The Worst Place in the U.S. to Be Black Is...Wisconsin

By Dan Schneider | November/December 2015

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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Xavier Thomas rode the bus to school growing up. He and a handful of other African-American kids from Milwaukee were part of the state’s school desegregation effort, known as the Chapter 220 Program, and would dutifully ride out of the city five days a week to attend the mostly white Wauwatosa East High School in the very white suburb of Wauwatosa, Wisc.

Thomas’ family would struggle at times. They lived paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes the lights would be out for a few weeks, and he lived on a strict budget for food and other necessities. Although he didn’t imbue it with much significance back then, today the 27-year-old Thomas realizes how little his white classmates understood his situation.

“Someone might walk by my lunch table and take one of my chicken nuggets, not realizing they were taking a lot from me. I had to stretch out $2 for that day, but they could always get more money from their parents,” Thomas recalls.

This disconnect has followed Thomas well out of the high school cafeteria. As Milwaukee was reeling last year from the death of Dontre Hamilton, an African-American man who was shot to death by a city police officer last April, Thomas noticed that the white parents of a childhood friend in Wauwatosa were posting dismissive comments about the incident to Facebook. He was upset.

“They’re saying ‘this happens to white people and nobody cares’ and now I have to correct them. I’m like, ‘How do you not get what’s happening to us?’”

As it was with the kids who took food off his lunch tray over a decade ago, the answer might be that they simply don’t have the background to understand. The statistical and lived differences between growing up in Wauwatosa and growing up in an inner-city, mostly-black Milwaukee neighborhood like the one Thomas grew up in are about as wide as they can be.

Chart showing that Wisonsin ranks worst for Black people on key indicators

Wisconsin’s Race to the Bottom

At first glance, the realities facing Wisconsin’s black residents seem to be on par with those in the rest of the country. Nationwide, black Americans trail their white counterparts in unemployment by a two-to-one ratio, make 60% of the average household income of whites, and have just 8% of the wealth of the average white household. Housing segregation is still common in many major American cities. Black incarceration rates far exceed those for whites—particularly for drug-related crimes.

But a review of major studies published in the past few years suggests that Wisconsin’s black population has fallen to the back of the pack. The state has the highest rate of black unemployment in the nation and the highest rate of black incarceration. Black children are ranked the lowest in the country for overall well-being. And in categories where it fails to be the very worst, it falls short by inches; the Dairy State is also close to having the highest rates of black poverty and teen pregnancy in the nation.

Stated otherwise: from a socioeconomic perspective, Wisconsin has become one of the worst places in the United States to be black.

This admittedly runs against the conventional wisdom. Wisconsin lacks the same legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that frames race relations in the South, and the state doesn’t have a very large black population—the number of black residents is around 350,000, barely 6% of the state’s total population. But once you start digging into the numbers, the conclusion is hard to escape.

To begin to understand the dynamics at play here, it’s important to understand that Milwaukee is home to about 70% of Wisconsin’s black population—making it the center of the community’s socioeconomic woes. This has been the case since the 1950s and ’60s, when late movers of the Second Great Migration began to stream into the state by the thousands in search of jobs and an escape from southern racism and Jim Crow. In the years leading up to World War II, the city had fewer than 10,000 black residents, with the African-American community only reaching more than 3% of the city’s population in 1950. In the following decades, that number would continue to grow, along with increasingly visible disparities along racial lines.

A combination of the city’s natural landscape, a grid-based city with easily discerned boundaries, and decades of discrimination by local real-estate associations and the Federal Housing Administration created a simple roadmap for the city’s development in the 20th century: white people live over here, black people live over there. It has made Milwaukee the most segregated metro area in the country, a title it has held or nearly held since at least 1980.

In a way, the lines of geographic segregation can be seen as symbols for the extreme social inequalities between the black community and white Milwaukee. The overall poverty rate is less than 8%; but for black residents, it’s about 36%, one of the largest disparities in the country. For whites, the median household income is over $60,000; the median income for black households is less than half that, at just $26,000. The Economic Policy Institute has found that Milwaukee has the highest rate of black unemployment in the country, and according to the Urban League, the city has the third largest gulf between black and white unemployment in the country.

Madison, the state capital located some 80 miles to the west of Milwaukee, is home to some equally troubling racial fault lines, and in some respects is doing even worse than Milwaukee. The overall poverty rate for black families is more than 50% in the area, and the black childhood poverty rate is over 75%.

Municipalities around Wisconsin with smaller black populations bear many of the same traits as the state’s two major cities. A quick look at Census data maps shows that places like Racine and Beloit are similarly segregated. Predominantly African-American areas are segregated from majority-white areas by dividing lines like the Root River cutting through Racine. One can see from these maps (see below) how the average household income drops sharply as you move from a white neighborhood into the black neighborhood, at times by over $20,000 within just a few blocks.

