Will Tchakirides
Op-Ed

City’s “Second-Class Citizens” Are Frustrated

As Ald. Rainey has argued, racism led to violent uprising.

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Brian Sylvas talks with a Milwaukee police officer shortly after a young man was taken into custody in Sherman park. Photo by Jabril Faraj.

Brian Sylvas talks with a Milwaukee police officer shortly after a young man was taken into custody in Sherman park. Photo by Jabril Faraj.

Late Saturday night, August 13, Milwaukee leaders organized an impromptu news conference in response to the violent unrest then engulfing the Sherman Park community on the city’s predominantly black North Side. After Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton updated reporters on the city’s efforts to restore order –– admonishing parents to get a hold of their recalcitrant teens in the process –– Alderpersons Khalif Rainey and Russell Stamper II worked to contextualize the aggrieved perspective of Milwaukee’s disaffected black youth and their families. In my view, they looked to communicate the war-weariness of tax-paying citizens who have grown tired of constantly defying their second-class status in Milwaukee, “tired of living under this oppression.”

“Where do we go as a community from here?” Rainey implored. “Do we continue –– continue with the inequities, the injustice, the unemployment, the under-education, that creates these byproducts that we see this evening?”

After watching parts of his district burn in the aftermath of a deadly police shooting, Rainey chose not to place blame on the usual targets –– neglectful parents, misbehaving youth, or his community’s lack of “personal responsibility.” Nor did he weigh in on emerging discussions around Sylville Smith’s “lengthy criminal record,” or whether Milwaukee police acted lawfully in ending the armed 23 year-old father’s life. Perhaps Rainey understood that determining justifiable cause in Smith’s case would do little to diffuse the long-gestating “powder keg” he implied would ignite in downtown spaces if black lives continued to not matter in Southeast Wisconsin. After all, Smith’s name follows in a trail of black deaths at the hands of local police, names that have underscored the community’s escalating distrust of law enforcement, while also sparking homegrown movements for justice and accountability: Anderson, Hamilton, Williams, Lacy, McKissick, and Bell to name a few.

No. Instead, Rainey made the bold case for addressing the systemic racism underlying his city’s ignominious status as “the worst place for African-Americans to live in the country.” In essence, he argued for correcting the biased systems that continue to produce disparate socioeconomic outcomes and dismal life chances for thousands of residents of color, human beings seeking to navigate Milwaukee’s hyper-segregated terrain with their dignity and freedom intact.

The alderman’s words were revelatory, not just because they framed Saturday night’s unrest as a “byproduct” of systemic inequality, but because they insisted we avoid getting bogged down in “examining” why the city is so bad for black families and begin “rectifying” the matter once and for all.

We do not need to commission more studies on how bleak life in Milwaukee is for black people. Scholarly research has already exposed the frustrating extent to which decades of uneven resource allocation, industrial decline, white capital flight, disproportionate educational funding, austerity cuts to social services, limited civic investment, economic under-development, black youth criminalization, excessive police attention and over-incarceration have combined to stifle black progress.

The postwar black freedom movement may have guaranteed formal legal equality, but one’s ability to live a high quality of life remains limited in post-Civil Rights Milwaukee. Stark wealth and achievement gaps, hundreds of years in the making, cannot be remedied overnight, let alone in the face of a prevailing backlash politics that has effectively neutralized feeble government attempts to eradicate poverty, undermined Affirmative Action policies, and privatized a host of formerly public state and municipal services in ways that benefit corporate patrons at the expense of the people.

We know the causes of black anguish in Milwaukee; now we must instill consequential relief.

At a base level, Rainey is calling for necessary acceptance on the part of Milwaukee power brokers and the communities they serve. I have to believe he is doing so in hopes that it leads to a meaningful process of truth and reconciliation. Milwaukee, like America, has never really done the hard work of acknowledging how white racism conditions black life, work that demands total completion before racial injustices can be remedied in earnest. Scholars have been documenting Milwaukee’s inequality and the root causes of racial injustice for decades; now we must reckon with their results as a community in a way that recognizes, cedes and, yes, redistributes power. Biased economic development, commercial/residential real estate, education, and criminal justice policies, among others, have served and protected Milwaukee’s privileged white constituencies since 1846; they are by great measure responsible for both the less visible harms that aggrieve black residents on a day-to-day basis and the more sporadic, chaotic scenes on display last weekend.

