I believe in racial integration.


You probably do too.  Most Minneapolis residents will assert a belief in the value of racial integration, even though the majority of Minneapolis residents live in segregated neighborhoods and send their children to segregated schools.  And this is true across the country: “Our population [in America] is much more diverse today than it was even 20 years ago,” says Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, but there is “even more school segregation than we had 20 years ago.”


The benefits of integration are clear in the research: more equitable access to resources, preparation for the global economy, increased self-confidence and greater satisfaction with school are just a few of the benefits to students of all races. We do all our kids a disservice when we deprive them of authentic relationships with kids from different backgrounds. Stereotypes thrive in absence of experience. Our kids need exposure to all kinds of life experiences, and they need it through friendships, not just movies.


Racial segregation in our schools is, of course, driven by the racial segregation in our neighborhoods, which isn’t much better today in Minneapolis than it was decades ago. According to census data, 88% of white residents of Minneapolis/St. Paul still live in white neighborhoods. It started with red-lining, but is maintained today by passive acceptance of the status quo.

We don’t have to accept it. Minneapolis Public Schools took significant & successful steps to integrate our schools in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

I was a student here at the time, and my parents, who lived in a white neighborhood, signed us up for magnet integration opportunities. They didn’t have to—they chose to. In 2nd grade, my brother and I moved from Kenwood Elementary to Jefferson, which was across Hennepin Avenue, and offered a more racially integrated student body.  

My new best friend was Tiffany, who lived in the apartments behind the school. Tiffany was fun and kind, and that’s what matters to an 8-year-old. I don’t know her race, but I can see in photos of us that she was brown.  We didn’t think about our expanding ideas of who our friends could be—we just made friends and played. But I believe that working and playing in a racially integrated school helped our brains form positive expectations around other racial groups that we might not have ever had if we’d stayed segregated.


From our Lake of the Isles neighborhood, my brother chose to attend North High School for the SummaTech program. He had a great experience and went on to get an Architecture degree from the U of MN. My friend down the block attended North for the Arts program. These were kids from “choice-making families”—parents with the resources to make active decisions about education. In the ‘80’s, they chose North. That could and should happen again today.


In the 1990’s, the “community schools” movement happened and we took several steps backward on integration. The narrative was that parent involvement would increase if the student’s school was nearer to home. This was a conscious move away from the desegregation efforts of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. It may have been partly about saving money on busing, but the benefit to parent involvement was held up as the priority—more important than racial integration—and the community went along. Nationally, desegregation peaked in 1988, and in Minneapolis, we followed close behind.



We are also segregated by poverty. Our Minneapolis school district has an overall poverty rate of 60%, but the individual schools have poverty rates ranging from 6% to 98%, and the percent of white students in them has a pretty direct inverse correlation.


There are some schools in Minneapolis in which genuine integration is happening, and no racial group is a majority of the population. Our kids are getting that opportunity at South, Sanford, Loring, Marcy—maybe a quarter of our schools across the city. And many of them are popular schools. There are lots of Minneapolis families who are choosing integration for their kids.




Demographic data from the MN Department of Education shows that the majority of Minneapolis schools have a student body with a majority of White or Black students. This means that most White and Black students in Minneapolis attend segregated schools.


And while we can blame the situation on segregated neighborhoods, we can also do better about creating meaningfully diverse schools for our kids.


It is my belief that where there’s a will, there’s a way.


Our challenge is to decide that racial integration is worth some effort. I believe that effort involves several things:


1. We need to have honest conversations involving all kinds of stakeholders  about how we got here and where we want to go. What do we want for ALL Minneapolis students, not just our own? And what sacrifices are we willing to make to get it?

2. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is no other way to talk about race with White people. Many White folks were raised with a cultural norm to avoid discomfort, so it takes effort to override that instinct. The only way we grow is to embrace discomfort as the space in which that growth can happen.

3. We need to question the status quo. That means look at our current reality, see what’s working and what’s not, and challenge our city and ourselves to do better.

4. We need to have hope. I believe in our city and our school district. Both our city and our schools can become better if we are willing to take a hard look at our future together.

Meaningful change will require some risk-taking, like parents choosing to send students from the Lake of the Isles area across Hennepin Avenue to an integrated school.  I don’t know if my mother had the same integration fears then that some parents have now, but I know that I was a white kid who enjoyed school & got a great education in an integrated context.

That was a good thing in the ‘70’s, and it is a good thing today.

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Emily Lilja Palmer
Dr. Emily Lilja Palmer is a Minneapolis native and a product of the Minneapolis Public Schools K-12. She attended the University of Minnesota, where she earned her Ph.D. in Educational Administration, M.Ed in Secondary Education, and B.A. in English. She holds a teaching license in English 7-12, an administrative license K-12, and National Board certification.

Emily taught 14 years in Minneapolis at Anthony Middle School and Patrick Henry High School. She served 6 years as assistant principal at Richfield Middle School. She is currently in her 5th year serving as principal of Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis.

Emily is married with two daughters, and resides in the Cleveland neighborhood of Minneapolis.