Map showing Wisconsin's racial and economic fault lines

Disparities in policing and criminal justice are another sobering piece of the picture. A 2014 review of arrest statistics by the Appleton, Wisc., newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent, found that in 48 police and sheriff departments around the state, the ratio of black-to-white arrests exceeded the 3:1 ratio found in Ferguson, Mo. In Wauwatosa, where black people make up just 4% of the population, but are subject to nearly 60% of all arrests.

The state prison system exhibits similar racial disparities. A 2014 study found that one in eight black men in Wisconsin is incarcerated, a larger proportion than in any other state by a significant margin. Over half of black men in their 30s and early 40s in Milwaukee County have been incarcerated at some point in their lives; in the city’s most troubled zip code, 53206, almost every block is home to multiple ex-convicts.

“This incarceration issue is directly linked to the issue of entrenched joblessness,” says Marc Levine, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied the economies of Milwaukee and Wisconsin for years. “It’s what [sociologist William Julius] Wilson calls the ‘concentrated disadvantage,’ where factors in a particular area combine and feed on one another, further worsening the situation.” Wisconsin versus “Milwaukee”

During his 2012 recall election, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made it a point to paint the city of Milwaukee as a scary, crumbling urban center. He ran TV ads featuring dead babies and run-down ports on Lake Michigan. At one point, he appeared onstage during a campaign stop in the town of Sussex to warn that “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.”

There are two possible interpretations of this rhetoric. The first is that Walker, who was running against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, was simply employing the unexceptional campaign tactic of attacking his opponent’s record. The second, more sinister interpretation is that in Wisconsin politics, “Milwaukee” is often code for “black people.”

In the face of the crisis for black Wisconsin residents, Governor Scott Walker has done little to nothing to tackle the problem—arguably, he’s made things worse. The policies of the Walker administration have fallen in line with his professed conservative ideology: gutting public- and private-sector unions, signing a restrictive voter ID law, turning away over $1 billion in federal funding to expand Medicaid and public transportation, cutting funding for public education, and proposing to drug-test welfare recipients. The failure to participate in the federal Medicaid expansion has been especially damaging, with about a fifth of black Wisconsinites still lacking health insurance even as there has been a nationwide drop in the uninsured rate.

A Brief History of Race Relations in Wisconsin

  • 1835: One of the first black people—possibly the first—to live in Milwaukee, Joe Oliver arrives in the city. He would become a cook for Milwaukee’s first mayor, Solomon Juneau.
  • 1847-49: State legislature and a later referendum reject the removal of racial requirements for voting in Wisconsin.
  • 1850: Census numbers list fifty-two black workers in Wisconsin.
  • 1854: A protest mob storms the Milwaukee County Jail to free a fugitive slave named Joshua Glover. That year, the state Supreme Court would rule that the Fugitive Slave Act didn’t apply to Wisconsin.
  • 1866: African-Americans gain the right to vote in Wisconsin after a lawsuit by railroad worker Ezekiel Gillespie succeeds at the state Supreme Court.
  • 1889-95: A lawsuit against the Bijou Opera House for refusing admission to a black man leads to the adoption of the state’s first anti-discrimination statute. The $5 fine it imposed was seen by many as an ineffective deterrent on discrimination.
  • 1895: While the regional brewing and meatpacking industries were growing, local attorney William T. Green writes that “only a single, solitary Negro is employed” in them, highlighting the employment disparities of the time. This trend would continue until World War I, but black Wisconsinites were more frequently used as strikebreakers than hired outright.
  • 1905: Local black-owned newspaper The Advocate describes reluctance to sell and rent housing by whites: “Men will not rent to decent, respectable Negroes a house—even though the latter are in a position to pay with equal regularity as much rental as any other class of whites.”
  • 1918: The Milwaukee NAACP successfully desegregates the Muirdale Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
  • 1920s: Though never adopted, several bills outlawing interracial marriage are proposed in the Wisconsin state legislature.
  • 1924: The Ku Klux Klan holds a rally in Madison, Wisc., that draws thousands.
  • 1930: Milwaukee’s black population exceeds 1% for the first time.
  • 1930-40: The Great Depression halves the black male employment rate in Wisconsin.
  • 1935: State legislature refuses to outlaw racially restrictive covenants in housing, on the grounds that it would “destroy vacation resorts on Wisconsin lakes by opening them up to blacks.”
  • 1939: A request by the University of Missouri to exclude a star University of Wisconsin African-American hurdler from a track-and-field meet causes an uproar among students and faculty at Wisconsin. The university would ultimately back out of the event.
  • 1940-60: Wisconsin’s black population increases by nearly 600%, growing to nearly 75,000. Much of this was due to migration from the South.
  • 1955: A court finds that a black, out-of-state union member was denied admission to a local Plasterers’ union due to his race.
  • 1956: Socialist Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler nearly loses reelection after a rumor is spread that he had taken out billboards in the South encouraging African-Americans to move to Milwaukee.
  • 1961: Wisconsin NAACP President Lloyd Barbee holds a 13-day sit-in at the state capitol to protest the lack of a state fair housing law. He was elected to the legislature in 1964 and helped win passage of such a law in 1965.
  • 1965: Black realtors admitted to the Milwaukee Board of Realtors for the first time.
  • 1970: A study finds that of 121 city, county, and state elected offices in Milwaukee County, only five are held by African Americans.
  • 1986: All seven of Milwaukee County’s non-white firefighters are laid off.
  • 1988: Pulitzer-winning articles in the Atlanta Constitution find that Milwaukee has the highest disparity in the rejection of home mortgage loans in the country, “with blacks being rejected four times as often as whites.”
  • 1989: First black department head appointed in Milwaukee city government by Mayor John Norquist.
  • 1990: Class action lawsuit filed to challenge the pervasive redlining practices by American Family Insurance Company. The resulting $14.5 million award would be the largest of its kind at the time.
  • 1990: A study of fourteen major cities in the “Frostbelt” puts Milwaukee at number one for black poverty.
  • 2004: Marvin Pratt becomes the first black mayor of Milwaukee when John Norquist resigns. He would lose reelection a few months later to Tom Barrett, the city’s current mayor.
  • 2008: America’s Black Holocaust Museum, self-described as the only memorial in the U.S. dedicated specifically to remembering victims of slavery, closes its doors in Milwaukee. The museum had been founded by James Cameron, an NAACP activist and the only known survivor of a lynching.
  • 2014-15: The shootings of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee and Tony Robinson in Madison by police officers renew discussions about the use of lethal force by police. State legislature passes law requiring police shootings to be investigated by an outside agency.
  • SOURCES: Ruth Zubrensky, “A Report on Past Discrimnation Against African-Americans in Milwaukee, 1835-1999,” July 1999; Wisconsin Historical Society (various sources).

