Photo of the historic Witch’s Hat Water Tower in Prospect Park, Minneapolis. Photo by Dan Anderson via Pinterest.
We are all shocked and saddened by the tragic events in Minneapolis, Minnesota over the past few days. As human beings, many of us are overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation and the intense emotions it has created. As members of an institution that strives for social justice, we feel discouraged and outraged. And, as social scientists, we are wondering how our disciplines and our knowledge can contribute to solutions. I have three thoughts about steps we can take.

So began a May 29, 2020 email I sent to the College of Social Sciences at San José State University (SJSU), where I am the dean. The May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and subsequent protests about police brutality and other injustices faced by Black people in the U.S. – both peaceful and violent – have many social scientists wondering, what can I do to help repair the many fractures in American society that seem to be getting worse each day? The first step, of course, is to educate ourselves about the issues, especially about the history and culture of the place at the epicenter of the most recent conflagration.

The January 8, 2020 article “When Minneapolis Segregated,” for example, analyzes how racial housing covenants in Minneapolis blocked home sales to people of color from the early 1900s to an official end in 1948 (but with unofficial enforcement for many years afterwards), establishing patterns of inequality that still persist to this day. The article notes, “Despite its reputation for prosperity and progressive politics, Minneapolis now has the lowest rate of homeownership among African American households of any U.S. city.” [For additional information about the operation of racial covenants in Minneapolis, see the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project.] The June 6, 2020 CityLab article “Why This Started in Minneapolis” provides a more recent exploration of the origins of the national uprising.

My letter to the college included a paragraph about being on the faculty at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for 14 years. In addition to checking in with friends and former colleagues who are still in Minnesota, I had conversations with folks who’d left the area, and these chats inevitably included discussions about Minnesota’s progressive reputation. Wendy Thompson Taiwo (Assistant Professor of African American Studies at SJSU) noted that her time in Minnesota was “wonderful and wretched for people of color like us.” That struck a nerve with me, as my time was also filled with both amazing and awful moments. After mulling over our conversation for a few days, I thought, as a component of educating others about the fraught racial landscape of the Twin Cities, why don’t I collect some stories about the good, the bad, and the ugly of life for people who were former residents but now have some distance to critically reflect on their experiences? This special section of The Society Pages is the result!

I started by asking several social scientists of color with ties to the Twin Cities to discuss their memories of racial dynamics in the Twin Cities, specifically about the intersections of wonderful and wretched components of life in the area. Their essays will be posted over the next few weeks. My essay – “Blackasotan Identity Lanes” – starts the conversation.

My email to the SJSU College of Social Sciences concludes, “I am energized by helping others get through the difficult times caused by COVID-19 and various social instabilities. And we WILL get through this disheartening period, and then redouble our efforts to make the world a more just and democratic place.” If you are a social scientist who also has ties to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul but now lives elsewhere, we’d love to include your stories as a component of this collective action. Stories from White social scientists as well as from social scientists of color are welcome, as we aspire to document the full range of experiences of the racial dynamics of the Twin Cities. Send us a note!

Reflections in the Wonderful/Wretched Series

  1. Blackasotan Identity Lanes” by Walt Jacobs
  2. A Letter to an Old Friend about Race” by Darren Wheelock 
  3. Will Words Lead to Action?” by Marcia Williams 
  4. My Beautiful, Broken Minnesota” by Rachel Raimist
  5. In This Country” by Catherine Ceniza Choy
  6. Reflections on an Exceptional State” by Richard Lee
  7. The Sound of the Police” by Jerry and Sarah Shannon
  8. Minnesota’s First Posthumous Pardon” by Garrick Percival
  9. Black Life and Death in Minnesota” by Wendy Thompson Taiwo
  10. Rethinking Minnesota Nice” by Danielle Lavin-Loucks
  11. Bless Me with a Name” by Özlem Ersin
  12. In Transit” by Thomas X. Sarimento
  13. Start the Conversation” by Jocelyn Gutzman 
  • More essays coming soon!

If you’d like to contribute to this series, please send your reflections to Walt Jacobs at walt.jacobs@sjsu.edu.

Walt Jacobs is a sociologist and the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at San José State University. He is the author of the ethnography Speaking the Lower Frequencies: Students and Media Literacy, and is co-editor (with Jeffrey Di Leo) of If Classrooms Matter: Progressive Visions of Educational Environments. Jacobs serves on the Board of Directors for the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a professional organization for university deans. He is also on the Board of Directors for StoryCenter, the world-renowned nonprofit organization that uses innovative story development practices and participatory media methods to support people in sharing personal narratives rooted in their own life experiences. For several years Jacobs maintained the Society Pages’ blog, Dispatches from a Dean.