Inevitably, media commentaries, and thus public understanding, of events like the 2016 “Milwaukee Uprising” will pivot around questions of black comportment and communal responsibility rather than manmade policy choices that support uneven racial geographies of power, access and opportunity. Rainey’s words mark a departure for how public officials should and must frame matters of race, power and remediation in the wake of violent confrontations between African-Americans and the occupying forces that order their lives. Let us heed the alderman’s call, lest the real problems facing our city and country be forgotten.

Will Tchakirides is a Ph.D. candidate in United States History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His dissertation explores race and policing in Milwaukee from the vantage point of African-American officers and the communities they serve. He and his family live in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

32 thoughts on “Op-Ed: City’s “Second-Class Citizens” Are Frustrated”

  1. Tim says:

    You want your wealthy neighbors in the Milwaukee metro & Wisconsin to give you a fair shake at life. You want to ensure that you have access to the same quality schools, jobs, services & life opportunity as your wealthy neighbors.

    The first word out of your wealthy neighbors mouths are going to be “what are you gonna do if we don’t give you a fair shake at life, burn your own neighborhood down? Burn up the Downtown Milwaukee that I try to avoid if at all possible? Ooooh, scary.”

    That is reality from the last 50 years in WI & sadly mostly true today, how do you answer those people and get what you want?

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    It was such a small number of people engaged in violent behavior in Sherman Park after the shooting. When you read or listen to coverage of the event, what emerges time and again is how many people worked diligently to stop the violence in the immediate aftermath. Many who always use the few bad apples defense when say a police officer does something wrong are not extending the same courtesy to the people of Sherman Park.

  3. WashCoRepub says:

    A beautifully assembled assortment of Ph.D-grade vocabulary that means virtually… nothing.

    …”contextualize the aggrieved perspective of Milwaukee’s disaffected black youth and their families…”

    Yes, thank goodness we have those eager to ‘contextualize’ this for us. I’m waiting with baited breath for further ‘context’ from Reverend Jackson this week. I wonder which luxury hotel he’ll be staying at while waiting to pour healing salve upon the aggrieved and disaffected in Sherman Park?

  4. D says:

    I’m frustrated too with the criminality in this city victimizing the tax payers.

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    WashCoRepub, please tell me about your experiences being black and poor in Milwaukee’s inner city. What’s it been like for you? How did you escape to Washington County?

  6. Mike says:

    Search “Black people need to stop doing these 5 things” and watch the You Tube video. We can’t throw more many at the problem if people don’t take some responsibility for their actions.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Oh boy I love looking up racist videos on the Internet! Who needs the “lamestream” media when you have YouTube videos?

  8. Mike says:

    The video is not racist Vincent. It is an outline of why many people are their own worst enemy. You can’t act like a knucklehead and expect respect. Why don’t you watch the video and comment what information is not the truth?

  9. AG says:

    A munch better source to look up is James T Harris. He is a Milwaukee native and my former teacher and mentor… in fact he’s the impetus that first got me interested in politics and history when I was in high school. His rational thought, though flamboyant style, is a breadth of fresh air in a world full of excuses (in all things, not just race and the inner city).

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    Pardon me for being skeptical of the value of a video titled “Black people need to stop doing these 5 things.” I can’t imagine why someone would question its worth in a discussion of race. Is there a similar one called “White people need to stop doing these 5 things?”

  11. Vincent Hanna says:

    AG is that the same James T. Harris that recently tweeted “Hillary could shoot a baby in Harlem and black libs would say nothing”? That’s a little beyond flamboyant and not exactly rational.

  12. AG says:

    I think the point is clear, and not literal. Try listening to some of his shows or interviews on various cable news networks.

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    Life is way too short to listen to someone who Tweets things like that and other nonsense. Cripes he sounds like an unhinged lunatic. Twitter feed is full of conspiracy theories and really fringe crap.

  14. AG says:

    Perhaps the first problem is basing an opinion on a twitter feed….

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    Why? They are his tweets right? His thoughts and beliefs? It’s his personal account, not some online persona he adopts. I don’t see how it’s not valid to form an opinion based on social media.

