Minneapolis is sadly typical. As the nation’s social and political institutions have weakened and Americans have lost faith in government, voters have become less willing to make the kind of public investments needed to confront the country’s major challenges, including environmental degradation, violence, segregation, racial injustice, addiction, mental illness, and economic dislocation. Instead, governments have developed a way for select groups of Americans to avoid those problems by building an elaborate system of barricades in space.
The white neighborhoods just south of the spot where Floyd was killed were never fully integrated, even as Minneapolis’s black population grew in the first decades of the 20th century. That outcome was intentional. Thousands of property deeds in those white neighborhoods included restrictive covenants legally prohibiting property owners from selling or leasing their homes to black Americans and sometimes to Asian Americans, Jews, and members of other disfavored groups. The covenants were not declared unconstitutional until 1948. Even today, the neighborhoods where covenants were concentrated remain overwhelmingly white.
Many barricades that segregate people of color are far more tangible. The construction of highways inflicted wounds that have yet to heal. After Floyd’s death, protesters shut down Interstate 94, a highway that, decades before, had been built straight through Rondo, a thriving neighborhood that was a hub for St. Paul’s black community. One of the messages the recent protesters were sending—that the highways serving far-flung commuters also isolate and alienate those who must live near them—was evident to Minnesota’s leaders. In a press conference, Governor Tim Walz acknowledged the historical significance of the freeway when he said, “It wasn’t just physical. It ripped a culture, it ripped who we were. It was an indiscriminate act that said this community doesn’t matter, it’s invisible.”
What happened in Minneapolis also occurred nationwide under the aegis of urban renewal. When the black population swelled in cities north and south, those municipalities didn’t undertake a large-scale effort to make integration work, improve housing conditions, or protect the rights of black Americans. Instead, authorities razed entire neighborhoods and strategically placed highways, as well as public-housing projects and office buildings, in locations that would solidify the boundary between black and white neighborhoods. The interstates became one more type of barricade. When the federal government invested in highways rather than public-transit systems, it gave white Americans a way to flee central-city neighborhoods while continuing to reap the economic benefits of the city.
In the 20th century, barricades came in many other forms. Rather than build a federal mortgage-assistance program for all Americans, appraisers hired by a federal housing agency drew multicolored lines on maps that determined who could get a loan from the government and who could not. Policy makers didn’t find ways to invest in struggling cities dealing with new populations and fiscal stress; instead, they let small groups of affluent residents split off and form their own cities, drawing up new administrative boundaries and taking their tax dollars with them. Rather than invest the resources necessary to cure homelessness, cities put up barricades between rich and poor. Today, fortified centers of global commerce exist just down the street from desperate poverty.