Azzahir says. “And those birthing teams would have a variety of ages, and a variety of people involved. And we went to everything from prenatal appointments to delivering to breastfeeding – the whole thing.”
That approach led the McKnight Foundation to award the Cultural Wellness Center the first of its $100,000 grants, says Allen, the foundation president. But cash grants alone, she says, aren’t “a silver bullet” that can correct decades of deep-seated injustice.
“The biggest drivers of inequality and disparities in the region are tied to systemic racism,” Allen says. “Systemic racism is pervasive and discriminatory behaviors (are) embedded in multiple systems of services, such as education, housing, criminal justice and health. It cannot be isolated to one issue.”
Funderburke, the fashion designer who moved to the Twin Cities from Kansas City in the early 1990s, agrees. After ditching her white therapist and weaning herself off mood-stabilizing prescription drugs, she sought healing through meditation, sound therapy and studying African American history. Funderburke now teaches workshops at the Cultural Wellness Center.
While the pandemic and last summer’s protests after Floyd’s death have brought high-level attention to health disparities in the area, Funderburke says fundamental change is necessary to improve the health of African Americans.
And it’s easy, she says, for the momentum of 2020 to fade in 2021.
“We’ve all seen it as Black people,” Funderburke says. “Something happens, and it is a call to action. We take to the streets, very vocal. White people get involved. And then all of a sudden, (the problem) slowly fades back into the fabric of America – again.”