As a fifth-generation white suburban Wisconsinite, I grew up with a chip on my shoulder. Wisconsin’s cities, food and sports teams are often compared to larger Midwestern cities like Chicago or Detroit. When challenged, we’ll gladly list the things that make Wisconsin a unique place — Did you know Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries? Did you know the electric guitar was invented here? Wisconsin has some of the best cheese in the world! Frequently, our towns appear on lists naming them “one of the best” in America, which we are quick to share on social media, perhaps reassuring ourselves that we made the right choice to brave the cold winters in exchange for a good quality of life. But our knee-jerk defense of the state obscures a crucial and urgent question that we must reckon with: Maybe Wisconsin is a good place to live — but for whom?
Depending on whom you ask, residents might point out that Kenosha, Wisconsin ranked above average in a list of the Best Small Cities in America in 2019. This ranking considered things like affordability, educational quality and number of movie theaters. Looking at another ranking that incorporates socioeconomic outcomes by race, however, the two worst cities in the country for African Americans are in Wisconsin: Milwaukee and Racine. The Census Bureau does not does not look at Kenosha directly, but in 2018, about 33% of Kenosha’s Black residents lived in poverty — compared with 13% of white residents.
On Aug. 23, Jacob Blake, a Black resident, was horrifically shot seven times in front of his children by a white police officer in Kenosha, only months after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others. Since then, protesters have taken to the streets of Kenosha, expressing their indignation at the police officers who nearly killed Blake. During these protests for Black lives, an unlawfully armed white teenager from Illinois, Kyle Rittenhouse, shot three people, killing two. When he walked past law enforcement with his hands up, they ignored him, allowing Rittenhouse to return home for the night before being arrested the next day. Earlier in the evening, an officer thanked Rittenhouse’s group of armed men and gave them bottles of water. The irony could not be more sickening: An innocent Black man was shot repeatedly by police, while a white man who just killed two people was treated as innocent. Is this actually a good place for anyone to live if justice is applied so unequally?
Racism and racial disparities like these permeate the state. A 2019 report by COWS, a nonprofit think tank based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds that Wisconsin’s white residents have “relatively good” economic, health, and educational outcomes, while Black residents fare worse than Black people nationally. This leaves extreme disparities between white and Black residents and has led to drastically different lifelong realities for Wisconsin residents, depending on who they are and where they live. From their first breaths, racial disparities are evident: Black babies in Wisconsin are three times more likely to die before reaching their first birthday than white babies. One in three Black children in Wisconsin lives in poverty, a rate that is 3.5 times higher than that of white children. Black students are 7.5 times more likely than white students to face out-of-school suspension, the second worst disparity in the country, according to the COWS report.
Wisconsin ranks second-worst in the nation for the racial disparity in incarceration: Black Wisconsinites are more than 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white neighbors. Wisconsin is also third worst in income disparities. The median white household in Wisconsin has an annual income of just over $59,500, while the median African American household earns less than half of that, at $29,000.
What about our beloved higher education institutions? In 2019, only 2.1% of undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison identified as Black or African American, while they represent about 7% of the state’s population. In turn, Wisconsin ranks last in the country for the disparity between Black and white residents with a bachelor’s degree — just 14% of Black adults hold a bachelor’s degree, while 30% of white adults do. These statistics are deeply shameful and have dire consequences for Wisconsin’s Black residents.
Nationally, Black Americans’ share of Covid-19 deaths is nearly double their share of the U.S. population. They are also more likely to have preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and diabetes, which are associated with greater risk of death from the coronavirus. And Black Americans are 60% more likely to be uninsured than white Americans. Even by these low standards, Wisconsin has a worse than average outcome for Black residents: Black Wisconsinites have accounted for 18% of Wisconsin’s coronavirus deaths.
With these drastic disparities, you would think Wisconsinites would be clamoring for change. And many are. However, a recent poll found that less than half of Wisconsin residents support the Black Lives Matter protests. The most explicit and immediate goal of the Black Lives Matter movement is to end police violence that has been disproportionately directed at Black Americans for decades. Addressing police violence is a matter of life or death for many Wisconsinites. Wisconsin police have taken the lives of countless Black and brown community members and need to be held accountable for their actions.
The Black Lives Matter movement is also about ending oppressive policies, repairing the damage law enforcement has caused and holding leaders accountable to enact antiracist policies. None of Wisconsin’s unequal outcomes are inevitable and are indeed a result of deliberate policy choices at a federal, state, and local level. Recently, Gov. Tony Evers called for a special session for the Legislature to discuss crucial police reforms. Republican legislators agreed, but the special session so far has lasted all of 30 seconds. If policymakers don’t take these reforms seriously, the problems will worsen. However, if we focus on addressing them, we can begin to reverse these trends and create a Wisconsin that is truly a good place for everyone to live.
White and non-Black Wisconsinites need to listen to the lived experiences of our Black neighbors and advocate for antiracist policies accordingly. It takes effort to connect with others beyond our immediate community in a place with a deep history of redlining, a practice in which the federal government urged lenders and insurance companies not to provide mortgages or insurance to non-white residents and residents in certain neighborhoods, based purely on their race or ethnicity. Redlining resulted in physical separation of communities still evident in Wisconsin today and is the main reason why Milwaukee remains the most segregated city in the country. This system virtually locked out Black Wisconsinites from the chance to own homes, while reserving this right exclusively for certain groups of white Wisconsinites. This deeply racist and destructive practice denied Black families the ability to build wealth, have equal access to quality transportation, parks and schools.
Further, we need to reallocate funding away from bloated police budgets back to public services like education, health care, and creating good jobs. Wisconsin could choose to accept federal Medicaid expansion money, which would provide healthcare to 176,000 more Wisconsinites. Wisconsin could raise the minimum wage — an increase to $15 by 2025 would directly or indirectly boost the paychecks of 829,000 workers, nearly a third of the state’s workforce.
Wisconsinites have a lot to be proud of, but the disparities caused by racist policies are deeply shameful. We cannot hail Wisconsin’s eccentricities while neglecting to confront the racism in our state. In order for white Wisconsinites to be proud, we need to look at who we are and address the underlying racism in our policies, our state institutions and ourselves — and make the deep-rooted changes that are urgently needed.
Kayla Blado is a Wisconsinite living in Washington, D.C. She serves as the president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union. Follow her on Twitter @KaylaBlado.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.