The state motto is "Forward," but comparing the status of black Wisconsinites now to their status years ago does not show the "forward" progress that we should hope to find.
Years ago, in 1865, Wisconsin lost the last of 12,216 soldiers in the Civil War, the state was sued for denying black voting rights, and Wisconsin ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which legalized slavery for punishment of crimes. The amendment reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Today Wisconsin “duly convicts” more of its black citizens than any other state in the country. The relatively small capital city of Madison dominates the nation for racial disparities in criminal justice. Black adults living in Madison were found to have eight times the arrest rate of Madison’s white residents. The Justice Policy Institute found that blacks living in Dane County are 97 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug crime than a white resident, the worst discrepancy in the country.
Those facts and others have led to the minority impact statement bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood. They aim to determine whether legislation would have a disproportionately negative impact on the minority community. If their bill is adopted, lawmakers would have to explain, amend or adjust bills that have high potential for racial disparities.
Years ago, in the early 1900s the University of Wisconsin admitted its first black varsity athletes, and the Wisconsin census recorded fewer than 3,000 black citizens. Most black Wisconsinites lived in cities and were part of a segregated workforce. The Great Depression hit in 1929, greatly affecting blacks. Eleven years later, black unemployment in Wisconsin stood at 45 percent compared to 13 percent for whites.
Today, the Great Recession of 2007 has put black Wisconsin in a familiar position. Although the recession officially ended in 2009, in 2010 the UW-Milwaukee's Center for Economic Development generated a report titled, “Race and Male Employment in the Wake of the Great Recession.” The report focused on Wisconsin’s largest city and stated, “Racial disparities in male employment had grown wider in Milwaukee than in any metropolis in the nation. For black Milwaukee, even before the Great Recession of 2007, there had already been over two decades of a stealth depression.” The report also points to Wisconsin’s high black male incarceration rates as a contributor to the high unemployment numbers.
In 2012, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families created a report titled “Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County.” The report found that in 2011, Madison’s unemployment rate was 25.2 percent for blacks compared to 4.8 percent for whites. By comparison, the national black unemployment rate averaged about double that of whites. They also discovered that blacks in Madison were over six times more likely to be poor than whites. Most of Madison’s black population lives below the poverty line, 54 percent compared to just 8.7 percent of whites. In addition, the study determined, “The 32,000 African-Americans in Dane county were faring worse — sometimes far worse — than African-Americans living elsewhere in the state and nation.”
Years ago, during the 1950s and '60s, Milwaukee’s manufacturing industry was thriving. Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957 and Milwaukee was ranked one of the most segregated cities in America. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 desegregated schools across the nation, but not in Milwaukee. Community leaders continued to push for desegregation, but it took over 20 years for the courts to rule that schools were illegally segregated. Three years after the ruling the school board implemented a desegregation plan.
Today Wisconsin schools are integrated. Unfortunately, integration did not halt the plight of Wisconsin’s black students. The National Assessment of Education Progress determined that black students in Wisconsin scored among the lowest in the nation for math and reading benchmarks. In Madison, 48 percent of black third-graders are not proficient at reading and 50 percent of black high school students do not graduate on time. In 2011, the Brookings Institute and University of Michigan used census data to determine that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States.
According to writer James A. Baldwin, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” This mantra perfectly describes Wisconsin’s position in race relations. Wisconsin leads the nation in black incarceration, black unemployment, and segregation. It is in Wisconsin’s best interest to address these grim statistics. Let's hope that years from now, as Wisconsinites look back on their history, we will be able to say that all of us — blacks included — have been moving "Forward."
Dwayne Bland II of Madison is an African-American student born and raised here.