The wicked problem of white liberalism

Does the whiteness of progressivism exclude Black people?

On April 19, 2021, Derek Chauvin was found guilty of 2nd degree murder, 3rd degree murder, and manslaughter. It begins to offer justice for George Floyd’s murder. The wicked problem of white progressivism and liberalism is as pervasive as ever.

I began writing “Wicked Liberalism” in 2015, when Tony Robinson, an unarmed 19 year-old biracial man was shot on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin, two blocks from my house. I published it after Philando Castile, a cafeteria manager at the grade school I attended, was murdered on July 6, 2016 during a traffic stop. I am revisiting that piece here in 2020, after George Floyd was laid to rest, after his murder on May 25, 2020 by a cop who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died, with three other officers doing nothing to stop him.

George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tony Robinson are men who were killed in liberal cities, and their deaths make me question what we mean when we say we are liberal.

Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities, are separated by the Mississippi River, and if you’re not from there, you might see them as one big city. There are about 3 million people in the metro area, with about 430,000 residents in Minneapolis and 308,000 in St. Paul. Roughly a quarter of the residents of the Twin Cities and their surrounding counties are non-white. In Minneapolis, almost 20% of the population is African-American, in St. Paul, 16%.

I grew up in St. Paul in the 1970s and 80s, attended public schools that actively built connections between kids across class, race, and ethnic lines, and rode bikes up and down my city’s streets and alleys. Minneapolis, the bigger twin, was the first city I fell in love with, that made my heart pump hard when I went downtown and uptown, and when my family moved to the suburbs in my teen years, I came back to Minneapolis and St. Paul every chance I could find. Even though I live in Pittsburgh these days, the Twin Cities wrote themselves onto who I am as a person, then as now.

I am a lifelong liberal, something that I credit to my upbringing in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul are considered to be among the most very liberal cities in the US, by many measures (Minneapolis ranks 6th in a 2014 study and in a report by the Economist).

As John Eligon and Julie Bosman wrote in the New York Times on June 1, Twin Cities residents take pride in their beautiful city and progressive attitudes. “Residents of Minneapolis swell with pride over their city’s sparkling lakes, glassy downtown, beautifully kept green spaces and bicycle friendliness that draws comparisons to Copenhagen. They see themselves as public spirited, embracing of multiculturalism and inspired by Minnesota’s liberal icons, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone,” they write. “The Minneapolis City Council, made up of 12 Democrats and a member of the Green Party, includes two transgender members, both of whom are Black. The city has for years held a popular community celebration and parade for Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery.

“But there remains an extraordinary racial gap for Minnesotans when it comes to education outcomes and health care. Black families own their homes at far lower rates than white families, among the largest such disparity in the country. And the city’s predominantly white police force, which has been accused of racist practices for decades, rarely disciplines officers with troubled records.”

Liberal, among many definitions, refers to “free from bias, prejudice, or bigotry; open-minded, tolerant, governing or governed by relaxed principles or rules; favoring social reform and a degree of state intervention in matters of economics and social justice; left-wing” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

What does liberal mean when it does the opposite of what it says it does — performing and reinforcing bias, prejudice, and bigotry under the auspices of what looks open-minded and tolerant? What does liberal mean when geography, race, class, policing, and inequality reinforce each other, privileging whites and killing non-white people — and Black people in particular? What does liberal mean in a violent system?

What does it mean to be liberal at all?

“No such thing as a single-issue struggle”

Over the last two weeks, the demonstrations and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder are beginning to shift the country’s awareness of police violence, with nine members of Minneapolis City Council pledging to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

But in addition to police and physical violence, the infrastructural violence of inequality disproportionately affects the non-white residents of Minneapolis. Police violence, poverty, eviction, educational inequity, child hunger, food precarity, are all interconnected with one another. These “wicked problems” as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called them, are “malignant,” “vicious,” “tricky,” and “aggressive” because they don’t have any single solution, and any intervention causes effects elsewhere in the system.

As Audre Lorde writes, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Each of these issues connects with another. They stack up into barriers that are hard to surmount. These numbers are for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Minnesota. What are they like in your community?

Poverty & child poverty

  • In Minnesota, the poverty rate among African-Americans and Native Americans is 28% — four times higher than for whites (7%).
  • Child poverty affects every aspect of a child’s life, and every inequity they experience. Seventy percent of Black children in Minnesota are in low-income families, and 38% are below the poverty line — more than 1 in 3.
  • The impacts of child poverty reach into every other area of a person’s life, as the American Psychological Association writes: “Poverty linked with linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children. Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.”

Median income, employment, and unemployment

  • Black families have a lower median income than white families, whose income is almost twice as high. Median income among Black families was on the rise to $38,400 — but is still much lower than median income across Minnesota, which is $68,400.
  • While unemployment before COVID-19 dipped to 3.1% between 2000–2018, and to 1.9% for white people, that rate rose for Black people, from 6.8% to 8%. Minneapolis’s unemployment rate for Black people is higher than that of Washington DC (7.2%), Chicago (6.8%), Detroit (6.6%), Philadelphia (6.4%), Los Angeles (4.7%), and New York (3.9%). Those numbers are pre-COVID-19.
  • The Black workforce tends to be younger and less educated. “Even if Blacks had the exact same educational profile as whites in Minneapolis, they would still have a much higher unemployment rate,” reported a study by the Economic Policy Institute.
  • Once graduated, Black college graduates are more likely to be underemployed than white college graduates. “The inequities are not only there because people lack skills, but also because employers have to be able to address racial bias, and have to be intentional about understanding the assets that people of color bring to the workforce and wanting to keep them there,” Tawanna Black, CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion in Minneapolis told Minnesota Public Radio in 2018.


