Samuel Myers Jr. Q&A

July 20, 2020
Samuel Myers Jr. is one of Minnesota's foremost scholars on racial disparities.

“Minnesotans do not think of themselves as racists in the same vein as southern racists. Because the common definition of racism understood in Minnesota is the form of individual racism, Minnesotans have difficulty understanding other forms of racism, such as institutionalized racism or unconscious bias.”

You have used the term “The Minnesota Paradox” for describing our state’s tendency to express concern about racial disparities but reluctance to acknowledge systemic discrimination. Why do you feel we have such a hard time making this leap?

Minnesotans do not think of themselves as racists in the same vein as southern racists. Because the common definition of racism understood in Minnesota is the form of individual racism, Minnesotans have difficulty understanding other forms of racism, such as institutionalized racism or unconscious bias.

Do you feel like Minnesota is more susceptible than other states to such a paradox? 

Minnesota is more susceptible because of the exceptional performance of whites in the state. Unlike other states like Michigan or Ohio with larger black populations and also large white populations concentrated in declining manufacturing industries, Minnesota employs whites in thriving industries, such as biomedical and medical supplies, and has a history of progressive politics.

You have written about Minnesota’s legacy of asset accumulation by white people. How long have you been studying this topic?  

Much of what is known about the Homestead Act and FHA and VA loans is based on national data. When the Wilkins Center hosted its first national conference in 1994 on housing disparities with a small grant from HUD, little was said about why whites do well. Most of the papers and presentations at the conference focused on why blacks do poorly. It was then that the peculiar instance of the wide gaps in homeownership in Minnesota came to light to me. Most of my work before that time — I arrived in Minnesota in 1992 — had focused on national patterns. Then, Yusef Mgeni, the president and CEO of the Urban Coalition, invited the Wilkins Center to collaborate with the Urban Coalition to produce a community facing report on homeownership disparities in Minnesota and the Twin Cities. With the help of Allan Malkis and others at the Urban Coalition, we produced a collaborative report called “The 50-30 Plan,” which was an action-oriented plan designed to increase minority homeownership. It had substantial support from legislators in both parties and leading banks. Then, we experienced 9/11 and national and local concerns about racial disparities in housing markets dissipated as attention turned to the war on terror and other issues.

How pervasive has redlining been in lending practices in Minnesota’s history? Is it still going on? 

Redlining has left a legacy of differential homeownership rates in different zip codes and different housing prices in different zip codes. The result today is not so much a problem of redlining but a problem of credit access in formerly redlined areas. What redlining did was institutionalize racial segregation, and now that redlining no long explicitly exists, it persists through other market mechanisms, such as credit scores and underwriting.

What are a couple of race neutral strategies citizens and policymakers can enact to provide a better environment in Minnesota? 

The bigger question is whether race-neutral strategies work, whether they are efficient, and whether they help the groups they are intended to help. Race-neutral strategies like credit repair programs or homeownership workshops are appealing in Minnesota because they address one aspect of the problem without confronting racism or racial discrimination. Why not confront racial discrimination in lending directly? Why not enforce the existing laws that ban discrimination in housing and in credit?

You’ve noted that a barrier for some white people is having an egalitarian philosophy and denying there is a problem of race. Would you say that’s more a factor of naivete or laziness? 

Both.