On Milwaukee: Shootings, segregation, and public policy

Segregation is partly about personal hostility, but it is largely about public policy.

Intentionally or not, the transportation and housing policies of the state and the suburbs double as racial fortifications.

— Daniel Dale, Toronto Star

by Carey Knecht, Director
August 16, 2016

This past Saturday, a police officer in Milwaukee shot Sylville K. Smith, a 23-year-old African-American man, three times, and killed him.

Smith was armed, and details of the shooting are still emerging. But it is the second recent high-profile fatal shooting of a black man by Milwaukee police, and it touched off a spark.

Riots erupted Saturday evening. By Sunday, at least a half dozen businesses had been burned, and the National Guard was called in.

A long history of injustice

Explaining the roots of these riots, Alderman Khalif Rainey, who represents the neighborhood where this occurred, talked about Milwaukee’s segregation. The neighborhood, he said, had become a “powder keg” created by decades of systemic inequality. Rainey said:

“This entire community has sat back and witnessed how Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become the worst place to live for African-Americans in the entire country. Now this is a warning cry. Where do we go from here? Where do we go as a community from here?

“Do we continue – continue with the inequities, the injustice, the unemployment, the under-education, that creates these byproducts that we see this evening? The black people of Milwaukee are tired. They’re tired of living under this oppression. This is their existence. This is their life. This is the life of their children.

“Now what has happened tonight may have not been right; I’m not justifying that. But no one can deny the fact that there’s problems, racial problems, here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that have to be closely, not examined, but rectified. Rectify this immediately. Because if you don’t, this vision of downtown, all of that, you’re one day away. You’re one day away.”

America’s most unequal city?

As Rainey explained, Milwaukee is one of the country’s most segregated cities. For NPR’s Code Switch, Kenya Downs compiled research and news articles to outline a number of stark inequalities, including:

  – Four out of five black children in Wisconsin live in poverty. Milwaukee has the second-highest black poverty rate in the country.

 – Milwaukee’s unemployment rate is nearly four times higher for blacks than for whites.

 – Milwaukee suspends African-American high school students at nearly twice the national suspension rate. Wisconsin has the largest educational achievement gap between black and white students in the United States.

 – Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for black men is nearly double the national average.

The contribution of public policy

As ClimatePlan staff have written before, these inequalities have their root in decades of discriminatory land use and transportation policy. These created a massive wealth gap, perpetuated racist prejudice, and put numerous barriers in place for African Americans today.

As reporter Daniel Dale explains in the Toronto Star, “Segregation is partly about personal hostility, but it is largely about public policy. Intentionally or not, the transportation and housing policies of the state and the suburbs double as racial fortifications.” Prejudice and discriminatory policies feed into one another; they have become a self-reinforcing cycle, in Milwaukee as elsewhere.

Dale’s excellent article gives many examples:

 – Violent opposition to an affordable housing project in a suburb until the US Justice Department sued the suburb for discriminatory housing policy;

 – Cuts to transit funding that would connect Milwaukee to its job-rich outskirts; and

 – Policies that penalize unpaid traffic fines with drivers’ licenses suspensions — to such a degree that now half of all black men in Milwaukee County lack a valid license, which can incur spiraling costs, lost time, and lost job opportunities.

Decisions about transportation investments are a big part of this. An excellent piece by Michael Grunwald in Politico last year makes the contrasts clear:

“[Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker … killed plans for light rail, commuter rail, high-speed rail, and dedicated bus lanes on major highways, so there is almost no public transportation connecting Milwaukee to its suburbs, intensifying divisions in one of the nation’s most racially, economically and politically segregated metropolitan areas.

Yet Walker, who is running for president as a staunch fiscal conservative, has pushed a $250 million-per-mile plan to widen Interstate 94 between the Marquette and the Zoo despite fierce local opposition.

In some ways, Wisconsin represents an extreme example of the priorities that have traditionally dominated U.S. transportation policy.”

Policy solutions, and partnerships

It is with public policy that we need to fix this problem, but it will not be easy. It will take principled leadership from elected officials, grassroots communities, public agency staff, and professional advocacy groups. This work is long overdue, and it is urgently needed. In particular, it is long past time for white people like myself to lend our voices in support of leaders of color, and for advocates from many fields to stand behind the goals of equity advocates.

As a network of over fifty partners, ClimatePlan seeks to be a place where groups fighting for transportation and housing equity, racial justice, and economic opportunity receive support from other organizations in the field. ClimatePlan also works directly to shift how our state and regional governments invest our tax dollars in transportation to better serve everyone — and especially to bring more options to people who have had too few.

These systems have been skewed for a long time. It’s going to take a lot of work to address patterns of discrimination — to make sure every person has the opportunity to live and thrive in a healthy and safe community. As ClimatePlan’s Associate Director Chanell Fletcher points out in her recent blog post, many ClimatePlan partners have been tackling this tough work for many years. Now it is time to harness the full power of our network in their support, and keep fighting for policies that bring equity, opportunity, and justice.


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