James Rowen
Op Ed

We Like Suburban Segregation

Governments have long enabled metro area's biases.

By - May 22nd, 2017 11:59 am
Light-rail "would bring in strangers who are not only a threat to your property, but to your children," said George Watts. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Light-rail “would bring in strangers who are not only a threat to your property, but to your children,” said George Watts. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Marc Eisen‘s recent Journal Sentinel op-ed about the Milwaukee region’s segregated housing raises interesting questions. The region has a long history of such problems:

*  Milwaukee County has been included in a suburban-and-exurban weighted regional planning commission which had to be forced by advocates and public pressure in 2009 to update by 2013 its 1975 regional housing plan.

Nearly 40 years between studies and recommendations.

*  Note also that the Legislature in 1955 froze the City of Milwaukee’s borders, land-locking the city and making it easier for suburbs to expand independently and enforce discriminatory zoning, housing patterns and job development patterns.

More here and here:

I have long felt that descriptions of Milwaukee as ‘the most segregated city in America’ missed the fundamental reality that the Journal Sentinel story makes clear: it is the region that is segregated; wealth creation in that region is regularly sparked by politicians and power brokers more interested in diverting public resources to suburban  highway expansion and job growth than in providing equitable development, public transportation and equal opportunity to Milwaukee and its heavily-minority, lower-income central city.

My point has long been this:

The “hypersegregation” label applied to Milwaukee is regional, tolerated for decades.

*  The State Legislature led by GOP Racine County State Rep. and now-Assembly Speaker Robin Vos legally barred the creation of service-sharing state regional transit authorities.

Waukesha County opinion makers also balked, Waukesha County government refused to join a transit authority with Milwaukee County and for good measure even eliminated a bus line connecting Milwaukee workers to Waukesha job opportunities.

Details, here.

One local expert, having studied these issues for years, wrote in an extensive, 2012 report:

..the political climate of Milwaukee’s suburbs has also played a role in maintaining this entrenched pattern of racial segregation. The historical legacy of housing discrimination and resistance to desegregation in Milwaukee and its environs has been well established in the literature.

* Referenced again, and again, on this blog, including this 2013 post, for example:

*  The Public Policy Forum noted many of these realities in a 2002 study:

*  The Brookings Institution’s John Austin took note of the penalties of legacy discrimination in a major 2007 study which I noted on my blog at the time:

Themes repeated with data and links often on this blog, for example, here or here.

“The lack of housing diversity here suppresses the housing market, promises to accelerate the concentration of poverty, undercuts the local economy, segregates educational opportunities and undermines the wealth-building potential for thousands of families,” said Jeffrey Browne, forum vice president and research director.

He also has data about racial separation in southeastern Wisconsin and across the Great Lakes region that is deeply disturbing, but, again, offers an opportunity for change that would be good for the entire region’s economy – – if leaders here have the political will to break from the past.

*  And why did it require litigation by the ACLU of Wisconsin after years of struggle against entrenched government opposition to force the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to add temporary bus routes to the billion-dollar-plus Zoo Interchange construction project – – a brief respite from the concrete-heavy, pro-suburban, publicly-financed transportation planning and spending in the Milwaukee region that for years has been fought by the ACLU and other organizations:

Kudos to the civil libertarians who have doggedly pursued social and economic justice from the State of Wisconsin, the Department of Transportation and others in southeastern Wisconsin on behalf of minority, low-income and urban residents:

The state Department of Transportation did not follow federal civil rights rules for at least seven years, a yearlong investigation has found.

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney applauded the decision by the Federal Highway Administration‘s Office of Civil Rights as a step toward holding state transportation officials accountable for how their actions affect minorities.

These matters and the struggle for rights and fairness by advocates have been tracked on this blog repeatedly.

From 2011:

Coalition Cites Discrimination In Zoo Interchange, Transportation Spending

Several Milwaukee area groups have made available their detailed comments to state officials during the recent testimony phase of the Zoo Interchange project planning.

From 2010: 

SEWRPC Warned Against Possible Open Meeting Violation

*  And do not forget the hysteria in the region over the possibility that a light rail system principally serving Milwaukee would have one stop in New Berlin, the Waukesha community on Milwaukee County’s southwestern border, where a major industrial park offered some job opportunities regionally.

George Watts, the anti-light rail movement’s citizen leader at the time, articulated and amplified what is so often just below the surface across the region when he said the proposed rail system:

 “would bring in strangers who are not only a threat to your property, but to your children.”

(Years later, New Berlin would be roiled by proposed affordable housing requiring civil rights and federal intervention.)

