Tom Weber's latest book, Minneapolis: An Urban Biography, aims to explain why the city has some of the nation’s most crippling disparities and inequities. Credit: Tom Weber | Minnesota Historical Society Press

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In the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald J. Trump made a surprise trip to Minnesota in hopes of breaking the nation’s longest blue-state voting streak. It didn’t happen, but he got much closer to winning the state than politicos had guessed.

Trump landed at the same MSP airport that had for decades welcomed some of its newest Minnesotans: refugees from Southeast Asia and, later, East Africa. During his 40-minute speech to more than 5,000 mostly white supporters inside an airplane hangar, Trump previewed the administration he would run in singling out Somali refugees as a “disaster taking place in Minnesota.”

Somalis had secured the right to emigrate to the United States after escaping a brutal civil war that had raged for more than a decade in their home country. They became Americans. They had children who are Americans. Minneapolis is their home.

So is Minnesota, which claims the world’s largest Somali diaspora, numbering an estimated 74,000 in 2019. But while that number represents less than 1.5 percent of Minnesota’s entire population, it’s too large for some people. Trump’s vitriol, repeated during a 2019 trip to the Target Center in Minneapolis, has been echoed by his supporters: on social media and in acts of violence against immigrants and refugees. But that response is not at all universal. Most city and community leaders have repeatedly noted how much they appreciated and welcomed Somalis and other immigrants.

One thing they haven’t said directly—but which is true—is that Minneapolis also has immigrants to thank for reversing a discouraging, decades-long trend of population decline. When the city reached its highest population—521,000 in 1950—it was 98.4 percent white. Only in the past few decades has the non-white population surpassed 10 percent.

I explore this history in my new book Minneapolis: An Urban Biography, from Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book aims to explain why the city has some of the nation’s most crippling disparities and inequities by telling the raw story of how Minneapolis became Minneapolis. The following is an excerpt:

Millions of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

As U.S. troops left Southeast Asia in the 1970s, governments the Americans had propped up fell in Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. The U.S. departure created millions of refugees. Those fleeing South Vietnam, who had fought alongside American soldiers, were expected. But thousands also escaped Cambodia and Laos, including Hmong fighters. They had helped the CIA wage a secret war in those countries, which was disclosed to the American public in 1971, with the release of the Pentagon Papers. Because the United States had essentially caused the crisis, Congress voted in 1975 to allow these refugees to enter the country.

Lutheran and Catholic social service agencies led the efforts in the Twin Cities, helping resettle refugees. The state later opened its own resettlement office, and Congress passed a refugee law in 1980 that further increased the rate of arrivals. 

The process wasn’t perfect. Private organizations and, later, government organizations struggled to find resources, especially as the number of refugees grew. Critics also issued the familiar charge that the refugees would steal jobs from Americans. Instead, many of them opened their own small businesses in parts of cities thought to be dead or dying.

A structure to manage resettlement eventually took shape. By 2019, an estimated 88,000 Hmong and 30,000 Vietnamese lived in Minnesota, a majority of whom were born in the United States. Most live in the Twin Cities, which has the largest Hmong population of any U.S. metropolitan area.

The Latinx population quadruples, African Americans relocate from the Rust Belt

Since the 1950s, Minneapolis had been steadily losing population, including a stunning 14 percent drop during the 1970s. By 1980, the city’s population was at its smallest since the 1910s and was still nearly 90 percent white. 

This decline started to change with the arrival of the first major wave of immigrants to Minneapolis since the early part of the 20th century. These immigrants helped keep the city’s population nearly flat during the 1980s, before the tally increased during the 1990s—the first uptick in half a century. That 1990s increase came in part from the arrival of refugees escaping war in Somalia, utilizing the same network of Lutheran and Catholic social service agencies that had been created for Southeast Asian refugees.

It also happened because of a quadrupling of Minneapolis’ Latinx population, which had numbered fewer than 8,000 at the start of the decade. By 2000, 8 percent of the city’s population was Hispanic or Latinx (up from 2 percent in 1990). 

