Is Milwaukee less racist than it was 50 years ago when the disturbances in the summer of 1967 ended up with three deaths, many injuries, looted storefronts and put the city in a weeklong curfew?
As one who has lived in Milwaukee for nearly all his 88 years and has seen change occur, you’d hope I could say it has. Unfortunately, the answer is neither a yes or a no.
In a few ways, of course, racism is less apparent. Our neighborhoods, including those all-white enclaves of the 1960s that flushed up nasty demonstrators to taunt the open housing marchers, are now racially mixed, though some to a far lesser extent than others. Every previously white neighborhood has at least a smattering of families of color. In every area the presence of African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples is common.
Some of the north side neighborhoods, however, have become nearly 100% African-American with the appearance of a white citizen almost as rare as albino animals in a deer herd.
The Milwaukee metropolitan area is still perhaps the most segregated in the United States. Nearly all of our suburbs are solidly white, the exceptions being Shorewood, Glendale and to a lesser extent Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay.
In the 1960s — and continuing through the 1980s — many of my black friends would be fearful of crossing Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line (the Menomonee River valley) to enter the South Side. Now that has changed with African-Americans freely coming south. On the other hand, many whites are afraid to enter many of our North Side wards, while many of our suburban friends are even afraid to come downtown.
In 1967, Milwaukee a child’s school was determined largely by his or her neighborhood, resulting in many all-white and all-black schools and others with severe imbalances in the races. Now, even with school-busing, little has changed, thanks to the flight of many whites to the suburbs (less than 30% of residents in the city of Milwaukee are Caucasian today) and the creation of voucher and charter schools in which parents have chosen to send their kids to schools that best match their own racial identity. (Of the 76,856 students in MPS schools in 2016, some 88% were students of color and 80% of all students were economically disadvantaged, according to district statistics.)
And there’s no evidence that children are generally better educated in voucher or charter schools than in the highly unbalanced MPS schools.
We repeatedly hear evidence that there’s little progress in making Milwaukee less racist. It’s been well-reported that Milwaukee’s incarceration rate for black males is the highest in the nation with more than half in their 30s and 40s having served time. Zip Code 53206 on the near North Side has been shown to have the highest rate of homicides of any zip code in the U.S.
Nationally, the income gap between whites and blacks remains largely what it was in 1967, according to a national survey conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — black households in the middle income levels earned an average of 55 percent as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967. With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area, it’s likely the gap may even be greater.
Also, note that Milwaukee has had a number of police shootings, with the one in Sherman Park in August 2016 setting off disturbances reminiscent to those in 1967, though with few deaths and injuries.
Despite that, in many ways Milwaukee is working to becoming less racist. Though the mayor and county executive are both white, minorities are well-represented on the Common Council and County Board; both executives are sympathetic toward programs to end racism (some would argue they may be too timid, however). There are numerous public and private efforts aimed at reducing the disparities in the community, as well as public-private strategies. The church community, most major businesses and the media tend to be supportive.
There is a spirit of hope in the air, but regrettably, there’s a lot of inertia and apathy to overcome. There’s some downright opposition, mainly from suburban and out-state sources. The state government shows little inclination to help the city; in fact it is working to undercut many of the efforts through its starvation of funds.
Meanwhile, within the community there must be continued and even greater involvement in ending the racism that still rests within too many of us. — Ken Germanson, August 1, 2017