The light rail system was blocked by a solid wall of suburban opposition – – fascinating that the Twin Cities did the opposite, to their expanding success – –  right-wing talk radio and Republican politicians including then Gov. Tommy Thompson and Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. I can remember then-Waukesha County Executive and GOP rising star Daniel Finley calling into far-right 1130 WISN-AM talker Mark Belling‘s radio show to announce that the Waukesha County Board of Supervisors had just rejected a regional transportation study that would have moved the light rail plan ahead in tandem with I-94 expansion.

Bashing rail expansion has been a winning team effort among GOP politicians regionally and the area’s ratings-driven/high-profile/high-wattage/right-wing talk show hosts- – Belling, 620 WTMJ-AM’s Charlie Sykes – – now off the air locally but reconstituted as an anti-Trump ‘moderate, New York public radio and MSNBC-TV contributor – – and former Sykes’ second-banana Jeff Wagner, now moved into Sykes’ WTMJ morning slot.

That same anti-urban coalition was used by GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker years later to successfully block Amtrak expansion from Milwaukee through the region to Madison – – because opposing anything on a rail stirs up the suburbs, even Milwaukee’s in-city-only streetcar system – – even though the Amtrak expansion included a train assembly and maintenance facility in an economically-depressed, heavily African-American, jobs-desperate neighborhood.

Final thought:

*  Even a black man from Milwaukee fishing in exurban Waukesha County couldn’t be tolerated by the local fire chief who ran the man off a public bridge over a public waterway with a friend, a gun and German Shepherd.

The message to Milwaukee’s heavily-minority working poor from the out-counties was and continues to be:

Your access to housing, schools and job opportunities is not our priority. And we’re fine with that.

James Rowen, a former journalist and mayoral staffer in Milwaukee and Madison, writes a regular blog, The Political Environment

31 thoughts on “Op Ed: We Like Suburban Segregation”

  1. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    City leaders in Wisconsin need to stop pushing this liberal idea of integration. Malcolm X warned African Americans decades ago that White Americans will never desire to live with black people. All that will happen is violent & social harassment or white flight, to the point that the slum you attempted to escape from will reappear from. What the city leaders fail to realize it’s not just suburban white people who don’t want to live with black people, but the “liberal” white people, who while not having any control over the societal forces that perpetuate Milwaukee’s racial inequality, still benefit and these whites live in their segregated enclaves that’s Downtown, and on the East Side, along with Shorewood.

    The politicians in the city need to not only realize that Milwaukee is an epicenter of white supremacy and systemic racism and that to combat this problem it’s going to require them to acknowledge the failures of not only the conservative base but also the neoliberal base that is in City Hall, and the corporations.

    Stop trying to push for this transporation system and just create opportunity where everyone is located for the Black & Brown people of MKE. Those people in Waukesha, New Berlin, and other surrounding areas have no desire to live with the citizens of Milwaukee and it has nothing to do with property values or fear of crime, it’s simply racism.

  2. Tom T. says:

    Glad you got it all figured our Rick.

  3. Richard Nwabuzor says:


  4. Brandon Methu says:

    You are absolutely right Richard. Too often politicians and suburban citizens veil their racism with zoning laws and legislation. There needs to be a greater interest form city hall at uplifting Milwaukee’s entrepreneurs and supporting those who have consciously decide to be change agents for the MKE area.

  5. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    The thing is, I don’t believe City Hall has an interest in doing this as they themselves benefit from Milwaukee’s problems.

  6. Josh says:

    It’s true. The efforts to keep minorities out of suburbs is very thinly veiled. And as long as Milwaukee’s crime rate is as terrible as it is – that won’t change. To most suburban whites, black people are equated with crime. Watch the news any given night, and you’ll see why. Obviously not all black people are criminals. But the vast majority of the crimes and criminals we hear about, see on the news, read about in the paper, etc. – are black or hispanic. This is why. Plain and simple.

  7. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    The media does play a strong role in perpetuating this hysteria, but let’s be honest. Even if every black person in Milwaukee, were law abiding citizens, suburban whites still wouldn’t want to live with them. History has shown that.

  8. Joseph Klein says:

    The Oak Creek Law came on the heals of Brown v. Board of Education, it is not a coincidence. As for this irrational belief that urban Democrats sustain urban poverty because they make money from it is nothing but Republican propaganda. Many suburbanites make money off the status quo, especially slum landlords, concrete lobbiests, and suburban developers. Many have cashed in on white flight. A whole bunch of people have dirty hands and many are willing to make excuses for not fixing the problem.

  9. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    It is not Republican propaganda. I am neither liberal or conservative, just a black male and even I would argue that Democrats who have ran these cities for a long time have done nothing to alleviate these problems. Democrats need blacks poor for two reasons 1) It gives them a voter base and 2) They have no interest in living in a world where they must complete with blacks on a meritocratic basis.