Many of these arrivals settled around Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street in the Whittier and Lyndale neighborhoods of south Minneapolis. Mexican Americans make up the state’s largest population of non-European immigrants, totaling an estimated 207,000 in 2019.

A final reason for the increase was a migration of African Americans from the Chicago, Gary and Milwaukee areas, starting in the 1980s. The state’s black population nearly tripled between 1980 (when it stood at 50,000) and the late 1990s (140,000). The Twin Cities became a leading destination for black migrants seeking a better life after the rust-belt economy further tanked in the early 1980s.

The hub for Somalis, Oromos and other East Africans in Minneapolis fittingly became the Cedar–Riverside neighborhood, also called the West Bank. This area between downtown and the University of Minnesota has a long history with immigrants. 

Early on it was dubbed “Snoose Boulevard,” an enclave for Scandinavian immigrants. Later, racial mixing made it a target for redlining. Twenty thousand people lived on the West Bank in 1910—twice the population today. Immigrants from eastern Europe arrived after World War II, before the neighborhood became a center of the counterculture during the 1960s—a “Haight–Ashbury of the Midwest.” 

Southeast Asian refugees arrived in the 1970s and ’80s, followed by Hispanics and East Africans in the ’90s. Somali-owned businesses opened throughout Cedar–Riverside, along with Dar Al-Hijrah in 1998, likely the first mosque in Minnesota.

The city’s leaders considered the area blighted during the 1960s urban renewal era. A campaign of buing and razing  and buildings made room for the city’s largest-ever housing development project, Cedar Square West (now Riverside Plaza), which opened in 1973. The tactics of developers, who had destroyed historic buildings and chose not to consult residents, brought protests. Ultimately, the city scaled back the original plan to build a “New Town in Town.” Home today to nearly 5,000 residents, the plaza includes several apartment towers and buildings that have a distinctive place on the Minneapolis skyline.

Contemporary Hmong American and Somali American populations include many who came through secondary migration. After initially settling elsewhere in the United States, they moved to Minnesota to join family members or seek better opportunities. The work accomplished by social service agencies gave the Twin Cities a reputation as a friendly place for refugees and immigrants. 

And why not? This is the same state whose population was 40 percent foreign-born in 1890, almost four times the national rate at that time. By 2016, the Pew Research Center noted that Minnesota had more refugees per capita than any state.

African immigrants encounter racial and religious discrimination

Some challenges are similar for all new arrivals, no matter their timing or nationality. Scandinavians in the late 1800s had the same difficulties learning English as Somalis one day would. 

However, the Somali population has also faced racial and religious discrimination for being Black and Muslim. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Twin Cities Somali community denounced terrorism and called Islam a religion of peace—something President George W. Bush echoed during a visit to a mosque in Washington, D.C., days after the attacks.

Still, Somali Americans faced new discrimination from hate groups. The FBI also put people in the community under surveillance. When authorities shut money-transfer businesses, called hawalas, for fear they could be used to funnel money to terrorist organizations, Somalis in Minnesota found it harder to send funds to relatives in Somalia or at refugee camps in Kenya. This proved a major problem: The United Nations estimated that Somalia received $1 billion in global remittances as it struggled to emerge from a generation of war.

Late in the first decade of the 21st century, terrorist groups started recruiting on social media and convinced a handful of young Minneapolis men of East African descent to fight in Somalia and Syria. Most who did died, and the Minneapolis community struggled with the loss, even as the FBI ramped up its investigations. This radicalization included just a handful of people among a Somali population in the tens of thousands. But it became fodder for demagogues seeking to paint Somalis as “a disaster.” 

President Trump’s executive order in 2017 banned new immigration from Somalia and several other majority-Muslim nations. Just 48 people came to Minnesota from Somalia in 2018, down from more than 1,400 in 2016.

Credit: Tom Weber | Minnesota Historical Society Press

Reprinted from Minneapolis: An Urban Biography, by Tom Weber, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. Available at bookstores or online at mnhspress.org.

Tom Weber is a journalist, author, and former host on MPR News