It’s just coincidence, I’m sure, but two national media outlets have run stories on racism in Wisconsin. The first, in The New Republic, focuses on Governor Scott Walker’s rise to power in Milwaukee. It details the deep racial divide between Milwaukee and its suburbs, pointing out that African-American migration came relatively late to Milwaukee (in the 60s). The political consequences of the divide are breathtaking:
During this period, the WOW counties continued to expand. But unlike suburbs elsewhere, they had not grown more diverse. Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country. The WOW counties were voting Republican at levels unseen in other Northern suburbs; one needed to look as far as the white suburbs around Atlanta and Birmingham for similar numbers. The partisan gulf between Milwaukee and its suburbs in presidential elections has now grown wider than in any of the nation’s 50 largest cities, except for New Orleans, according to the Journal Sentinel series.
It is as if the Milwaukee area were in a kind of time warp. Like the suburbanites of the ’70s and ’80s elsewhere in the United States, the residents of the WOW counties are full of anxiety and contempt for the place they abandoned. “We’re still in the disco era here,” says Democratic political consultant Paul Maslin. This has affected the politics of the state in myriad ways. The nationwide trend of exploring alternatives to prison hasn’t reached Wisconsin—it has the highest rate of black male incarceration of any state in the country.
The other story focuses on Madison’s Alex Gee and the efforts here to overcome the deep divide between Black and White. It ran on PBS Newshour last night. I think it’s important to see the connections between the two pieces–not in order to praise Dane County and Madison over against Milwaukee, but to recognize that there are deep continuities between the two situations and the political context. Madison and Dane County may be Democratic and Progressive strongholds but the reality of the racial divide calls into question the progressive agenda and politics of many of our political leaders. Their comfortable electoral majorities have resulted in complacency and building coalitions or working with the African-American has not been in their self-interest. The racial divide may not have been exploited here in quite the same way that it has been exploited in Milwaukee, but the results are the same–deep inequities, an unresponsive political system, and white flight.