Cardinal View: Seeing through Madison's progressive haze

Protesters marched through Madison on Wednesday to voice concerns over structural injustices in the community.

Protesters marched through Madison on Wednesday to voice concerns over structural injustices in the community.

Image By: Will Chizek

Madison—whose unofficial label is “77 square miles surrounded by reality”—is hailed as a progressive haven.

It is a “college town where students actively support the community;” a “vibrant cultural hub of art, music, food and beer,” one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the nation and a must-visit for young professionals, according to Business Insider.

Throughout the fall, we watched the debate over our country’s criminal justice system come to a head through television screens and Twitter feeds. When Michael Brown was killed after an altercation with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, we followed Ferguson’s spiral into calamity.

“We’ve been warning Madison that [an officer-involved shooting] could happen, and we were laughed at by certain community members,” Matthew Braunginn, a member of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, told The Guardian in a phone interview Sunday.

The blood-stained porch at 1125 Williamson St. is a stunning reminder for many that Madison, ranked as the No. 1 Best Place to Live by Livability, is not a haven for people of color.

Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny during an altercation within the residence Friday night. Lorien Carter, Robinson’s aunt, spoke to police and a crowd of protesters who gathered at the scene shortly after the shooting.

“Here in our little bubble of Madison … I want y’all to know, that for minorities, we are [in one of] the top five worst places to live. But we are [also in one of the] three happiest cities to be in,” Carter said Friday. “So who is it happy for?”

Willfully or not, many have failed to confront the true nature of Madison’s and Wisconsin’s racial disparities.

For years, laundry lists of alarming statistics have amassed in stacks. The “Race to Equity” report compiled by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in October 2013 analyzed 40 indicators of well-being between 2007 and 2011.

Black adults were eight times more likely to be arrested than white adults in Dane County and black juveniles were six times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts in the county, according to the report.

The report also showed that black men make up only 4.8 percent of the total adult male population in the county, but constitute 43 percent of all new adult prison placements.

The statistics should be hard to swallow. They should make you livid.

We need to change the course of how the public reacts to tragedies like the shooting of Tony Robinson. These patterns don’t show that people of color need to “pull their pants up” and “talk proper”—factors many have attributed as the root of these issues. These statistics illuminate widespread inconsistencies.

It’s disappointing, disturbing and disgusting that a 19-year-old had to die for many Madisonians to realize their seemingly ideal city’s deep, innate, systemic flaws.

We need to channel our emotions into positive, constructive change to morph Madison, Dane County and the entire state of Wisconsin into a healthier, more welcoming environment for people of all races.

“It’s not about whether or not the shooter is racist. It’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems, well before we’re treated as people,” said Javon Johnson, an assistant professor of communication studies at San Francisco State University, in a 2013 National Poetry Slam piece, “cuz he’s black,” that addressed the country’s institutionalized racism. “Black boys, in this country, cannot afford to play cops and robbers if we’re always considered the latter. Don’t have the luxuries of playing war if we’re already in one.”

Danez Smith, a UW-Madison graduate and First Wave Urban Arts Scholar, performed a poem in 2014 entitled “Dear White America,” where he expressed his frustration with the illusion of progress.

“Because it’s taken my father’s time. My mother’s time. My aunt’s and my uncle’s time. My sister and my brother’s time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress?’” Smith said.

We can try to scrub bloodstains off the porch of 1125 Williamson St. as hard as we can, but the incident will linger as a scar upon the city’s seemingly pristine reputation.

The Wisconsin Idea challenges UW System students “to educate people and improve the human condition.” In order to live according to this essential mission of the System, we must make Madison a place where people of color don’t have to be reminded regularly that they deserve to live and that they are free to pursue happiness.

What do you think of our perspective? Has this tragedy pointed out flaws in Madison’s criminal justice system? We want to know your thoughts. Please send all comments to

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