    Meanwhile, in his first four years as governor Walker made several big “gives” to his white suburban constituency (centered in the ultra-white, suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties). This includes a massive, deficit-inducing tax cut mostly benefiting the wealthiest—generally white—Wisconsinites, and infrastructure projects that favor white suburban residents over black urban workers desperately in need of transportation to get to good jobs.

    To many Wisconsin Democrats, the governor’s policies—alongside his battle-tested campaign strategy of running against Milwaukee—feel like an invocation of the “toxic racial politics” that have been increasingly connected to Walker, and more broadly the state’s Republican Party, in recent years. Sometimes those politics lead to cringe-worthy results, like when a state senator suggested that Kwanzaa is a fake holiday or Walker aides were caught sending around racist emails. But sometimes the results are much direr, as the current economic outlook for the state’s black population shows.

    “There’s no doubt about it that race has been a very convenient rallying cry for getting votes, and using other policies as a proxy for race,” said U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), the state’s first black member of Congress. Moore said that the racial “dog whistles” of welfare reform and other policies promoted by Walker and his predecessors have worked to disenfranchise the state’s black community. “All of these things have really formed a structural racism that is very, very difficult to overcome.”

    Governor Walker’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

    Long Time Coming

    Although Republicans deserve criticism for their contributions to this crisis, many of the trends that have hurt Wisconsin’s black population have been building for a long time. This is a story that repeatedly played out across the United States over the past 50 years, as communities were decimated by the one-two-three punch of segregation, deindustrialization, and incarceration.

    But it’s the special confluence of these factors that have made Wisconsin as a whole not just bad, but the worst state for black Americans. More than most other states, Wisconsin relied on manufacturing to drive its economy from the early postwar period through to the present. The black community relied on that sector for stable, decent-paying jobs through the 1970s. When those jobs began to leave for the suburbs, the union-averse South, and—eventually—Mexico and China in the 1980s and ’90s, so did much of the community’s middle-class.

    “You look at when companies like Allis Chalmers and A.O. Smith begin cutting their workforces by huge amounts [in the ’80s]—50 or 60%—and that’s right when the black male jobless rate begins to skyrocket,” economist Marc Levine says.

