by Ellen C. Warren
Rodney King died a couple weeks ago. At 47 years of age. Anyone over 12 probably remembers Mr. King. Beaten to a pulp by L.A. policemen, whose acquittal from charges sparked riots in Los Angeles. Rodney King, whose simple question, “Can we all get along?” lives on, still unsatisfactorily answered. Would he have lived longer without the beating? More to the point, would he have lived longer if he hadn’t been born black?
Welcome to Milwaukee! In 2005 The Black Commentator chose the 10 Worst States in the U.S. to be Black. Guess who topped the list? In their words, “Wisconsin, and in particular the Milwaukee area justly merit the invidious distinction of the worst place in the nation to be black.” The deciding factor, because it so profoundly affects the entire community, was the percentage of the black population that is incarcerated. In 2005 that number was just over 4%. Four or five out of every hundred black Wisconsinites held in jail or prison!
In October 2010, Lisa Kaiser of Expressmilwaukee.com reported that, “The racial gap in joblessness [in Milwaukee] has tripled since 1970, from an 11% gap to a 31% gap in joblessness between white men and black men. Sure doesn’t sound like things are getting any better, does it? And in regard to the actual geographic living situation of our African American Milwaukeeans, Professor Marc Levine, in the same article, stated, “We have the lowest rate of black suburbanization of any large metropolitan area in the country.” Another fact that should be embarassing. Especially considering that the majority of new jobs are out in the suburbs.
Why are we not embarassed, Milwaukee? Why are we not racing to right this racial wrong?
Now, I can keep on spouting statistics – the job of a real journalist – but what I am driven to do, instead, is have a chat with you about this.
Back in the mid 80s I lived in the area of Milwaukee now called Brewer’s Hill. We were located on Vine, just west of Third Street, not yet renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Then over to Second Street, a few blocks away. At the former location we could see Curley’s Bar, where the Milwaukee riots supposedly started. It was still called the ghetto by most. Brewer’s Hill by a few.
Second Street was more residential. Big yards and houses. And it was while living there that I witnessed that, and learned why, the Fourth of July was the most celebrated holiday in the African American community. The reason was that when you work for low pay many of the jobs require working on holidays. Everyone (then) got off for the Fourth of July! So, it was time to pull the barbeque out and parrtee. The rest of the time you were working.
People are people. It’s time for Milwaukee to wake up. Yes, we have a black President. And no, really nothing has changed. At least not in these parts. Our racial divide stays as strong as ever, or more so.
Riverwest is, at least self-proclaimedly, the best place to live in a mixed community in the Milwaukee area. (It’d be a thrill to hear someone/where else vie for that title.) Many of us enjoy and purposely choose to live amongst a variety of people. But, apparently, it’s not enough to move a city into action. When are we going to hear the Mayor voice anything about the dire racial situation that is allowed to continue, unabated, here?
Milwaukee still has a well-quarantined ghetto. [Ghetto: a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.] It has underfunded schools that teach many an inmate’s child. And that ex-con comes back to a neighborhood of no jobs, and due to the pervasive, unspoken racism (hidden behind fear of felons, etc.), virtually no opportunity to enter into society.
No movement on the government’s part, enhanced by the general white public’s fear of changing the status quo, speaking out, or making any sort of movement toward leveling the playing field leaves the black people of Milwaukee as powerless and disenfranchised as they were in 1950. Except then they were a large part of the workforce.
Although we were in the national eye for our ‘60’s Civil Rights Marches and Protests, sometimes it seems like the only city where a foot never really got in the door is here, where “walking while black” in many neighborhoods is still suspect. A little boy was killed by a crazed white man recently, in our own home town, just for being the wrong color. An innocent black teenager was murdered by a suburban white guntoter a few weeks before. Trayvon Martin made it into national news, but here there was barely a peep about either of these horrible and unnecessary killings.
So, what are we going to do?
In Chicago, home to similar racial disparities to our own, radio station WBEZ is opening up the conversation with “Race: Out Loud.” Managing Editor, Sally Eisele explains to her audience, “Over the next few months, we want to get people talking openly and candidly about race, racism and segregation. What have we learned as a society in the last 20 years? How far do we still have to go? We hope you’ll join in the conversation.”
It’s a good start. For Chicago. But what about here? What about us? How can we get things moving on a grand scale? How do we reach the minds that need to be reached? How do we dispel the myths that separate us and DO THE RIGHT THING?
Certainly, one thing is to let the cat out of the bag and start talking. Stop pretending racism isn’t a reality anymore. And to make a real difference the forum will need to be huge. This is a suggestion, a challenge. I’m only one person, but I’ll help and can rally others if some big media outlet or government official(s) want to get the ball rolling. It’s 2012! We can’t wait any longer.
Until then, I offer each interested individual this advice from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
WHAT YOU CAN DO
– Speak up when you hear slurs. Let people know that biased speech is unacceptable. Apathy is as dangerous as hate.
– Cross social boundaries. Seek out opportunities to interact with people who are different from you. Eat lunch with someone new.
– Complain to media outlets when they promote stereotypes.
– Look inside yourself for hidden biases. Take a test at www.hiddenbias.org
– Encourage your local police force to identify bias-motivated criminal acts as hate crimes.
Let freedom ring!