As the Democratic National Convention thrusts Milwaukee onto the national stage, America’s reckoning with police violence and racial injustice will be brought to bear on a city marked by profound racial inequality and oppression. During a time in which Americans are being forced to confront how centuries of white supremacy has shaped virtually every aspect of our lives, there may be no better case study for the present-day impact of systemic racism than the City of Milwaukee.
For decades, African Americans in Milwaukee have dealt with devastating rates of poverty, intense segregation in housing and education, a criminal justice system that arrests, incarcerates, and devours communities of color at vastly disproportionate rates, as well as a myriad of other hardships rooted in our history of racism.
A recent report authored by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Marc Levine brings the city’s rigid racial divisions into sharp focus, illuminating just how pronounced Milwaukee’s disparities are, even when compared with other major cities experiencing similar issues.
Levine’s investigation reveals that Milwaukee’s staggering 33.4% Black poverty rate is nearly five times higher than that of whites in the city, while the median household income for African Americans, a figure 42% lower than it is for white residents, ranks as the lowest among America’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.
Milwaukee has long held the disgraceful distinction as the most segregated city in the country, has unconscionably high infant mortality rates for Black babies, and incarcerates its African American citizens at a rate 10 times higher than white people. This rampant racial inequality has become part and parcel to daily life in the City of Milwaukee, an epidemic problem perpetuated by a collective unwillingness to seriously address it.
If we are to ever eradicate systemic racism here and elsewhere, we first must be clear about where it originates. While many prefer to outright deny the existence of structural racism and instead invoke racial stereotypes that blame people of color for social ills, the injustice that Black individuals endure today is a product of an institution of white supremacy that has prevailed in the United States since its founding.
Although the era of explicit, state-sanctioned white supremacy is now over, much of the infrastructure established during that time remains intact and unchanged, perpetuating the discriminatory outcomes it was designed to produce. The hypersegregation that pervades Milwaukee, for instance, can be traced back to racially exclusive programs like redlining, racial covenants which expressly forbade African Americans from living in white neighborhoods, and the withholding of federally-backed, low interest housing loans from Black people, making home ownership vastly more attainable for white people.
The persistence of systemic racism in the absence of legal discrimination means that outlawing legal discrimination, while neccessary, is not enough. Eliminating entrenched racism requires wholesale transformation of the social conditions which allow our society to function in a fashion that excludes, mistreats and endangers people of color. The current movement against police violence recognizes the need for this type of bold vision, calling for accountability for police abuses while also demanding that the institution of policing be fundamentally reimagined.
When we say Black Lives Matter, we affirm the value of all Black people in all facets of life. We raise our voices and fight not only to end racist policing, but also to fully fund Black schools, dismantle mass incarceration, improve social services, reduce poverty, and invest in people of color and the communities they live in.
As the movement for racial justice marches forward, we want to send a message to the people in power that the decades of disregard they have shown Black people and their concerns will not be tolerated. Systemic racism survives in part because some elected officials have ignored its effects and abandoned those affected by it. The days of inaction are over, and change is no longer optional. We will not rest until we have it.