By Jeremy Mitchell
Recently I read that Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said that the assembly would, “…introduce legislation to correct the discriminatory laws on the books and pass repeals in the fall.” Weeks before that statement the Speaker gave comments asserting his belief that, “The overt racism, the overt exclusion, the overt indoctrination is so deep inside the UW System, I am embarrassed to be an alumni.”
Without any context, you might assume that Speaker Vos had just read the National Urban League’s annual report on the State of Black America and Equality Index. You might assume that the Speaker reviewed the Equality Index and decided to investigate and address the historical impact of the overt exclusion and the discriminatory laws on the books that might have hindered Black progress in Wisconsin. But nah. That’s not what was happening at all. When the speaker mentioned introducing legislation to correct discriminatory laws on the books, he was actually talking about ending the Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant program that provides scholarships to Black, Native American, Hispanic and Southeast Asian students to attend technical colleges, private nonprofit colleges and tribal colleges. When the speaker mentioned the overt racism and exclusion inside the UW System, he was actually talking about getting rid of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs on Wisconsin college campuses. (Insert meme here of Annalise Keating grabbing her purse.)
For those of us who did read the National Urban League’s annual report on the State of Black America and Equality Index (which uses U.S. Justice Department statistics to chart social justice differences), we learned a few things. We learned that the White college enrollment rate as a percent of all 18-24-year-old high school completers is 68%, whereas for Black folks it’s
49.8%. We learned that the educational attainment of at least a Bachelor’s degree (of folks 25 years and over) as a percentage of population is 34.4% for Whites and 22.5% for Blacks. The index goes on to show that median household income for Black people is $43,862 and is $69,823 for Whites. The numbers also reveal that Black people are less likely to be homeowners. And Census data indicates Black families have only 13 percent of the wealth of their White neighbors.
This wealth and educational disparity didn’t come from nowhere, it came from backlash politics like we’re seeing in Madison and from history. Historic legislation like the GI Bill which aimed to help veterans jumpstart their lives when returning from war via education and housing benefits were much more accessible to White veterans than Black veterans. This was by design as some Congressmen made sure the program was administered by individual states instead of the federal government. You can go back even further to something like the Homestead Act of 1862 which gave citizens or future citizens up to 160 acres of public land if they agreed to cultivate it and pay a small registration fee. – If you think about the year of the Homestead Act, you probably have an idea of which group(s) did not benefit as robustly as others from the Act. (Honestly, at times I’m not upset that Black folks didn’t benefit as much from ill-gotten native lands.
Many of us grew up absorbing messages of America as a land of opportunity. This idea is commonly symbolized by the Statue of Liberty which interestingly was the idea of Édouard de Laboulaye who was the leader of an antislavery society in France. Laboulaye proposed the idea of the statue in celebration of the abolition of slavery in America and his desire for democracy’s return to France. One month after the dedication of the statue in 1886, the Cleveland Gazette (a Black Newspaper) included an editorial stating, “It is proper that the torch of the Bartholdi (Bartholdi was the sculptor/designer of the Statue of Liberty.) statue should not be lighted until this country becomes a free one in reality…” This declaration brings to mind images of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotation of Frederick Douglass voicing that, “emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger … freedom without roofs to cover their heads … freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and famine at the same time.”
In 2023, freedom for the Black American can feel like freedom for repossession. The few opportunities that were available because of affirmative action are being repossessed. Minority scholarships in Wisconsin are being hooked up to the tow truck of legality and being driven away on the flatbed of “fairness.” The higher education departments tasked with working toward a more diverse and inclusive campus are being threatened with foreclosure by the bank of “colorblindness.” We’re realizing once again that when America grants opportunities to Black folks, those opportunities are only rentals. Opportunity is leased to Black America, always in danger of backlash and repossession.
Our representatives must practice King’s “noncooperation” with the legislative repo men, who historically, have always prowled around Black progress looking to claim reverse discrimination in order to take back or block a benefit that could possibly light the torch of real liberty for Black Americans. If a law now requires that we take scholarships away from Black and Indigenous students, it is an unjust law. If a law now requires that we end programs that work to include people from different social and ethnic backgrounds and acknowledges that we did not all start from the same place and tries to help remedy the imbalances, it is an unjust law. Essayist Henry David Thoreau once implored Americans to not allow the government to require you to be the “agent of injustice to another.” To our representatives who care about Black folks, please, do not allow the Assembly to make you an agent of injustice to Black families needing help to send their children to college. Do not cooperate. Disobey in a most civil way.
Jeremy Mitchell is a Community Organizer in Southeast Wisconsin