The most racist city in the U.S.?

October 31, 2013

Sarah Lynne and Phil Gasper report on a new study that shows the pernicious effects of racism as it afflicts African Americans in liberal Madison, Wis.

MADISON, WIS., has a reputation as one of the most liberal cities in the country. It is also possibly the most racially unequal.

In early October, Race to Equity--a Madison-based initiative started by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families--released a report detailing racial disparities in Madison, and more broadly in Dane County, Wis. The findings are staggering.

The Race to Equity researchers expected the numbers compiled for racial disparities in Dane County to be similar or slightly better than the national averages. After all, Madison has long prided itself on having quality public education, good jobs, access to health care and human services programs, a relatively high standard of living and, in general, a progressive outlook on social, economic and political questions.

But while living standards for the white population in Dane County are higher than the national average, for the Black population, the opposite is true. On every indicator, with only two exceptions out of 40 measures, statistics collected in Dane County demonstrated equal or higher racial disparities between whites and Blacks than the national averages.

On the march against racism in Madison
On the march against racism in Madison (Wisconsin Bail Out the People Movement)

Here are just a few examples of the extreme inequality that exists in Dane County.

-- In 2011, the unemployment rate was 25.2 percent for Blacks compared to just 4.8 percent for whites. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 18 percent for Blacks and 8 percent for whites.

In the same year, "over 54 percent of African American Dane County residents lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 8.7 percent of whites, meaning Dane County Blacks were over six times more likely to be poor than whites."

More than 74 percent of Black children live under the poverty level as opposed to just 5.5 percent of white children. The report suggested "that this 13 to 1 disparity ratio may constitute one of the widest Black/white child poverty gaps that the Census Surveys reported for any jurisdiction in the nation."

"In 2011, African American youth in the Madison Public School District had about a 50 percent on-time high school graduation rate, compared to 85 percent for white students."

"African American adolescents, while constituting less than 9 percent of the county's youth population, made up almost 80 percent of all the local kids sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility in 2011."

After uncovering these alarming truths, the report tries to explain them. How can such an apparently well-to-do and progressive place be so racist?

Structural Racism in Dane County

The United States' long history of slavery and Jim Crow racism created deep-seated structural inequalities that have persisted long past the abolition of legal racism and account for the racial disparities that we see today in all 50 states. But there are several structural factors unique to Madison and Dane County that make the situation especially bad here.

Madison in a college town. It is centered around a high-powered university that often ranks amongst the best public universities in the country--a status Madison works hard to maintain.

As a result, the majority of jobs in the city and surrounding areas demand a highly skilled workforce with advanced degrees and work experience. Often these jobs get taken by recent university graduates who elect to stay in the city. By contrast, the area has few opportunities for less skilled, entry-level workers seeking quality jobs.

The presence of some 40,000 college students also means that there is a lot of competition for the limited entry-level positions available in "retail, hospitality, personal service, construction, manufacturing and transportation." Students take these jobs as part-time employment to get through college. This creates more obstacles for other, less-credentialed job-seekers looking for full time employment.

These barriers for obtaining quality jobs are exacerbated, according to the report, "by hiring and human resource practices that set credential, reference, training or background thresholds at levels that operate, perhaps unintentionally, to discourage or exclude highly motivated and capable applicants who possess less developed resumes or less formal education."

Unemployment disparities and other factors mean that the Black poverty rate in Dane County is 54 percent, almost twice the national average.

"Small, Under-Resourced and Disconnected Neighborhoods"

Another structural disadvantage faced by people of color, in particular African Americans in Madison, is the highly fragmented areas on the fringes of the city where most of them live. Location has disenfranchised African Americans politically and socially and made it even harder for them to find accessible jobs.

The Race to Equity report showed that about "half of the area's low-income Black households live in approximately 15 small, compact residential concentrations scattered within the city and around its perimeter."

These enclaves are mostly rental developments, tend to be home to between 100 and 400 families of color and are usually surrounded by larger, predominantly white neighborhoods.

