By Howard Schneider
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In November 2015, the shooting death of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police touched off a debate on race and economic inequality that challenged the city's progressive image and led local corporate leaders to back efforts at better sharing the spoils of a booming Midwestern state.
Five years later, the killing of George Floyd has reopened those wounds and highlighted a growing concern nationally: The last few years of economic growth saw gains for lower-income families, but any hope for a durable narrowing of economic gaps may have been short-circuited by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic crash falling heavily on minorities.
Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis last week may have been a catalyst for an anger that has spawned protests nationwide, but it was in effect the third major shock to hit in as many months, said Tawanna Black, chief executive of Minnesota's Center for Economic Inclusion (CEI), a group that grew out of those corporate promises of five years ago.
Before the recent surge in joblessness, "we saw the employment gap closing rapidly," Black said. But "you were connecting people to low-wage jobs, and now you have displaced them. ... What I am hopeful of is that we not just solve for criminal justice, but what's required to get economic and social justice."
It is complex, to be sure. Tension over police treatment of blacks has simmered through good economic times and bad. But for the economy, the course of the pandemic and the financial fallout highlights how little has changed over a decade of growth that seemed to hold out at least the possibility of progress on narrowing racial economic divides.
Median family income growth finally started rising in 2015, but median family income for blacks remains about 61% that of whites. In Minneapolis, it is even lower at about 44%.
A 2009-2020 bull market for stocks and rising home values have done little to improve overall wealth among African Americans, who comprise around 13% of the U.S. population but account for 4.2% of household net worth, according to Federal Reserve data. The figure in 1989 was 3.8%.
For Hispanics, it is even worse, with more than 18% of the U.S. population holding just 3.1% of household wealth.
Both groups have suffered an outsized blow from layoffs triggered by business closures meant to control the spread of the coronavirus and the crash in demand among consumers holed up
According to federal data from February to April, Hispanic employment fell by more than 25%. For blacks, the figure was 17.6%, more modest but still above the 15.5% for whites.
It is part of a "last-hired, first-fired" dynamic familiar to labor economists and considered one of the reasons behind the lack of progress in narrowing wealth and income gaps. In this case, it is also driven by the skewed nature of the coronavirus economic shock, which hit hardest among lower-paid service jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industry where minorities form a larger share of the workforce.
The shock has been no different in Minnesota from in parts of the Deep South, according to a Reuters comparison of federal employment data by race alongside demographic information on unemployment claimants submitted by the state in April.
African Americans made up about 5.7% of Minnesota's employed workforce in 2019 but more than 8% of those who filed for unemployment in April.
Still predominantly white, with a self-effacing culture captured by writer Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" former radio show, the demographics around Minneapolis, the state's largest city, have shifted quickly in recent decades. It
has for example opened itself to refugees from Somalia. The city is now about 20% black and 10% Hispanic.
Minnesota's rural areas voted heavily in 2016 for Republican Donald Trump, while the state as a whole went for Democrat Hillary Clinton owing to strong support in the Minneapolis area.
That city is also home to a healthy list of large U.S. companies, many of them homegrown national brands like Target Corp <TGT.N>, that are known for their civic boosterism and support for efforts like the one spearheaded by CEI's Black.
The question now is whether the dislocation caused by the coronavirus, rising joblessness and the death of Floyd prompts lasting change.
Those firms will be central to deciding the pace of the economic recovery, and the nature of the jobs available in the economy that emerges.
After the last recovery did so little to change wealth and income dynamics, and the coronavirus showed the gulf between workers who were buffered from the crisis and those who were not, Black said it was time to think about the nature of the labor market that will emerge from here.
Many of the jobs "will not come back. Do we train people for tech jobs? Automation-resilient jobs?" she said. Over the last decade, "we made no progress."
For a graphic on Race gaps persist:
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Peter Cooney)