Monday, January 20, 2014

Wisconsin's two-tier society on race- not MLK's dream

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King today, it's also worth noting that his work in making for an improved and more equal society is far from done. And this is especially true here in Wisconsin.

The Center On Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) released a report last month that showed Wisconsin has significantly larger racial disparities in outcomes than much of the rest of the country.
Wisconsin’s racial inequality is generally the result of both the relatively good outcomes for Wisconsin’s white population and worse-than national outcomes for the African American population. The disparity is not inevitable. Indeed, thirty years ago the state generated much better economic outcomes for African Americans, a population group that did better in the state than the national average. Opportunities and outcomes have diverged however to the disturbing chasm that now confronts the state.

The vitality of our economy, the prosperity of our state, and the health and well-being of all our communities are threatened by the racial disparity that plagues Wisconsin. We hope that this litany of outcomes can contribute to a sense of context and urgency, and help promote attention to these issues.
And the racial disparities are striking, with COWS saying each of these disparities are among the 10 largest in the nation.

Wisconsin stats- White vs. African-American
Unemployment rate- 5.9% white, 19.3% African-American
Labor force participation rate- 68.7% white, 60.7% African-American
Median Household income- $53,499 white, $26,222 African-American
Poverty rate, all families- 6.1% white, 35.0% African-American
Poverty rate, children- 11.4% white, 50.3% African-American
People without health insurance- 7.4% white, 14.0% African-American

So when you have a state (and/or federal) government that chooses not to expand health insurance to the poor, or offer aid to the unemployed, or increase the quality and opportunity of education in poor communities, you are disproportionately hurting African-Americans in Wisconsin. I'm not going to say that this neglect is intentional, but I will say the fact that these bad things are more likely to hit non-whites makes a white majority group of legislators less likely to care about the issue.

A cycle of hopelessness can result as part of this two-tier society. I found this excellent blog post from an African-American who grew up in Milwaukee and later moved to be especially poignant. Here's a sample passage.
Teutonia and Locust is where I remember playing on the playground before bullets rang out. When I think of Milwaukee, I think of it as the physical place where my brothers failed to escape its destructible trajectory. It is in Milwaukee where I’ve experienced some of my scariest moments. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to a burning house. It was in Milwaukee where several men beat me as a young woman with bats and the hardiness of the concrete. It was right there in that city, where I slugged on public transportation to get minimum wage just to buy basic necessities. When I think of Milwaukee I think of the food stamps, the hours of waiting for healthcare, the roaches on the wall, the desperate competition for school clothes, the long lines at Aldi, the boys who got shot, the men that went to prison, the girls who became mothers, the babies who were left alone. It is there, in Milwaukee, where I learned the instant gratification of sex, drugs, and money. It is there where I learned the disillusion of basketball dreams and rapping careers.

It didn’t build my character, as people say poverty does, it built angst, dejection, and posttraumatic stress. It harbored in me, for years after going down south for college, a deep sense of inadequacy and eventually survivor’s guilt. I began to feel guilty that all of my greatest memories-falling in love, meeting lifelong friends, traveling the world, finding amazing mentors, becoming engulfed in life altering projects, getting married, graduating, starting a family-were not in Milwaukee. Even driving, learning to pay bills, becoming independent, discovering how to control my emotions, turning away from a culture of violence, and other basic life changes happened to me away from my family and surely outside of the small city I grew up in. I grew further and further away from the people whom I considered my family and visiting became much more of a chore and far less of a comfort.

Every time I returned to Milwaukee, I was forced to be 15 again. I was forced to remember people I had long forgotten about. I was forced to remember restaurants I could never afford to eat in. I was forced to remember neighbors who had long gone to prison. I was forced to remember the playground I was beat up at, the Goodwill store my mother shopped at, and the welfare line so many of us used to stand in. I was forced to have unnatural conversations with old friends I was disappointed in, who gained so much weight I barely recognized, who lived lives I was unacquainted with. I was forced to hear old stories that were glossed up as if they were amazing ones. I was forced to remember all the people we never got to see become whole again.
This should remind us that simple, one-size-fits-all solutions that might make sense to white people in the suburbs with a pathway to success might not have much relevance to minorities living in impoverished communities where hard work often does not go rewarded. It helps explain why Dr. King's focus took on more of an economic shade in his later years, because he recognized that a two-tier society goes well past Jim Crow laws limiting the right to vote and separating the races in lunch counters and movie theaters. writer (and former UW student) Joan Walsh mentions that the radical, economic-based MLK is a voice that we need to heed today more than ever. She quotes Dr. King's 1967 "Where Do We Go From Here?" speech as a call to recommit to expanding the opportunities that seem to be shrinking by the day for many Americans. It is scary how much Dr. King's words ring true in 2014.
Now, in order to answer the question, "Where do we go from here?" which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is fifty percent of a person. Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites. Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share: There are twice as many unemployed; the rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites; and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population.

In other spheres, the figures are equally alarming. In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money per student than the white schools. One-twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, seventy-five percent hold menial jobs. This is where we are.

Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.
And while we may have improved in some of these metrics in the last 47 years, it's still nowhere near where our country and our state needs to be in order to become that "More Perfect Union."

So on this MLK Day, it's worthy to realize that a two-tier society with severely unequal levels of opportunity flies in the face of what that amazing man would accept. And we have to keep trying to fix it, as doing so will improve the quality and vibrancy of life for all of us.

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