Discussions about race and racism have come centerstage since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Wisconsin, the police shooting of Jacob Blake has made these conversations critical as the city finally begins to reckon with its racist past. A new series launched by Radio Milwaukee is seizing the moment to explore how systemic racism contributes to the disparate outcomes that persist in Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole.
The series By Every Measure uses data to illustrate how racism impacts different systems in Milwaukee such as education, health, and policing. It features local Milwaukee journalist Reggie Jackson, who explores the concept of systemic racism from the first episode and argues that “systems of inequality” are built into our society. Jackson posits that you can find the impacts of racism in any American institution. He adds that many white people, however, understand racism as something that happens on an individual level. This misunderstanding of how racism operates fails to recognize systems in place that perpetuate racism.
This distinction is important. Many theories of racism discuss how it occurs on three different levels: individual, institutional, and systemic. Individual racism occurs on a personal level and can show up as internalized or interpersonal racism. Institutional racism occurs within and between institutions. Systemic racism refers to the “cumulative and compounding effects of an array of societal factors, including the history, culture, ideology and interactions of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.”
Jackson concludes the episode by stating that he no longer tries to convince people that systemic racism exists. Instead, Jackson says it is more productive to focus on the many people who are in the middle on this issue who want to develop a deeper understanding of how race impacts society. As more Americans open up to discussions about systemic racism and white privilege, conversations about our racialized history are crucial for creating the type of changes we need.
The series is particularly poignant because it emphasizes how knowledge of our history is necessary to understand systemic racism. Jackson contends that many of our conversations about systemic racism are unproductive because people never learned our true history. Without historical context, discussions of systemic racism are not useful. The City of Milwaukee has the largest racial disparities in the country on many different indicators. It is also a short 40 miles from the City of Kenosha where the police shooting of Jacob Blake sparked further unrest across the nation.
In a study published in July, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Marc Levine explains how racial disparities plague both Milwaukee and Kenosha similarly:
On almost all of the indicators…from poverty to employment to general income trends, to income inequality, incarceration trends, school segregation levels—Black Milwaukee ranked either the worst or next to worst among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas….And in fact, on most indicators that I’ve looked at, the status of the Black community in Kenosha is actually slightly worse than Milwaukee.
So how did we get here? The By Every Measure series tries to answer this question by providing historical context for the disparate outcomes that persist today. For example, the City of Milwaukee is often cited as the most segregated city in the country. Practices like redlining and racially restrictive covenants contributed to the segregation we see today: “At least 16 of the 18 Milwaukee County suburbs were using racially restrictive covenants to exclude black families from residential areas.” Without historical context, it is easy to assume that segregation occurred as an individual choice instead of institutionalized inequality.
Racially restrictive covenants are legally binding agreements intended to exclude Black families from certain neighborhoods. The Milwaukee Independent reports the Washington Highlands neighborhood was the first Metro Milwaukee neighborhood to implement restrictions based on race. Researchers found that in 1919, when the neighborhood was first developed, the property deeds of the new development stated, “at no time shall the land included in Washington Highlands or any part thereof, or any building thereon be purchased, owned, leased or occupied by any person other than of white race.” These types of restrictions were in place until Civil Rights-era legislation made them illegal.
Redlining was a practice that allowed discrimination to continue against families of color even after the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Government sponsored agencies created maps that graded neighborhoods based on their potential for investment. These maps were used by financial entities to make lending and investment decisions. Suburban areas like Wauwatosa received top ratings because of its status as a “highly restricted and exclusive area,” where local committees would not allow people of color in the neighborhoods.
In contrast, Black neighborhoods in the inner city received low grades and were shaded in red on the maps. This is where the term “redlining” comes from. These ratings were justified by assessors for blatantly racist reasons: “This is the Negro and slum area of Milwaukee. It is old and very ragged. Besides the colored people, a large number of lower type Jews are moving into the section.” Explanations like these were common in cities across the country.
Discriminatory practices such as redlining and racial covenants are important because the racial composition of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs is remarkably similar to the redlined maps created over eighty years ago. Black communities continue to live in the redlined neighborhoods that still suffer from banking discrimination and disinvestment. The authors continue,
Segregation in Milwaukee, among many other places, is a product of historical actions that had serious modern-day consequences. The effects of racist practices did not disappear as a result of laws prohibiting discrimination—redlining reduced opportunities for generational wealth accumulation among minority populations, creating decades of momentum in discrimination. Even if racism completely stopped in policy and interpersonal terms, continued disparities in outcomes would persist because of the deep imprint of this historical policy.
The history of segregationist policies in the City of Milwaukee has serious implications for current inequities. Additionally, segregation allows contemporary politicians to implement seemingly race-neutral policies that disproportionately harm communities of color, and further entrench and reinforce the divide between suburbs and cities.
The statistics about the contemporary status of Black Milwaukeeans is stunning. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the disparity in earnings between the median Black male worker and white worker is the worst in the US, where black males make only 59.7 percent of their white counterparts. The Black homeownership rate is the second-lowest in the nation among major metropolitan areas at 27 percent. The Black child poverty rate was reduced from 39 percent in 2018 to 30 percent in 2016. The Black unemployment rate can soar as high as 17 percent while the white unemployment rate is typically closer to four percent, a figure that is likely much higher today with the pandemic. The median white household income was $62,600 in 2015 compared to just $25,600 for Black households.
A 2014 report by Citizen Action of Wisconsin found that the state economic development agency under former Republican Governor Scott Walker focused its job creation efforts in largely white Milwaukee suburbs, in spite of the fact that the city’s Black unemployment rate is far higher. In certain zip codes in Milwaukee, over half of working age men are unemployed. The issue of lack of jobs in the city is exacerbated by transportation cuts that essentially isolate the suburban job market from the inner city.
But we would be making an unforgivable mistake to think that the situation in Milwaukee and Wisconsin is in any way an anomaly. And even as many Americans have become more open to discussions about the impact of race, the federal government is taking a different tack. For example, the Trump Administration recently instructed federal agencies to cease trainings on topics like white privilege and critical race theory because they are “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” Senator Tom Cotton also recently proposed a bill that would ban schools from adopting The 1619 Project, which discusses the importance of slavery in the founding of America.
America has never gone through a truth and reconciliation process like other nations with ugly racial histories. Such a process would require the nation to confront much of this history that has been missing from our classrooms. It would require many Americans to confront the reality that we can draw a direct lineage from periods of slavery and Jim Crow to our current racial inequities.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, discusses how we celebrate the Civil Rights Movement as if it was the end of racial discrimination in this country. Stevenson asserts that our true history is one where we “humiliated black people in this country every day.” He argues that the “narrative of racial difference” that emerged to justify the evils of slavery and racial terrorism has never been truly reckoned with in this country. On the contrary, it is the “same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed…that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color.”
As America continues to grapple with racism, both at the local level and nationally, the nonprofit sector should take a broader look at how institutional and structural racism impacts our communities. The sector needs to move on from discussions about whether systemic racism exists to a more genuine discussion of our history and how systemic racism that has endured for hundreds of years continues to impact communities of color. It is about time we as a nation reckon with the problem of race in America.