Ted Bobrow

An inauspicious start to Black History Month

By - Feb 2nd, 2010 08:14 am
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As a middle-class white guy from New York, it may not matter what I think, but Milwaukee is the most racially polarized place I’ve ever lived.

We all know the history; Milwaukee was as segregated a city as any, north or south, until the federal civil rights laws of the 1960s made housing, employment and other forms of blatant discrimination illegal.

And we all know that problems still persist. The nearly 50 percent rate of unemployment among African-American males in Milwaukee and the failure of our schools to properly educate black children (quaintly referred to as the “achievement gap”) are abominations.

These statistics are not simply abstract numbers. These are real lives; men, women and children who don’t have the same chance to be successful because of the color of their skin, who are more likely to die younger and, yes, more likely to turn to crime as a way to survive.

When a handful of people die from H1N1, our nation’s nearly hysterical reaction shows what we are capable of when we are mobilized. When a group of mad men fly two airplanes into the World Trade Center, horribly killing thousands of innocent people, we are able to find whatever resources are necessary to engage in two wars in an attempt to punish the perpetrators and ensure such an act of violence never happens again.

So where is the outrage about the economic disparities within our homeland? How can so many of us simply shrug it off as the way things just are?

I understand that there are no easy answers to these problems. It is not simply a matter of throwing money at unproven programs, and it is not simply a matter of changing the governance of Milwaukee’s public schools.

Money does matter, of course, and the announcement two years ago that real estate developer Joseph Zilber was giving a $50 million sum to address the city’s problems was cause for hope. It’d be nice to hear more about what became of that initiative.

I tend to agree with UWM professor Marc Levine’s argument that public investment in jobs for the unemployed is a good start. Isn’t it interesting that his ideas were dismissed as crazy for years until the recent recession caused the entire economy to tank and suddenly government stimulus spending made perfect sense?

Why the rant? Well, the recent news that WMCS, the Milwaukee local radio station that had provided a forum for local African-American voices, was switching to nationally syndicated programming is partly responsible.

The late Dr. James Cameron, founder of the now-defunct Black Holocaust Museum.

The late Dr. James Cameron, founder of the now-defunct Black Holocaust Museum.

I’m also kind of outraged by the fact that America’s Black Holocaust Museum, the life’s work of the late Dr. James Cameron, has closed and there seems to be little interest in restoring it.

Cameron’s life served as a constant reminder of the horrendous violence caused by the racism of the past and the importance of remembering it.

As a teenager, Cameron survived a lynching attempt in 1930 and the burn of that rope around his neck motivated him to dedicate his life to documenting the history of racism, in the hope of preventing it from ever happening again.

photo by "Sulfur" via Wiki Commons, 2006.

photo by “Sulfur” via Wiki Commons, 2006.

The building that housed the artifacts that Cameron had collected remains shuttered and the letters spelling out the museum’s name have been removed.

When financial improprieties threatened the Milwaukee Public Museum, public and private benefactors rallied to save the institution.

Surely someone of means recognizes the value of Dr. Cameron’s legacy and is willing to pull together the funds and leadership necessary to give it a new home.

Until that happens, that Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit with its Watson Family Home, a tribute to one of Milwaukee’s first prominent African-American families, is just going to seem like so much window dressing.

We’ll probably be hearing a lot over the next few days about the James Cameron who directed the blockbuster movie, Avatar. We’d all be better off if we spent some time discussing the life of Milwaukee’s own James Cameron, who dedicated his life to racial justice.

Categories: Commentary, Gray Matter

0 thoughts on “An inauspicious start to Black History Month”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this candid portrayal of life in Milwaukee.

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