Bias and police use of force

  • The New York Times reported on June 3 that the Minneapolis police use force seven times more frequently against Black people than against white people (in data made available by Minneapolis’s open data initiative). For 11,500 uses of force since 2015, 6,650 of those acts were against Black people: more than 57%, where they report 2,750 incidences of force against white people (who make up roughly 60% of the population), the Times reports. “‘It just mirrors the disparities of so many other things in which Minneapolis comes in very badly,’” Hamline University Professor David Schultz told the Times. “When he taught a course years ago on potential liability officers face in the line of duty, Mr. Schultz said, he would describe Minneapolis as “a living laboratory on everything you shouldn’t do when it comes to police use of force.”
  • George Floyd’s killing, Jamar Clark’s killing, Philando Castile’s killing — all underscore the deathly impact of bias. A 2004 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Review article reported that African-Americans were six times more likely to be shot by police and three times more likely to be killed than whites. A 2015 Guardian analysis found that “Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” Of those killed, one in three Black people were unarmed.
  • Black men are perceived as a threat by people of all races, according to Josh Correll, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado, who examines the role of “implicit prejudice.” In the “Police Officer’s Dilemma” a study in which participants play a first-person shooter game and must decide whether or not to shoot, as Robin Semien reported in a This American Life episodes titled “Cops See It Differently,” (Part 1 and Part 2). Not just cops but ordinary people of all races were quicker to shoot an unarmed Black man than a white man.
    Robin Semien says, “By everybody he means everybody — Black and white, including police. Josh’s findings show that police officers are more likely to see the images of Black men as threatening, even though police officers usually make the correct decision to shoot or not shoot. In fact, the rest of us — untrained people like you and me — do far worse than cops. We’re more likely to shoot a Black man with a wallet, and we’re less likely to shoot a white man with a gun.”

Wisconsin is worse

  • Minnesota is the fourth most segregated state in the country. Wisconsin, the next state east, is the most segregated state in the country.
  • Black residents of Madison, Wisconsin’s Dane County are unemployed compared to about 5% of whites. 54% of Black residents live below the poverty line, compared to 9% of whites — and a stunning 74% of Black children grow up in poverty, compared to 5.5% white — a 13 to 1 disparity, one of the biggest poverty gaps in the United States.
  • Milwaukee is even worse: 50% of Black men are incarcerated: more than any other state.

Has the belief that we’re tolerant enough gotten in the way of fighting racism?

Minnesota is is the only state (aside from the District of Columbia, which isn’t a state) in the Electoral College to vote for the Democratic candidate since 1956, with the exception of Nixon in 1972. However, Minnesota is now considered to be in broadly purple territory, a swing state in the 2020 election with rural Minnesotans more likely to vote Republican. Trump won 78 of 87 counties; Clinton took the Twin Cities.

The state’s long history of democratic engagement and liberal values goes back to the founding of the Democratic Farm Labor party in 1944 in support of tradespeople, laborers, and agricultural workers—the party of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Later, Minnesota became home to more than 110,000 Hmong and Somali immigrants between 1979–2018.

But overarchingly, the liberal story is a white one. It’s telling that a piece this spring published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the Twin Cities’ progressive history doesn’t include a single word about race or people of color. It also doesn’t mention the three days of Plymouth Avenue protests in 1966 and ‘67, when Black residents’ frustration with the city boiled over. “Throughout the three-day period, demonstrators had showed their frustration with discrimination against African Americans on the Northside. They had focused most of their anger on white authority symbols, including businesses and property. Local police received few reports of assaults on white citizens themselves,” says MNopedia’s entry on the 1967 unrest. “The racial tensions that led to violent demonstrations around the country in the summer of 1967 spread to the city’s north side. Young blacks rebelled against an unjust power structure and set fire to storefronts. Hundreds of National Guard troops were deployed to the area,” Minnesota Public Radio reported on the 50th anniversary of the event. Were they riots? Uprisings? Demonstrations? “The media generally cited newcomers and a militant minority in North Minneapolis as the cause of the violence,” reads the MNopedia entry. “Some local press addressed systemic causes — including alienation and racism– and called on community leaders and policymakers to prevent future violent incidents”—an account that sounds almost exactly like what we read in the wake of the protests after George Floyd’s murder.

Getting beyond platitudes

Robert Lilligren, the first Native American elected to Minneapolis City Council (2001–13), tells Eligon and Bosman in the New York Times:

“That’s the vibe: Do something superficial and feel like you did something big. Create a civil rights commission, create a civilian review board for the police, but don’t give them the authority to change the policies and change the system.”

Minneapolis might now be starting to address just that: a change in authority, in structure, and in the system starting with an end to police violence and reframing what public safety means.

But it can’t end there. As Audre Lorde reminds us,“we don’t live single issue lives.” To put it another way, racism isn’t a single issue problem. Poverty, education, health, employment, food, technology — all have a something to do with the big picture.

Speaking of the city where I live, Pittsburgh, what might a pro-Black city look like? Taking a cue from Pittsburgh attorney and racial and economic justice advocate Felicity Williams, “The common thread will be a desire to uplift Black people and advance our economic, mental, physical and spiritual growth,” she writes. Progressive and liberal doesn’t necessarily mean pro-Black, she writes. What would a pro-Black agenda look like? How can we support the growth of our cities’ Black residents beyond this moment, this summer, this year?

If you’re a white liberal, it’s especially important to not stop looking at the factors that support institutionalized racism. Asking questions is hard, and answering them is harder—questions like, how was I complicit? How do I support change and equity? And what can I do right now?

K&L Gates Associate Professor of Ethics & Computational Technologies @ CMU/School of Design. Author of Architectural Intelligence (MIT Press 2017).

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