Not Your Parents’ Minnesota: Immigration Politics in a Supposed Liberal Bastion

Not Your Parents’ Minnesota: Immigration Politics in a Supposed Liberal Bastion

Minnesota was long known as a progressive stronghold, from its support for Ignatius Donnelly and the Populists of the 1890s and A.C. Townley and his Nonpartisan League in the First World War era to its election of Farmer-Labor governors, senators, and representatives in the 1930s to its later support for liberal Democratic heroes Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy and its status as the only state to reject Ronald Reagan in 1984. Minnesota was equally known as a bastion of whiteness, gently satirized in Garrison Keillor’s ongoing radio broadcasts. Some pundits and scholars conjectured that the state’s left-leaning politics had a foundation in its heavily Scandinavian and German ethnic make-up. Minnesota’s political move to the right in recent years—Minnesotans have not elected a Democratic governor since 1986, and anti-tax politics has dominated state lawmaking for more than a decade—has coincided with its racial and ethnic diversification, as tens of thousands of immigrants have arrived from Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Mexico and Central America. Are these political and demographic developments related? Have the politics of immigration and diversity arrived in this piece of America’s heartland to produce, from a progressive standpoint, a toxic outcome?

On East Seventh Street, in Saint Paul’s hardscrabble East Side neighborhood, sits an excellent Salvadoran restaurant, Mañana (where much of the brainstorming for this article was done), with several taquerías within blocks. Up the street is the Mexican consulate, which opened in 2005; a few blocks further on is the Lutheran church where members of FMLN-Minnesota watched Salvadoran election returns via satellite television a year ago. Once, this was a heavily unionized blue-collar neighborhood dominated by manufacturing workers employed by 3M, Whirlpool, and Hamm’s Brewery, all of which disappeared in the deindustrialization wave of the 1980s. In their place, as rents have plummeted and low-wage service sector jobs have proliferated, have come Latinos, African Americans, Hmong, Somalis, and Ethiopians. This neighborhood encapsulates Minnesota’s changing face.

Indeed, Minnesota as a whole is less white than it long was. The Latino population in the state almost tripled in the 1990s, passing the 200,000 mark (in a state whose population is about 5.25 million). This total may seem modest to residents of Florida or California, but its significance is a matter of proportion. Between 2000 and 2008, in percentage terms, Minnesota was fourth among states with the biggest increases in their Hispanic populations. It stands out among these large Latino-population gainers by virtue of its storied whiteness. The state is still 85 percent non-Hispanic white. Other states with big recent increases in the Latino share of their populations, such as the Carolinas and Arkansas, include large African American minorities, and liberals in those states have a long history ...


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