The Contrarian

Does Only Segregation Cause Murders?

JS story suggests blacks in segregated neighborhoods have no way to stop violence.

By - Jul 16th, 2019 12:20 pm
Looking west from the roof of Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Dave Reid.

Looking west from the roof of Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Dave Reid.

A new Journal Sentinel assessment of urban violence bodes ill for many black residents in Milwaukee.

If reporter Ashley Luthern is correct, merely living in a segregated neighborhood exposes one to significantly higher rates of violence.

Luthern cites studies showing that “segregation is connected with poverty and crime [and] leads to unequal victimization.” She reports that “researchers [at Boston University…found one variable [segregation] that seems to explain” higher rates of violence in Black neighborhoods.

“More segregation tends to mean more violent crime,” summarized David Haynes, a Journal Sentinel editor, on his Facebook page.

However, in an email exchange with me, Luthern tempered the inference readers might draw from her stories that segregation causes violence. She said:  “[i]t’s clear segregation is a key variable behind the wide disparities in who is likely to be victimized by violence…Correlation does not equal causation but it usually is an indicator that a particular variable should be examined more closely.”

With segregation entrenched in much of Milwaukee’s north and northwest sides, this conclusion means the outlook is slim for improvement. As Luthern reports, “In Milwaukee, at least three in four black residents would need to relocate in order to live in fully integrated neighborhoods, wrote William H. Frey, author of a Brookings Institution study released late last year.”

An unstated but significant implication is that prospects for many Milwaukee blacks are subject largely to factors beyond their control. That is, with little chance for meaningful reduction in segregation, higher levels of violence are a given.

The alternative view — that blacks have a primary role in shaping their lives — is fraught with potential for controversy. Any suggestion to that effect by a white person is guaranteed to spur charges of racial bias. This effectively silences voices — black and white. It results in a narrow, constricted public discussion about how to address seemingly intractable problems. The upshot is a disproportionate emphasis on actions that assume government has the primary role. The main losers in that dialogue are citizens who have accepted the view that their future primarily is tied to actions of elected officials in Madison and Washington.

After living for nearly two decades in the then-pristine world of Madison, I moved to suburban Shorewood in 1982. (My boss at the time — David Carley — asked if I was “ready to live in a real city.”)

Shortly after arriving, former Governor Tony Earl and DPI Superintendent Bert Grover asked me to chair a commission to study public schools in metro Milwaukee.

In preparing for that assignment i reviewed data for census tracts in Milwaukee’s (segregated) near north side. I assumed the numbers were wrong when I read that more than 70 percent of children were born to and lived in single parent households.  When told those in fact were correct numbers, my reaction was immediate: “That can’t work. No way.”

The research of course is voluminous, and not in dispute, as to the much poorer prospects for children raised in one-parent families. While segregation admittedly is a factor over which Milwaukee blacks have little or no control, that’s decidedly not the case when it comes to birth rates and family formation.

Luthern’s reporting earlier this year included a vivid and relevant anecdote about a young victim of a drive-by, drug-related shooting. Based on a discussion with the victim’s mother, Luthern wrote:

He loved picking out his school clothes and, as a tween, he sprayed his jeans with Argo starch before his mom ironed them flat.

That’s when he first caught the attention of girls — and he liked the spotlight. He flirted, knowing just what to say to bring a smile to a girl’s face. Girls became his weakness, his mom said.

He had his first child at age 16, then a second child with the same young woman. He later fathered four other children with three other women. [He] was involved with his children’s lives, his mother said.

As a young father, DeAndre went to school and worked the odd retail job. He didn’t think it was enough money. He started selling drugs.

Where to begin? Five children by four different girls(!) And then there is the idea that he “was involved” in their lives, a preposterous notion about which Luthern offers no challenge.

The prospects for the children of this deceased young man are grim and I would argue have little to do with living in a segregated neighborhood. Their outlook recalls for me an exhaustive review I conducted in the 1990s of a representative sample of state prison inmates from Milwaukee County. Common to their intake information sheets was the fact that many had fathered more than one child by more than one woman. Those children are now in their 20s; many (most?) will have grown up in unstable “homes” that cheat them out of a promising future.

The magnitude of this problem is underscored by stunning data in the most recent National Vital Statistics Report from the federal government. Wisconsin had the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the percent of births — 82 — to unmarried black women.

Has Luthern ever done a story addressing the staggering implications of a statistic such as that? I can’t find such a story and she did not respond to my email asking whether she has. If not, she has fallen short of her objective to explore fully the causes and impact of urban crime.

In the end, it is insufficient to identify segregation as a primary driver of urban violence without discussing the myriad array of other factors — especially factors over which citizens have direct control. Doing so effectively discounts the prospect of any positive change arising from within segregated neighborhoods.

3 thoughts on “The Contrarian: Does Only Segregation Cause Murders?”

  1. jlf6512 says:

    Well said.

  2. frank a schneiger says:

    It seems as if George Mitchell is posing a binary choice: either Black Milwaukeeans’ lives are bleak because of factors beyond their control or “blacks have a primary role in shaping their lives,” the latter view being “fraught with potential for controversy.” That second choice doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial, unless it is – which it seems to be – a version of “why don’t they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” the implication being that bootstrap pulling has been the key to white success. The first option, the importance of factors beyond our control, seems to be hard to argue with since none of us get to pick our parents or where we are born.

    There has been extreme segregation ever since there have been Black people in Milwaukee, consignment to the worst housing, school segregation, hyper-aggressive policing and job discrimination. For a long period of time, there were two things that made that arrangement kind of workable. The first was the power of the city’s industrial economy, especially during the postwar boom, which pulled large numbers of families, black and white, mine included, from poverty into the solid working class, and often to the threshold of middle class life. The second source of community strength was the wide array of publicly provided social and recreational services, unmatched in the United States, that helped provide healthy childhoods in every neighborhood in the city, regardless of race.

    The city’s industrial collapse ended all that. And, for Black people, in a rigidly segregated city, without the network of connections that many – but hardly all – white Milwaukeeans had, work and a decent living standard disappeared, while rigid segregation remained. What segregation coupled with economic collapse, and the malign influence of the local Black power movement, produced was a deep-seated sense of pessimism about any possibility of real improvement. That pessimism is now pervasive in the city’s Black, White, corporate and philanthropic communities. Pessimists are always right. Pessimism is self-fulfilling. If you think things can’t get better, they won’t. And telling people who have lived with nothing but pessimism for several generations that they have a primary role in their lives isn’t real helpful.

    Mr. Mitchell spends a fair amount of time describing a young man involved in a drug-related shooting. It is important to note that in Milwaukee, as elsewhere, this person is part of a tiny group that is responsible for most of the crime and violence. He and his profile are not the norm. And we now know ways to reduce these levels of violence and the trauma they produce, and none of those ways are built around aggressive policing.

    But the starting point in getting there requires giving people hope to defeat pessimism and a sense of despair about building a better future. Given the levels of poverty in a rigidly segregated community, that will inevitably require a large infusion of dollars, what one local philanthropist referred to as a local Marshall Plan. The people who live on the north side need a lot of things, but one of the most important is money, well spent and designed to give hope for a better future where there is often little or none today. In this fundamental sense, George Mitchell is correct. That improvement is going to have to occur in communities that are almost certain to remain segregated for the foreseeable future.


    Thank you frank a schneiger for a great commentary.

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