[ This week we continue with our Race Matters in Milwaukee series by Nathaniel Holton. Please keep in mind when viewing that they do not have a zero origin – Aaron. ]
Racial segregation is a phenomenon with complex historical roots. The legacy of slavery, discriminatory housing policies, redlining, employment discrimination, tax inequity, racist covenants, and a wide variety of other practices swirled together to create a segregated Milwaukee. For an exhaustive documentation of Milwaukee’s history of segregation, I highly recommend “A Report on Past Discrimination Against African-Americans in Milwaukee, 1835-1999,” by Ruth Zubrensky (available in most Milwaukee Public Libraries). We won’t know where to go until we understand how we got here, and Zubrensky does a wonderful job of tracing that path.
While Milwaukee’s history is unique, social forces and government policies created and fortified residential segregation throughout the country. So why is it worse in Milwaukee than most anywhere else?
Income Disparity and Housing Disparity
On average, housing in the area’s suburbs is considerably more expensive than housing within the City of Milwaukee. In looking at the ten biggest municipalities in metro Milwaukee, the recent median selling price of housing in the City of Milwaukee was well below every other municipality.
That suburban housing is more expensive than city housing isn’t unique. What distinguishes metro Milwaukee from other areas is the incredible racial disparity in median household incomes in metro Milwaukee, which prevents many minorities from being able to afford suburban housing. According to the most recent American Community Survey, metro Milwaukee has the 2nd worst black/white household income ratio amongst the country’s 50 largest metro areas. The median white household earns $79,145 while the median black household earns $33,273. This amounts to black households earning 42 cents on the white dollar.
Riverside, CA had the best ratio at 85 cents on the dollar, twice as good as Milwaukee. The bottom of the chart was dominated by Midwest cities, who tend to have relatively similar socioeconomic issues. However, even amongst this less competitive group, Milwaukee is still underperforming.
The income disparity reveals Milwaukee’s unique racial issues. One explanation for it is the education disparity. Just in the city alone, blacks are about twice as likely as whites to not have a high school diploma, and are almost three times less likely to have a college degree.
Worse yet, metro Milwaukee has the largest disparity between black and white unemployment in the country! This disparity can be partly explained by the spatial mismatch between black residents and jobs (which, in a circularity, is largely a result of racial segregation). Literally all of the net job growth in metro Milwaukee over the last several decades has taken place outside the City of Milwaukee. Meanwhile, black residents are concentrated in the city’s northside and are far less likely to own a car. This is especially important because public transportation in metro Milwaukee is sorely lacking. It’s hard to have a job when you can’t get to it.
(from Milwaukee Urban Atlas)
Yet another reason for the racial income disparity is brain drain. Many of black Milwaukee’s brightest young minds leave the city to pursue an education and never come back, resulting in the cream being continuously skimmed off the crop. Oftentimes, they wind up in the south, where racial income disparities are less extreme and where educated blacks can feel at home in many cities. Many educated blacks look at Milwaukee as a city in decline, a city with awful race relations, and a city where educated blacks have few peers and fewer opportunities for career advancement (I know folks in this boat, and I was formerly in this camp as well). In yet another circularity, segregation is bred by income disparity which is bred by black brain drain which is bred by a negative racial climate which is bred by segregation.
Just this cursory look hints at the complexity of Milwaukee’s racial income disparity. Each of the mentioned elements, along with others unmentioned, cause and affect each other and perpetuate segregation. But even this web of income disparity-linked socioeconomic issues cannot fully explain the extreme degree of Milwaukee’s segregation. Higher incomes for minorities do not protect against segregation, as segregation nationally among blacks with incomes over $60,000 is almost as large as the overall racial segregation that persists.
Much of the area’s segregation is the result of personal preference. The Public Policy Forum conducted a local survey on housing preferences in 2004. Significant majorities of whites, blacks, and Latinos agreed that “most people” take racial characteristics of the community into account when deciding where to live. When speaking for themselves, the survey revealed that the racial or ethnic makeup of a neighborhood was of great importance to 32% of blacks, 25% of Latinos, and 12% of whites.
A majority of whites who gave an answer said that, in their ideal neighborhood, nearby black families would be less than half of the population, only a few in number, or nonexistent. A majority of blacks who gave an answer said the same thing about nearby white families.
A separate 2006 survey found that a majority of whites and 60% of blacks believe it is common sense for whites to avoid non-white neighborhoods. On the flip side, over 40% of both blacks and whites believed it was common sense for blacks to avoid white neighborhoods.
Just as with the income disparity, personal preference is a cause and an effect of segregation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who grow up surrounded by people who all look like them end up preferring to live amongst people who look like them.
Milwaukee Residency Requirement
Both the City of Milwaukee and MPS require their employees to reside in the City of Milwaukee. While metro Milwaukee is only about 16% black, the city and MPS workforce are each around one-quarter black. The residency requirement disproportionately impacts black residents.
More to the point, black city and MPS employees represent a sizable share of black residents with enough income to afford to live outside of the city. According to the American Community Survey, there are approximately 16,000 black households with an income over $50,000 in metro Milwaukee, a range that will capture most public employee households. According to the above sources, the City of Milwaukee and MPS collectively employ somewhere around 3,500 black residents. If one assumes that some of these employees are married to each other, such that 3,500 employees make up 3,200 households, this means that 20% of metro Milwaukee’s mobile black households are forced by their employer to live in the City of Milwaukee.
These are “back of the envelope” calculations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that Milwaukee’s residency requirement is a contributing factor to segregation in metro Milwaukee.
Of course, direct discrimination still has a negative impact on segregation. Exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and discrimination in homeowners insurance are all causes of Milwaukee’s segregation.
Employment discrimination persists. People with “white-sounding” names on their resume are 50% more likely to get a call back from an employer than those with “black-sounding” names on an otherwise identical resume. A study done in Milwaukee showed that white felons were more likely to get a call back from a potential employer than black applicants who have clean records. Those that blame black people exclusively for Milwaukee’s income disparity should mind these examples of overt and explainable-only-by-racism discrimination that persist in our society. That said, focusing too much on discrimination makes it acceptable to avoid personal responsibility in the black community. Things won’t improve until personal responsibility is broadly embraced.
The above list of segregation causes is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it’s enough to provide a framework for further discussion. Feel free to add in other causes and elements of Milwaukee’s segregation in the comments section.
This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on February 1, 2010.