    Another key element of this slide into economic depression is rooted in a quirk of the state’s political history that had little to do with race—at first. In 1955, a dispute over water usage by the town of Oak Creek, south of Milwaukee, spilled over into a statewide attempt to cull the city’s powers of annexation. Known sometimes as the Oak Creek Law, new legislation made it practically impossible for the city to grow, keeping it locked in at 91 square miles and increasing the power of its “iron ring” of outer suburban towns and counties. These towns and counties became overwhelmingly whiter and wealthier in the decades that followed, as more African Americans began to migrate into the city and whites migrated out

    With the departure of major industry came the departure of tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, as well as the dream of a black middle class on par with those of Atlanta or Chicago. As both white residents and private employers began to flee in the 1970s, the city was left with few tools to fight poverty, aside from some federal support and an array of well-meaning non-profits. By the turn of the century, Milwaukee had lost over 70% of its manufacturing jobs (some of which migrated to suburbs) and the urban blight that came with it was written off by most politicians as “Milwaukee’s problem.”

    Indeed, Republicans from suburban counties have used their political clout to inflict pain on the city for decades. Highlights include thwarting attempts to create a light rail system (until just recently), supporting Wisconsin’s local “war on drugs” (and resulting sky-high incarceration rates for black men), reducing the amount of state tax revenue shared with the city, and maintaining statutory limits on Milwaukee’s ability to raise taxes on its own.

    Meanwhile, racially coded city-bashing became the norm for suburban Republican candidates, with the stigma of the city carrying a generation of state and local politicians into office. This includes both state heavyweights like Walker and local oddballs like one-time Waukesha mayor Jeff Scrima, who campaigned against a plan to source the municipal water supply from Lake Michigan through Milwaukee. Why? Because it allowed him to stoke fears of an underlying plan to turn Waukesha into a puppet government run by Milwaukee.

    “The state Republican Party basically adopted the Southern Strategy by playing on race in the Milwaukee suburbs,” said former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, who led the city from 1988 until 2004.

    The actions Walker took as Milwaukee County Executive exemplify this division. Even some suburban Republicans may have chafed at the knowledge that Walker was once caught cutting off food stamps to nearly 20% of eligible applicants during the Great Recession. Still, they voted for him anyway, even after 3,000 people showed up looking for relief in a blocks-long, Great Depression-style line for food aid.

    It should be noted that the state’s Democrats are not blameless either. Politicians like former Milwaukee mayor Norquist supported a number of “market-based” approaches to urban blight, including a quixotic attempt to bring private business to the inner city in the early 2000s. “Tough on crime” Democrats were also instrumental in supporting the explosion of the state’s prison population in the 1990s.

    And where have these policies left the state today? With the largest gap in black-white student achievement in the country and infant mortality rates in black Milwaukee above those in the Gaza Strip.

    On the state level, proposals to shift course are few and far between. Two Republican state senators—including Alberta Darling, representing the tony Milwaukee suburb of River Hills—floated a plan earlier this year allegedly aimed at improving economic opportunity in Milwaukee’s inner city. Yet much of it reads like a checklist of conservative economic talking points: abolish the corporate income tax for new businesses, get rid of price floor requirements for big retailers like Wal-Mart, create “right-to-work” zones (now redundant since that became state law last winter), and put more money into Governor Walker’s charter school initiative.

    Absent from this proposal is any attempt to directly invest in depressed areas of cities like Milwaukee, Madison, or Racine. Also absent was the input of officials from the twelve legislative districts in the state with a majority-minority population (of which only six are actually represented by a black or Latino legislator).

    The senators advancing the plan did not respond to requests for comment. “The idea that you don’t need targeted government investment and some kind of Marshall Plan for these neighborhoods has been demonstrated to be fallacious,” argues Levine. “We don’t have a comprehensive anti-poverty program, and as a result we have some of the highest rates of black poverty in the country.”

    That gap in community investment is currently being filled by various nonprofits and underfunded city agencies. These outfits not only offer assistance to needy families throughout the state, but are major drivers of employment, providing up to 40% of the jobs in some majority-black areas. General economic advancement has been hard to come by, but there have been small social successes along the way: the formation of new neighborhood associations and massive drops in crime in certain areas, small-scale prisoner reincorporation efforts and burgeoning grassroots calls for criminal-justice reform.

    “The other side of talking about ‘the struggle’ has to be a belief that it can be overcome,” says Rev. Steve Jerbi, who leads a small cross-denominational congregation in Milwaukee called All People’s Church. In the months after local police shot Dontre Hamilton in a city park last April, All People’s became a focal point for protests and organizing in the community, and even hosted a visit from Jesse Jackson.

    Jerbi is aware that visits from celebrities like Jackson and freeway-blocking protests are only one front in a larger fight. To him, however, these events are emblematic of a deeper anger running through the community, one that state government officials—including Walker—have been content to ignore in recent years.

    “People are hurting around here,” Jerbi says. “But the landscape is set up in such a way that nobody, including state power brokers, really has to do anything for [the black community] to achieve what they want.”

    , a Milwaukee native, is a member of the Dollars & Sense collective and a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

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