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History Professor Studies Racism in the North

‘Whiteness in Plain View’ is New Book by Prof. Chad Montrie

Edina, Minnesota, schoolchildren in the 1920s Photo by Edina Historical Society
Children at the Edina (Minnesota) School in the 1920s.

By Katharine Webster

Before the murder of George Floyd, if you asked white people in Minnesota about racism, they were likely to reply, “There aren’t a lot of Black people here, so we don’t have any racial problems,” says History Prof. Chad Montrie.

But that lack of Black people is no accident, Montrie says in his new book, “Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota” (2022, Minnesota Historical Society Press). It’s the result of white people using various discriminatory practices to exclude Black people from towns, neighborhoods, jobs and public spaces for two centuries, he says.
UML History Prof. Chad Montrie speaking at a conference Photo by Conservation Law Foundation
History Prof. Chad Montrie has a new book about racial exclusion in Minnesota.

Minnesota is not unique in that respect, Montrie says, but rather a good historical example of how racist legal and social structures arose and evolved in the northern United States and how they continue to affect Black people and communities today.

Montrie, a social, labor, and environmental historian, has written four previous books, including the award-winning “The Myth of Silent Spring” (2018, University of California Press) on the grassroots origins of the American environmental movement. 

Recently, he sat down to talk about “Whiteness in Plain View,” which is written for a general audience.

Q: Your previous books focused on environmental and labor history. Why did you decide to take on this topic?

A: I’ve been a social activist since I was a young teenager, and the first thing that pulled me in was the anti-apartheid movement – specifically, a protest at the Shell gas station in Louisville, Kentucky, over Royal Dutch Shell’s business interests in South Africa. Later, I also got involved in Anti-Racist Action, one of the groups that gave rise to Black Lives Matter.
Cover of UML History Prof. Chad Montrie's book "Whiteness in Plain View" Photo by Minnesota Historical Society Press
The cover of Montrie's new book.

After graduate school, when I taught for a year in Memphis, Tennessee, I wrote an article about racial exclusion in a neighborhood there, focusing on what that meant for segregated Black residents getting exposed to environmental hazards.

So as I was finishing my last book, I began thinking about how to study white racism – which is not the same as African American history. I wanted to look at what white people do to protect what they think of as their “rights” against people of other races.

It’s very much a part of how I think about the world: What do I need to know about the past to understand the present?

Q: Why is the book called “Whiteness in Plain View”? And why did you choose to write about Minnesota?

A: I wanted to think about the history of racism as a national phenomenon, rather than a uniquely Southern phenomenon. Historical sociologist James Loewen had written about Minnesota in his book “Sundown Towns,” and he said he could connect me with people there. 

Originally, I was going to do a comparative study, starting with the block where I grew up in Louisville, in a planned subdivision called Plainview. It was pretty much all white, except that across the street was an African American family – and no one ever interacted with them. I wondered, why didn’t they come out of their house and socialize with us? What I didn’t know then was that Louisville and Kentucky had a long history of racism, including residential segregation.
Family of Charles Yancy -- not pictured -- and Helen Yancy in 1917 Photo by Minnesota Historical Society
Charles Yancey's wife, Helen, three children and (probably) his mother-in-law in 1917. Yancey served as the Edina village clerk and later Register of Deeds for Hennepin County.

I ended up just focusing the book on Minnesota because it would have been too much to do both states. But the “Plainview” subdivision inspired my title: The idea is to bring something that should be obvious, but that white people pretend doesn’t exist or have accommodated to, into plain view.

Q: Why does the first chapter of the book focus on Native Americans?

A: The first racial exclusion in Minnesota was the removal of Native Americans from the state after the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862, which was also during the Civil War. 

The history of Black people is entangled with that Native American history. For example, Fort Snelling was built at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to control the indigenous tribes there. Officers were allowed to bring their own enslaved people to the fort, even after slavery was outlawed in that territory. Dred and Harriet Scott, of the notorious Supreme Court case, were among them.
Josie Johnson was the first Black woman on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents from 1971-3 Photo by Minnesota Historical Society
Josie Johnson, center, was the first Black woman to serve on the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents, from 1971-73. She worked to create the university's African American Studies Program.

Q: What were the main ways that white people excluded the growing number of Black people in Minnesota after the Civil War? 

A: From the start, there were threats of violence and actual violence. The last lynching in Minnesota took place in Duluth in 1920, when three Black circus workers were killed by a white mob. By that time, virtually all the Black people who’d migrated from the rural South to rural areas of Minnesota had been run out of the small towns and had resettled in the Twin Cities.

Black people also were excluded through covenants that forbade white people from selling their homes to Black families, real estate agent deceit and the razing of Black neighborhoods for “urban development” and highways.

I also talk about how people fight back – not only Black people, but white people, too.

Q: The book and its focus seem very timely, given the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the mass protests and trials that followed.

A: In the epilogue, I look at population change and racial disparities in wealth, incarceration rates, health and education in Minnesota up to the present time – and how all of this inequality is tied to the history of racial exclusion. In that sense, exclusion is also the back story to Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd.