by Mathew K. Jallow
The statistics are striking, but far from shocking. For the decade and a half that I observed race relations in Wisconsin, I never ceased to be amazed by the falsity with which the state is perceived as a bastion of liberal values.
To many outsiders, Wisconsin may appear liberal, even radically progressive; a place where life for America’s black population, is far less constrained by the bigotry which consumes much of America. In reality, Wisconsin is a microcosm of America; a replica of many southern state, where the signs and symbols of Jim Crow are ubiquitous and unremarkable. Like most northern states, racism in Wisconsin is ingrained in the psyche of its dominant white majority, and its practice is insidious and often less obvious.
Wisconsin has mastered the art of deceit, with its false projection of an image that pretends to transcend the racial divide. Not unlike many northern states trying desperately to put the issue of racism to bed, Wisconsin has a fair amount of racial parity symbolisms, which blind observers to the state’s pernicious racial bigotry. The absence of overt racism does not equate the existence of racial harmony, and denial of the reality of racism in Wisconsin will only obscure the crass bigotry that lurks beneath the mask of deception, which Wisconsin has worn so well.
The state’s liberal image is driven primarily by icons, both past and present, whose undeniable liberal reputations unwittingly created Wisconsin’s perception as a progressive stronghold. But concealing Wisconsin’s pervasive institutional racism is counterproductive, and rather than hide the problem from public scrutiny, it will, instead, perpetuate apathy and indifference to its existence. And importantly, less, or perhaps never discussed in the perennial and unproductive conversations on race, is the harm racism causes on the minds of the state’s marginalized black minority.
In Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee, far too many blacks have resigned themselves to the false notion of their inferiority, and this descent into dysphonia is evident on the mean streets of Milwaukee, where the scars of racial bigotry are visible on the wretched faces of its broken black population. This is not a blanket indictment of Wisconsin’s dominant white majority, and certainly, not intended to paint all the good citizens of the state with the same sickening racist brush. Yet, America is a country where the bedrock independence principle of ‘equality for all,” has always been a meaningless slogan, and where black oppression has transitioned from the cotton-fields of the south to the boardrooms of the north.
The strain of racism in Wisconsin, as in most northern states, has caused the divisive consciousness of skin-color to become a major barrier to justice and opportunities, even as it exposes the reality of white privilege, and the existence of a demoralized permanent black underclass, who by dint of their low social standing, often develop behavior patterns that reinforce the antipathy of the state’s dominant white majority.
For Wisconsin’s white majority, consciousness of the existing racial boundaries, and inequality in society, is the way of life they grew up to know; consequently, maintaining the racial divide over the centuries has become a force of habit. The sprawling city of Milwaukee, more than any city in America, epitomizes the skin-color divide and residential segregation often discussed with relish and without the expressions of disgust to its existence. Truly, America’s dark racial history still remains, in a new guise, often subtle and seemingly innocuous, sometimes brutal and unforgiving; but always destructive to the psyche of its black victims.
What is absent in Wisconsin, now, is the impunity with which blacks were historically brutalized by a hostile white majority at a time when black Americans lacked the protection of the law. Yet, so much of American dark racial past still remains to haunt its black citizens, wreaking havoc on the psyche of its impoverished black population. The Wisconsin justice system, to this day, seems to treat its black citizens as less than equal; perhaps, even less than human, which is not unlike using the state’s legal system to perpetuate the unfair racial dehumanization that has kept Jim Crow alive in Wisconsin.
Implicit racial bias is, though hard to prove, is a constant feature of Wisconsin life, and an impediment to the dispensation of race neutral justice; justice untainted by the pervasive racial stereotyping. Clearly, skin-color has always emerged as an obstacle to opportunities and justice, yet the state authorities, regardless of party in power, seems unconcerned with the unconstitutional racial bend of the state courts. The systemic crushing of black lives and dreams, and the characterization of Wisconsin as the worst place for black Americans live, is a self-inflicted racial wound, and a blotch on the state’s moral character.
Data derived from empirical studies and anecdotal evidence confirm the willful oppression of Wisconsin’s black citizens, in a state where blacks have lived with the French and Indians long before the mass European immigration began. Wisconsin’s racist history is undeniable, and the fact that both the democratic and republican administrations have equally shown indifference to the systemic and institutionalized racism, is an indictment of state’s policies, which are heavily skewed against Wisconsin’s black interests.
