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Bob Graf is a lifelong resident of Milwaukee who has been active in social justice and peace nonviolent actions.
Milwaukee is a racist city. This is a harsh and hard statement for me to make about the city I grew up and now, 77 years later, I still live in.
But after watching coronavirus take so many lives in the African American and Hispanic communities and watching how the murder of George Floyd exposed the deep-seated racism in this country, I need to say it.
When I was a youngster growing up on the West Side of Milwaukee, I noticed my parents referred to African Americans using an Arabic word they said was for “Negroes.” But from the smirk on their faces, I knew it was a derogatory term.
After I retired some years ago, I decided to try to understand my feeling of racism in myself and in Milwaukee. I, particularly, looked at systematic or institutional racism.
With the help of friends, I researched and wrote essays about the structural racism of Milwaukee and saw how it did not just happen but was consciously chosen. Here are some stories and research that led to my conclusion.
In 2017, I created a racial division spreadsheet so the data could speak for itself. I broke every ZIP code by its racial majority, the location of the 70,000-plus lead lateral water pipes, the rate of homicides, infant mortality, educational levels, disabilities, unemployment and the city’s investment in each ZIP code by Tax Incremental Financing, or TIF.
TIF is a system where property taxes are frozen in an area. Business and developers receive loans from the city, and as they are paid back, the monies are invested in the TIF area. The original idea of TIF areas was to help economically low-income areas develop. However, Milwaukee has used the TIF program to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in white neighborhoods, like downtown, but avoided investments in low-income Black neighborhoods.
For example, the spreadsheet shows that as of 2016, the city investments into the white downtown areas of 53202 and 53203 were $300,085,000 but in the poorest and most distressed African American ZIP code of 53206, the city made no TIF investment. Of course, the return on the investment has gone into these same downtown areas.
Another example from the spreadsheet is the location of the poisonous lead lateral water pipes, predominantly in the African American and Hispanic ZIP codes. In the 1990s, city officials were notified of the danger of lead water pipes and the health hazard they presented to people in these areas. Yet the city failed to replace them.
In 2015, Flint, Michigan, brought to our attention the dire health consequences of lead water pipes, especially on children. A 2015 study in Flint found that 4.9% of children 5 and under who were tested had dangerous levels of lead in their blood. The spreadsheet shows that in the same year, 10.51% of Milwaukee’s children, 5 years and under who were tested in predominately black ZIP codes had dangerous levels of lead in their system. In the ZIP code of 53206, 19.9% of children 5 and under tested had dangerous levels of lead poisoning.
There was a cry for a systematic long-term replacement for the 70,000 residential lead lateral water pipes in the city. Milwaukee officials did a lot of talking about lead water pipes, passed out some water filters but only put in the budget replacement of 500 lead residential water pipes a year and only when they break. At this rate, if only the lead water pipes broke, it would take us into the year 2158 to remedy this health hazard.
Milwaukee is rated as one of the worst cities for many things, like the worst city to raise African American children. The spreadsheet and worst city ratings show how much a systemic racist city Milwaukee has become.
There are many more examples of racism in Milwaukee. For example, with the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to look at hospitals in the predominantly white and African American ZIP codes. There was one in all the African American ZIP codes and five in the predominately white ZIP codes.
Since the ’60s, Milwaukee has not tolerated overt racism, but systematic structural racism has prevailed. It is not only the city officials who perpetuate this racism, but it is all of us who consistently support and vote them into office.
We need to start with us, to admit Milwaukee is a racist city and then to work together to undo this systemic racism. Every time there is a movement of people to make a change and to take nonviolent action, my hope renews. Perhaps with the coronavirus and the response to the George Floyd murder, the movement will grow and last until there finally is systemic change in Milwaukee.
As history has shown, real change in Milwaukee and elsewhere to eliminate systemic racism will not come from the ballot box. Milwaukee is now more racist than it was in the 1960s, despite our voting for Democrats, whom we consider the lesser of two evils.
Real change comes only when we withdraw our support for the structures and persons in our city and take direct nonviolent action for change. We are Milwaukee: We are the only ones who can eliminate racism in Milwaukee.