  16. AG says:

    Because it’s twitter… it represents a big problem in today’s society where we try to crunch entire complex thoughts into just a few abbreviated words while trying to capture readers and attention. You do not have to listen to him, I’m merely suggesting it and letting you know he is more than just the radio talk show personality you see on his twitter feed. But definitely your call whether you want to see other perspectives or not.

  17. Mike says:

    Vincent – Besides the items outlined in the “Black people need to stop doing these 5 things” video, what are your solutions?

  18. Vincent Hanna says:

    It isn’t that I’m against other perspectives AG. I think a lot about media consumption and I love talking about it. I heard a great conversation the other day on public radio with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and our own Charlie Sykes. Despite huge political differences they found some common ground. Most people reside in a media echo chamber. We seek out that which we already agree with. If we come across something we disagree with, rather than consider our beliefs we dismiss the item and media outlet and seek out something we already agree with to confirm our beliefs. I try not to do that, but I also try to avoid the fringes. I don’t watch Fox News and I don’t watch MSNBC. I don’t read Breitbart and I don’t read Huffington Post. Looking at that gentleman’s website and social media content, he comes across like Sheriff Clarke. To me, Clarke is fringe and fringe is best avoided.

  19. AG says:

    His points of view really aren’t radical or fringe… I’m just saying it’s a good perspective to get. Take it or leave it… though I prefer to take it. 🙂

  20. Vincent Hanna says:

    “His points of view really aren’t radical or fringe”

    That depends on your perspective.

  21. AG says:

    Ok fine, was just trying to help get you out of your media echo chamber, especially on the recent issues around race in Milwaukee.

  22. Vincent Hanna says:

    AG I have a question for you. If I said you need to check this person out because they are speaking the truth, and it was someone who appears on The Rachel Maddow Show, writes opinion pieces for Salon, and regularly denigrates all conservatives in their writing, would you say they are fringe?

  23. AG says:

    Sure, I’d check them out more than their twitter feed. I have many times when you bring up a link, person, book, etc. regardless of their position or where it’s posted/hosted.

  24. Vincent Hanna says:

    OK I thought so. I read through the “National Conversations” section of his website. Appearances on Sean Hannity’s show, opinion pieces for The Daily Caller, and constant disparagement of progressives. No nuance. Just blanket condemnations of Democrats. Very simplistic worldview and echoes of Sheriff Clarke aplenty. To me that is fringe and there isn’t much to gain from a person like that. I’d say the same about someone who is rabidly left-wing.

  25. Jason says:

    I think the biggest issue right now is unemployment. The problem is most franchises and small businesses will not bet on areas like Sherman Park. I know liberals hate this but most entrepreneurs are trying to justify dropping a half a million dollars in areas like Sherman Park. Can the business make a profit, will my business be safe, and will my customers and workers have a great experience in the business. Entrepreneurs look at the general income of the areas residences and crime rates. Which leads to the safer option. Almost, all new business in Milwaukee outside of the downtown, is in areas just outside of Milwaukee, Mayfair Mall area, Miller Park area, the North shore and or South shore.

  26. Virginia Small says:

    The author refers to the potential for “a meaningful process of truth and reconciliation.” Here’s an excellent article on that topic that places these issues within a national context. They are NOT just prevalent in Milwaukee.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

    Coates, a MacArthur fellow, has analyzed racial issues deeply and profoundly and has connected many dots in America’s complex history. He traces the impacts of slavery and systemic discrimination toward African Americans post Civil War into the present.

  27. Vincent Hanna says:

    There is development happening in Sherman Park so some people are indeed betting on it. http://www.jsonline.com/story/money/real-estate/commercial/2016/08/17/sherman-park-unrest-wont-stop-nearby-developments/88828828/

  28. Jason says:

    Thanks. Vince, I must complement you on your details.

  29. Vincent Hanna says:

    What details would you like exactly? I’m not disagreeing with your points above. Just pointing out that development in the area isn’t nonexistent.

  30. Jason says:

    I read the article. T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U. By details, I meant you seem to have time to research your thoughts and political perspective.

  31. Vincent Hanna says:

    Oh OK. Sorry about that Jason. Sometimes tone/meaning can be hard to detect on the web. I misread.

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