Pain, grief, frustration, anger. All of these simmer in places where injustice and inequality live. They simmer where we’ve lived so long with hurtful conditions that we’ve forgotten why those conditions exist, or begin to see those conditions as normal or even inevitable.
Metropolitan Milwaukee is one such place. It is the most racially segregated metropolitan region in the United States. That fact certainly wasn’t inevitable – it was created, and continues to be created, in the present by systemic forms of discrimination, exclusion and marginalization. It’s counterintuitive but undeniable: the African American communities that are literally geographically near the center of our region are figuratively marginalized, shunted aside, and excluded from key opportunities that lead to high quality of life. Historically, this happened through a host of Jim Crow-style laws, ordinances and policies. Today, it occurs in a more subtle, de facto way, which is more difficult for many people to acknowledge or even see.
It happens when real estate professionals steer white homebuyers away from predominately minority neighborhoods, and discourage African American homebuyers from looking at predominately white suburbs. It happens when wealthier, predominately white communities refuse to accept development of affordable housing, or enact zoning ordinances that make such housing impossible. It happens when banks providing small business loans, employers and other sources of wealth and economic health decide not to locate in predominately minority communities. It happens when health care providers build their newest, state-of-the art facilities in areas that are almost exclusively white, or suburban. It happens when public transportation doesn’t exist to connect poorer neighborhoods to communities with greater numbers of job opportunities. It happens when mortgage lenders and homeowners insurance providers won’t offer their products at all, or on an inferior basis, to African American neighborhoods and other areas where many people of color reside. And when those high-quality resources fail to locate or stay in African American neighborhoods, something predictable happens: predators move in. Rent-to-own establishments, payday lenders, and predatory mortgage rescue scams prey on the needs of African American communities when traditional, high-quality services have abandoned those areas. Areas that have already been harmed by one set of businesses are harmed by yet another, and the concentration of poverty becomes even more intense. It leads to foreclosures, boarded-up homes, crime, and deterioration of so many other facets of community wellbeing. This can happen even in neighborhoods we love and cherish, like Sherman Park.
And so it is no surprise that it takes just one shift in events to change pain, grief, frustration and anger from a simmer into a boil, from a latent undercurrent whisper of hurt into a full-throated cry. I abhor all forms of violence – whether it’s violence that takes a human life, violence against personal property, or the sort of violence done against entire neighborhoods by discrimination and concentration of poverty. But it’s no surprise that many observers of recent events in Milwaukee look only at the violence on the surface – the easily observable violence that lends itself to dramatic television footage or facile assessments of what is happening. Further, it’s no surprise that so many white Milwaukeeans are desperately uncomfortable talking about race and racism, or looking at the root causes of violence and injustice, since we don’t even live near one another. We live in a world where white suburbanites will cheer black sports heroes and idolize black musical artists, but don’t or won’t live next to black people.
When an uneasy peace has been restored to Sherman Park, the television cameras and newspaper reporters will turn their attention to other things. Some, unwilling to look at the long chain of events that led to recent rioting, may sneer at the reactions of angry residents and hope they’ve learned a lesson.
But organizations like the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and many others will still be here, working on the toughest, most intractable sources of racial disparities and neighborhood inequalities. They’re hard problems, no question – but they’re not insurmountable. There are, in fact, proven strategies for expanding opportunities for all people, and for dismantling segregation. It starts with enforcing fair housing and fair lending laws. It starts by demanding that our public officials enact meaningful policies that promote integrated, healthy neighborhoods. It starts with us and it starts with you. I invite you to get involved. Visit the Fair Housing Council’s Facebook page and website to learn more about the issues we work on, and then call us to learn more about what you can do: 414-278-1240. We welcome you.
William R. Tisdale is the President and CEO of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council. The Council is a private, non-profit organization whose purpose is to promote fair housing throughout the State of Wisconsin by combating illegal housing discrimination and by creating and maintaining racially and economically integrated housing patterns. It operates satellite offices in Dane County (the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison) and in Northeast Wisconsin (the Fair Housing Center of Northeast Wisconsin). For more information, see www.fairhousingwisconsin.com.