  10. Josh says:

    Sorry Richard – I don’t agree with that. Most of the issues that plague the poor of Milwaukee can’t be ‘fixed’ by anyone except the community itself.

  11. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    So the Democrats that are at the helm of Milwaukee’s leadership (In Tom Barrett’s case over a decade), can’t fix the issues of Milwaukee?

    If so then your statement, proves my point. The fact the Democrats can’t fix these issues is why they’re at fault because they’ve accumulated power despite no progress on alleviation of the problems faces Milwaukee’s Black & Brown people.

  12. Josh says:

    Black and brown community leaders, those who are elected to represent those communities, must work with those at the helm (the mayor) for the issues that government can fix. But government can’t fix every issue. It’s not meant to.

  13. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    That’s exactly, what’s been happening in Milwaukee for decades and little change has happen, if not gotten worse. I do agree that in the end it will require the Black & Brown communities to take helm of their communities. (Think, The BPP/Rainbow Coalition), as the system will never destroy itself, but we do elect politicians for a reason.

  14. JC says:

    Why not both Richard ? We can’t entirely control where the companies want locate (mostly), so why not more opportunity in depressed areas AND better public transportation to outlying areas (which poor people of all races and localities need, as well as non-poor who just find it more practical) ? While there definitely are racist elements to the housing, zoning and transportation issues, ultimately it’s a class issue. We need to battle both racist ideologies AND income equality.

  15. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    Because those white areas are hostile to minorities going into their populations. Not only will it be politically and socially strenuous but the chances of black people, being discriminated against, or even worse physically attacked as what occurred in the aforementioned article, will accelerate. You can’t combat both racist ideologies and income inequality until the poor whites in Wisconsin decided to relinquish their white privilege for solidarity with poor blacks and Latinos in Milwaukee, which has little chance of happening.

    The segregation of Milwaukee is more than just a class issue. Poor whites in a South Side trailer park were willing to defend the white landlord who was exploiting them, simply for fear of living in the North Side.

  16. WashCoRepub says:

    James Rowen’s idea of “Regional Cooperation”: Tax anyone with money, especially the WOW Counties, to fulfill the transportation dreams of Milwaukee County. Preferably, one with rails… When they don’t want to pony up, call ’em racists.

    Eh, go ride your trolley in circles, James. A nice metaphor, actually.

  17. Bob says:

    And why did it require litigation by the ACLU of Wisconsin after years of struggle against entrenched government opposition to force the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to add temporary bus routes to the billion-dollar-plus Zoo Interchange construction project – – a brief respite from the concrete-heavy, pro-suburban, publicly-financed transportation planning and spending in the Milwaukee region that for years has been fought by the ACLU and other organizations.

    These temporary bus routes are a huge waste of taxpayer dollars as some of the buses only have a handful or riders while most of the buses are empty. The money spent on these bus routes would have been better spent helping people to purchase a vehicle to get to jobs in Waukesha County or maybe setting up a van service. Everyday a see a bus that transports Milwaukee workers out to Quad Graphics in Sussex along Silverspring Drive. Why do you not mention that success story in your BS article?

    The real reason people move out to the outlying counties surrounding Milwaukee is property values. Those purchasing homes in those counties will actually see their property values increase. In Milwaukee county you will experience decreasing values and perhaps increased wheel taxes imposed by the city and county to raise money allegedly to repair roads and fund mass transit. The latest proposed increase in those fees would have vehicle owners paying more in wheel taxes for their license plate renewal in the city of Milwaukee than the actual DOT registration fee. Why would anyone in their right mind want to purchase a home in Milwaukee County or Milwaukee?

  18. AG says:

    Suburban opposition to things like bus routes and affordable apartments are not racially based… they are economic. I certainly don’t think it makes it right, but it’s still an important distinction. Largely anyway… can’t say there are no racists in the world. But the idea that it’s the color of someone’s skin is highly exaggerated and gets in the way of really changing people’s perceptions.

  19. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    They aren’t economic as when the Mayor of New Berlin proposed the affordable housing for the city he was called a “nigger lover” by his constituents. Those bus routes and affordable housing don’t negatively affect white people yet white people have been conditioned to think their neighborhoods will deteoriate if blacks live eith them.

    You forget that the same white people who live in the suburbs were the same white people who left the city (white flight) as soon as blacks began moving up North.

  20. Mary Kay Wagner says:

    Bob your views are speculative at best. You need to look beyond what is happening in your own backyard to understand the economics of transportation. Why is it that Minnesota and the Twin Cities consistently outpaces Wisconsin in economic development and job growth? They have what businesses are looking for when they search for a place to locate: a thriving local economy, good schools, and a good transportation system. These are not elements that exist in Southeastern Wisconsin and so we lose out unless the state promises massive tax breaks, which means we lose out anyways. By not learning to live together, we have crippled our economy.

