May 2, 2022
Diane Wilson is an award-winning writer, speaker, and editor.
“I’ve never been that fond of academic history that is overly burdened with theory and jargon, mostly because I’ve always considered my work to be part of a larger project to help people understand the present by understanding the past, not just other professional historians but readers in general. So, I do what I can to find and tell compelling stories, about individuals, organizations, and events, and sometimes maps and photographs complement that.”
For most of the last two decades I’ve been writing about the history of the American environmental movement, particularly the ways class and race figured in its origins and development over time. Early on, right after graduate school, I wrote an article about racial exclusion in Memphis, and the implications that had for Black residents’ exposure to petrochemical plant waste, though I didn’t continue with the topic. Then, around the time I started thinking about moving away from environmental history, police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and when I looked into the broader historical context I saw that racial exclusion had a critical role. Ferguson had been all White for a long time, but when an airport expansion project displaced Black residents in nearby Kinloch in the 1980s, it underwent significant demographic change, with Blacks moving in and Whites leaving. By 2010, two-thirds of Ferguson’s population was African American, and still Whites controlled city government, while the police department was nearly all White (47 of 50 officers). So, in my mind, when Wilson confronted Brown outside the Canfeld Green apartments in the summer of 2014, it was a clash of historical forces, and when Brown’s killing went unpunished it was more than just an individual miscarriage of justice. This was what Black Lives Matter protests were making clear, as that activism spread and intensified, and as an historian I wanted to contribute to the public conversation. For various reasons, though, I didn’t want to do another study of racism in the South, and when I talked to the late Jim Loewen about how to focus on racial exclusion in the North, he suggested looking at Minnesota. The state is far North, and it has a reputation for being somewhat progressive on race. Yet it’s also very White, which was intentional, a consequence of decades of White efforts to make and keep it that way. Recovering that history reveals an important aspect of the politics, economy, and culture in Minnesota, as well as in the rest of the country. I don’t argue that the state is unusual, or that the communities I profile in the various chapters are exceptional for their history of exclusion, but rather that they’re representative of something fundamental about the United States as a whole.
Yes, it took me several years to do the research for the book, much of that time working with archival collections at the Minnesota Historical Society. I also used existing oral history interviews and did some interviews of my own, including one with Marion Taylor, who integrated a part of Edina with his wife Mary, and another with Matt Carter, who integrated a neighborhood in Duluth with his wife Helen. Additionally, I scoured state and federal census manuscripts, although I did that online.
I’ve never been that fond of academic history that is overly burdened with theory and jargon, mostly because I’ve always considered my work to be part of a larger project to help people understand the present by understanding the past, not just other professional historians but readers in general. So, I do what I can to find and tell compelling stories, about individuals, organizations, and events, and sometimes maps and photographs complement that. I also think that in terms of crafting a long history of racism in general and racial exclusion specifically it’s important not to get too abstract and miss the agency involved, the efforts of actual White people from decade to decade, community to community, to block, remove, and contain African Americans. That’s a critical part of making a case for social and economic reparations, and a photograph can capture agency as well as culpability in a way that words cannot.
I expect that racial covenants and other aspects of exclusion’s history are already taught in schools, but there is still a lot to do to make clear just how important racism has been in shaping U.S. history. I think that’s what the contemporary discussion about Critical Race Theory (CRT) is about. White parents declaiming against CRT aren’t worried that their elementary, middle, or high school students are learning legal theory. They’re worried that they’re learning historical facts and interpretations that erode the foundation for maintaining a notion of “White supremacy.” If you look at the origin story the group No Left Turn in Education has on their website, for example, Elana Fishbein says she became concerned following the protests when police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Her kids’ school responded by enhancing their instruction about racism, presenting, as she puts it, “whiteness as an entitlement to steal land, garner riches, and get special treatment,” and she pulled her kids out. Well, that’s what my book is about, Whiteness as an entitlement to steal land, garner riches, and get special treatment, and it adds to an existing and growing literature that makes White people like Fishbein nervous. The insights and observations from this literature confirm and expand on what’s taught in schools, and the CRT opponents don’t want that, so they’re trying to ban books and censor lesson plans.
Although it’s not a direct, linear line, I would argue that racial exclusion established the basis for a range of racial disparities, including those in education, and the disparities seem intractable because that exclusion has been so long-established and widespread. Until we reckon with this fact, we can’t adequately address specific problems like student achievement gaps. That’s true of addressing racist policing as well, with Brown’s killing in Ferguson and Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis just two examples. These were terrible individual tragedies, but they were also born out of a larger social order defined by a fossilized White racism.
For readers who are interested in the history of racial covenants, which many people in the Twin Cities might be if they’re participating in the amazing Mapping Prejudice project, I would recommend Jeffrey Gonda’s book Unjust Deeds. As part of a corrective to recent work that emphasizes the state role in making racial exclusion happen, I’d also suggest an article by Tesa Rigel Hines, “‘Community Prejudice is Also to Blame’,” in the Journal of Urban History.
Outside of what I have to read when I’m working on a book, I tend to read short stories and novels, and some of that fiction has profound potential for revealing truths about the ways race matters in America. One collection of stories that does this is The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans, and another is Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man.
At the moment, I’m still busy with Whiteness in Plain View, doing book talks and interviews and such, and I haven’t been able to seriously ponder a new project. But I have a couple of ideas that would allow me to continue thinking about race in Minnesota. I’ll see what happens with those.
May 2, 2022
Diane Wilson is an award-winning writer, speaker, and editor.