Max and Me in Minneapolis

Last week I was in Minneapolis  without a car. By necessity (I was on a pre-conference site visit) I stayed close to the convention center. Social interactions were scheduled and constrained by how far I could walk. Consequently my impressions are limited;  let’s call it drive-by-ethnography.

Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall

A native New Yorker,  prone to regional chauvinism,  I’ve always enjoyed visiting the cities of the Midwest. When my first marriage was falling apart it was relatively easy for me to manufacture a meeting in Madison and flee the jurisdiction for a few days. The solidity and calm–and in late summer the long, yellow light at the end of the day–always soothed me. Yet after two days I’d twitch and want to flee in the other direction. I was only in Minneapolis two days and while I wasn’t ready to flee my discomfit was growing.

I blame it on Florida.

Long-time readers know I don’t mean the state but rather Richard Florida, father of the tautological and member-absolving creative class. In case it isn’t clear, I’m not a fan of this dubious notion. It has always struck me as elitism clad in self-adoration with the weakest of methodological underpinnings. But he’s made one helluva brand out of it, securing an Institute and an editorial slot at The Atlantic. On that evidence I’d submit that the type of person supposedly a member of this ‘class’ likes to think and read about themselves.

And what, you ask, does my vitriol have to do with Minneapolis? The City of Lakes, it turns out, has a tendency to turn up on Messr. Florida’s lists. Let’s take a closer look at Minneapolis by turning to the data for Hennepin county.

Hennepin County, MN
Freq % Total Pop
Total Population       1,156,212 100.0%
White (1)          896,684 77.6%
Black (1)          119,523 10.3%
Freq % Total Pop % Race
Total Below Poverty Line (2)          124,070 10.7%
White            52,705 4.6% 5.9%
Black            41,962 3.6% 35.1%
x2: 106664.885, 1 df, p=<.0001 t=-345.215, df=1016205, p=<.0001
1) Source: US Census at . ACS 2005-2009 data for Hennepin County, MN. Single race only responses used.
2) Percentage  calculated against county pop. Census uses a slighlty lower pop figure for poverty calculations.

You could reasonably argue the city and the county are distinct units of geography and so the data should be kept separate. But the city lies entirely within the county limits. Drop out the suburbs and it can only get worse. Fact is, if you are an African-American in Hennepin County your odds of living  below the poverty line are more than fives times greater than a white American’s.

That’s a huge disparity. It ought to make you uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable.  At 745 AM Nicollet Mall was peopled with the employed striding to work trailed by pan-handling poor folks who were predominantly black. Limited sample, prone to observer bias, socio-economic status of both the ’employed’ and the ‘pan handlers’ unknown to the observer.  Guilty. And yet the behavior was visible with an almost palpable air of disregard for the less fortunate.

It’ s the striding past that always rankles. The poor are still people. Or so I was taught.

I think, though, that there’s an explanation. In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer demonstrated the persistence of British regional folkways in the New World. There’s no reason to believe cultural persistence is limited to the original colonies. The upper Midwest was populated by people from the northern reaches of Europe–the seat of what Max Weber called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Weber’s formulation the elect are known by their outward success. Poverty is, in this conception, a moral failing.

The moralization of poverty is a long-standing American tradition not limited to the states of the Old Northwest. Maybe it struck me more strongly in Minneapolis because of obvious differences between the employed and the poor. Maybe it was the bike sharing, eco-friendly, let’s just do it ethos I was immersed in.

Whatever caught my attention, it’s clear that some are being left behind. To allow that is, to me, a larger moral failing. But the faint whiff of moral superiority I sensed in Minneapolis wouldn’t, I think, be unfamiliar to Max Weber.


One thought on “Max and Me in Minneapolis

  1. Pingback: (Tell You ’bout) The Soul of a Man | An Honest Con

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