Recently, Wisconsin’s record on race has been the focus of several more studies, all of which roundly criticized the state’s nauseating disregard for the welfare its black population. Michael M O’Hear, Marquette University Law School, studied a Milwaukee County data, and uncovered the chilling truth about black warehousing in Wisconsin’s gulag prison system. The O’hear’s study found that half of all black men between the ages of 30-40, have been, or are currently housed in a state correctional institution.
This distressing trend in black marginalization, in Wisconsin, extends beyond poverty and infant mortality, to reflect in the mind-boggling high school dropout rate, and the subsequent journey as statistics in the mass black incarceration. The Associate Director of COWS, a University of Madison action think-tank, Laura Dresser, characterized black unemployment in Wisconsin as a “crisis.” The Associate Director made this powerful statement, arguing that Wisconsin also has the unfortunate distinction of generating some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. And Cap Times, Mike Ivey, branded the depressing and entrenched racial disparities in the state more glumly, stating that “for African-American children seeking a better future, no state looks worse than Wisconsin.” Wisconsin has another unenviable distinction as dead last in the nation for black child welfare.
John Schmid of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in his research, found that 19.9%, or 1 in 5 working-age black men in the city of Milwaukee, was unemployed, but some argue that even this number of black unemployment is understated. One of John Schmid’s sobering findings show that black joblessness in the state is nearly three times higher than Nevada’s highest white unemployment. Additional research findings put in proper perspective how racial disparities have created a yawning gap in education between black and white students.
According to Kenya Downs findings, black fourth-grade reading comprehension scores in Wisconsin is an embarrassment, and with nearly 80% of black children living in poverty, her research finding further emphasized that the state’s inadequate education will set black students up for failure. Equally alarming, in the Milwaukee 53206 Zip code, 62% of all black men would have spent some time in a correctional facility by the time they reach 34 years age. The revolting epidemic of black incarceration in Wisconsin is alarming, and typifies a form of ethnic cleansing through deprivation and impoverization of Wisconsin’s black citizens.
These blistering criticisms condemning Wisconsin’s mortifying race relations, argued as the worst in the nation, is by every study, a sobering reminder of how deep the state has descended into the dark depths of racial intolerance. The dominant white majority seems to pursue the same oppression that drove their ancestors away from the reprehensible feudal serfdom of 18th century Europe. Wisconsin’s justice system, rather than transition prisoners into rehabilitation, and away from warehousing in Soviet-style gulag prisons, has, instead, doubled down and has invested more in public and private incarceration over the last twenty years.
Yet, notwithstanding the terrible black experiences in the state, Wisconsin also has a capacity for surprising liberal impressions, like the election of President Obama, twice. This undeniable liberal bend makes it hard to reconcile between the paradox of electing a black president with relegating its black citizens to mass unemployment, mass incarceration, residential segregation and abject poverty. But, this paradox is not unique to the Wisconsin; it is an American thing. The ignorance of the state’s white majority of the history of their ancestor’s abject poverty, oppression and servitude in Europe and mass immigration to America, is bewildering, particularly in light of the painful history of segregation that black Wisconsinites are still suffering under the tyranny of its white majority.
The cruel treatment of black citizens, and denial of opportunities to the descendants of Wisconsin’s pioneer inhabitants, the blacks, put Wisconsin at the epicenter of the mindless racial bigotry across America. The 1776 American Declaration of Independence, which succinctly states that “all men are created equal,” has no ring of truth to it, just as the “land of opportunity” is an empty slogan for so many black citizens, whose brutal experiences continue to degrade America’s moral objectivity. The harrowing black experience in Wisconsin, and around the US, completely contradicts America’s pride as “the land of the free,” to the chagrin of black Wisconsinites.
My Wisconsin experience, after moving here from the gateway of New York, is not atypical, spurred by a CNN news story that ranked Wisconsin as the best place to live in America at the end of the 1990s. And not unlike the experiences of so many black citizens in Milwaukee and beyond, still unable to find meaningful employment, Wisconsin has become my worst nightmare too.
Mathew K. Jallow, a naturalized US citizen exiled from The Gambia, West Africa, is a writer, political activist, human rights advocate, and consultant on African development. Mr. Jallow, who has consulted with UN experts, international development executives and non-profit managers, has an extensive experience in non-profit management. He holds undergraduate degrees in Hospitality Management, Business Administration, and a graduate degree in Public Administration. In 2012, Mr. Jallow was sentenced to death in absentia, which was later commuted to life sentence in his native Gambia, for his alleged role in attempts to overthrow the military dictatorship.