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Saturday, May 25, 2024
With a large number of the most hostile and unequal cities in the country for black residents, experts in Wisconsin look for answers in history and solutions in policy.

With a large number of the most hostile and unequal cities in the country for black residents, experts in Wisconsin look for answers in history and solutions in policy.

Why is Wisconsin so terrible for black people?

Wisconsin is home to a variety of stereotypes: an affinity for dairy, land as flat as can be and of course, overwhelming whiteness.

A long agricultural heritage and a lack of geographic excitement explain the first two, but what explains the third?

According to a new report, Wisconsin is home to some of the worst places in the country for black people to call home.

“Disparities in socioeconomic measures exist to some degree nationwide,” the report states. However, in certain cities, gaps in outcomes along racial lines are chasmic.”

Milwaukee and Racine rank respectively as the second and third worst cities in the country for black Americans.

With a population of 260,776, Milwaukee’s black residents make less than half of what their white counterparts do, and with almost quadrupled unemployment levels.

Like many of the other cities that made the list, Wisconsin’s largest city has an aggressive history of segregational housing laws, contributing to a significant level of residential, employment and educational segregation today.

“Where you have residential segregation and where you have large percentages of poor black populations, the schools that service those neighborhoods tend to be substandard relative to white neighborhoods,” Camille Busette, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of the report.

“People tend to hire people like themselves, so when you get residential segregation, you tend to also get employment segregation,” Busette said.

The numbers are similar for Racine’s 21,450 black residents, who earn just 42.3 percent of the average white income.

“In many respects this is old news,” Afro-American Studies professor Brenda Plummer said. “I guess one of the questions to be asked is why people in Wisconsin don’t see a benefit to the state as a whole in alleviating poverty, unemployment, segregation and poor schools.”

The reports damning findings go beyond Wisconsin, with 11 of its bottom 15 cities in the Midwest: six in Illinois, and one each in Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa.

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With regional inequalities running this deep, the question becomes why the Midwest?

“Well why is harder to answer than that it is bad,” UW Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver said. “The absolute levels of Black poverty are often higher in the rural South, where White people are also poor, but the disparities in income and poverty and criminal justice are higher in the North, and especially in the upper Midwest, where the White population is traditionally liberal and well off.”

A significant factor stunting upward social mobility that sociologists often point to is devastating state policy and policing practices; Wisconsin incarcerates black people at a rate of 12 to one compared to white people, more than double the national average of five to one.

“The fact of being a small and disproportionately poor population then feeds back into itself, as it makes it easier to develop criminal justice or other policies that disproportionately harm Black people or disproportionately benefit White people and will be politically popular with the White majority,” Oliver said, pointing to the racially skewed impacts of the war on drugs and other “tough on crime” policies.

With a criminal record, access to employment, education, housing and public assistance becomes greatly limited. Moreover, the resources devoted to incarceration are those that are explicitly not devoted to social programs that could enhance upward mobility.

“It’s been established, for example, that the cost of educating kids is lower than the cost of incarcerating them,” Plummer said. “And the effects — and social costs — of incarceration don’t necessarily go away after someone is released.”

Many of the cities in this year’s report are holdovers from last year’s as well, indicating a continued lack of progress in addressing the region’s pervasive racial inequalities that dates back not just one year, but is deeply historical.

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