  21. AG says:

    Richard, for sure bigotry still exists, and that’s the prime type of situation for those minority of people would come out of the woodwork and show their ugly faces. But far more often, people fear for property values being near affordable housing and safety, regardless of the color of skin of the people living there. I assure you, they look down their noses at poor whites as much as they do anyone else.

  22. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    Affordable housing is meant to solve poverty. By building affordable housing, and give minorities employment opportunities, that will only raise the property value of our neighborhood. And safety from what? Hard working inner city families who only want to make a living?

    They don’t look down their noses at poor whites as poor whites are more likely to live in suburban areas than inner cities.

    The fear for property values and safety is motivated by racial prejudice. And that’s been the history of segregation and white flight within Wisconsin & America.

    These same white people have no problem with venturing to the inner city to purchase drugs yet, they’re afraid of black people moving into their neighborhood.

  23. Tom T. says:

    WashCoRepub….. let’s just agree that the state of Wi and the Milwaukee region should just copy Minnesota and the Twin Cities. We’d be much better off. Do all of us a favor and post something worthwhile WashCoRepub. At least do a little research. At least Milwaukee is trying. Our metro area is anemic and pathetic. When compared to other “rustbelt”, Ohio Valley or Great Lakes cities, Milwaukee looks pretty good. It’s our region that sucks… Washington County included. It’s not by accident that our suburbs are 95% white. We cant have this conversation without talking about unfair housing policies, loan discrimination and redlining. All of which started back in the 60’s and has led to the dysfunction we see today.

    Richard… it’s not as simple as you try and make it sound. Its’ pretty lazy to fall back on simple racism. There is a lot more to it.

  24. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    Unfair housing policies, loan discrimination, and redlining are all examples of institutional racism. I agree this isn’t simple racism. This was a deliberate effort planned by real estate agents, housing agencies, politicians, etc. However it was supported by white constituents as A. They benefited from it economically (Keep the poor inner city for minorities and we get the well-kept neighborhoods), and B. They had an irrational fear of black people.

  25. Vincent Hanna says:

    Denying the prevalence of racism’s role in this denying reality. When New Berlin had those issues several years back residents admitted racism played a big part. http://archive.jsonline.com/news/waukesha/125323453.html

    Downplaying the role of racism is misguided and dangerous. You can act like it’s all about property values or argue that poor white people wouldn’t be welcome either, but the biggest factor is racial bias.

  26. Vincent Hanna says:

    On a related note, I am excited to read this. Have it on reserve at the library.

    “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”

    In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation―that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation―the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments―that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.

    Through extraordinary revelations and extensive research that Ta-Nehisi Coates has lauded as “brilliant” (The Atlantic), Rothstein comes to chronicle nothing less than an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of de jure segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in a great historical migration from the south to the north.

    As Jane Jacobs established in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was the deeply flawed urban planning of the 1950s that created many of the impoverished neighborhoods we know. Now, Rothstein expands our understanding of this history, showing how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. While urban areas rapidly deteriorated, the great American suburbanization of the post–World War II years was spurred on by federal subsidies for builders on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Finally, Rothstein shows how police and prosecutors brutally upheld these standards by supporting violent resistance to black families in white neighborhoods.

    The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination but did nothing to reverse residential patterns that had become deeply embedded. Yet recent outbursts of violence in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Minneapolis show us precisely how the legacy of these earlier eras contributes to persistent racial unrest. “The American landscape will never look the same to readers of this important book” (Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund), as Rothstein’s invaluable examination shows that only by relearning this history can we finally pave the way for the nation to remedy its unconstitutional past.

  27. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    De facto and dejure both played a roll in segregating African-Americans:

    Urban renewal/Highway construction
    The New Deal
    White Flight
    Racial Covenants
    Zoning laws

  28. Richard Nwabuzor says:


    The reason why we have schools like:

    North Division
    South Division
    Bay View
    Morse Marshall

  29. Ingrid Buxton says:

    I gave up waiting out in the burbs and just moved into the city close to 20 years ago. Lots of younger people are doing the same. We moved because we wanted to live within the diversity, the life, the cultures and not as cave dwellers fearful and hiding from “the unknown”.

  30. Virginia says:

    Segregation was not just tolerated, it was MANDATED by the federal government, and implemented by local governments and other agencies, banks, etc.


  31. Richard Nwabuzor says:

    Milwaukee functions on the economic and social exploitation of Blacks & Latinos. This city mastered Chicago’s segregation model.

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