There are no large-scale, permanent Black neighborhoods anywhere in the city that would provide a social or political anchor for African Americans. In fact, county-wide, "there is not a single aldermanic district, supervisory district, planning unit, or even a census tract where African Americans constitute the majority of residents," preventing significant political visibility. In 2013, African Americans only held a handful of public offices out of the hundreds in the county.

These African American enclaves generally lack "a church, a full-service grocery, a public school, social or civic clubs, developed open spaces, a bar, a restaurant, or a significant employer," and tend to be "thinly or unevenly served" by public transportation systems.

High turnover rates, mobility, small size and many of the factors listed above inhibit strong community building in these neighborhoods.

According to the report, "Kin networks, for example, appear less wide, less deep, and less multi-generational in Dane County's Black areas than in the larger, more rooted African American neighborhoods found in most American cities."

This ghettoization has led to a fractured community of color, fewer social programs and fewer support networks, which limits the ability of African Americans to organize.

Madison Public Schools and the Achievement Gap

A major factor that prevents progress toward racial equity in Madison is the public school system. For white students, Dane County public schools have a reputation for excellence. But, in general, county schools channel Blacks students into remedial classes that offer little opportunity for college preparation.

Black students on average have drastically lower reading scores from an early age, lower on-time graduation rates, higher suspension rates and are less likely to take college preparatory classes.

In Dane County, "in the 2011-12 school year, Black 12th graders were only half as likely as white 12th graders to take the ACT [college admissions and placement] exam. Finally, of those taking the exam, African Americans averaged a score of 18, compared to a white average of 24."

The existing disparities create stereotypes about new students, leading to differing academic expectations that exacerbate racial inequalities in the county.

The report documents many cases in which African American parents worry about sending their children to Madison schools, fearing that they will have fewer opportunities to thrive than in other cities. Many have considered moving away for this reason.

Stereotypes and uneven expectations are also present in disciplinary processes. "In 2011, for example, public schools in Dane County reported 3,198 suspensions of Black students as against 1,130 suspensions of white students," although African Americans are only 17 percent of the total public school population.

In other words, Black students in Dane County schools are 15 times more likely to be suspended than white students.

Criminal Injustice

Disparities in disciplinary processes extend beyond the public school system. In 2010, Black youth in Dane County were six times as likely as white youth to be arrested. This compared to a 3-to-1 ratio in the rest of the state and about 2-to-1 nationally.

"The striking result of these disparities is that African American adolescents, while constituting less than 9 percent of the county's youth population, made up almost 80 percent of all the local kids sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility in 2011," according to the report.

The numbers are even worse for adult sentencing disparities.

"While Black men made up only 4.8 percent of the county's total adult male population, they accounted for more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during the year [2012]."

Wisconsin as a whole has by far the highest rate of imprisonment for Black men in the United States. A study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Wisconsin's Mass Incarceration of African American Males, issued at the same time as the Race to Equity report, found that in 2010, 12.8 percent of Black men were imprisoned in the state--almost twice the national average, and more than 3 percent higher than the next worst state.

But while the incarceration rate for Black males in Dane County is lower than the rest of the state, the racial disparities are higher.

A 2009 report from a Dane County Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System found that "Blacks were 25.6 times more likely to enter prison from Dane County than Whites."

The Race to Equity report also gives numbers for arrests. "In 2012, African American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate more than eight times that of whites. That compares to a Black-white arrest disparity of about 4-to-1 for the rest of Wisconsin and 2.5-to-1 for the nation as a whole."

According to the report, "the alarming truth is that our numbers, taken as a whole, suggest that the distance between whites and Blacks (in terms of well-being, status and outcomes) is as wide or wider in Dane County than in any jurisdiction (urban or rural, North or South) for which we have seen comparable statistics."

The report concludes with well-intentioned but vague calls for change directed at "community leaders." But reports and fine words directed mainly to people at the top will change little. What is needed is a movement from below that will challenge both racial and economic inequality. Until that is built, the huge disparities in Madison and Dane County will remain.

Further Reading

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