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Madison's race gap wide and deep, community leaders say

Madison's race gap wide and deep, community leaders say

In a December Cap Times cover story titled "Justified Anger," the Rev. Alex Gee of Fountain of Life Covenant Church shared a first-person account of the racial discrimination he has experienced and sees all around him in Madison, and challenged our community to become concerned and involved. The story resonated with readers — it was one of the Cap Times' best-read stories of 2013 and sparked lively discussions on social media and letters to the editor. 

Both the Rev. Gee and the Cap Times are moving ahead to keep the conversation going about Madison's racial discrimination problem — and to work on solutions.

The Cap Times opinion section is running a series of columns by community members responding to the Rev. Gee and sharing their views on the way forward. This week, there are four.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor in UW-Madison's department of curriculum and instruction, writes that "nice" Madison is in denial about its racism. Ladson-Billings recounts how when she toured Madison schools nearly two decades ago, she predicted there would be no African-Americans in advanced math classes, and many in the "basic" science class. When she turned out to be correct, her white colleagues on the tour thought she was clairvoyant. Another striking anecdote she relays is how a diversity expert who conducted training here was rebuffed and attacked when he dared suggest Madisonians had issues with race — the only time he'd experienced such a reaction despite delivering a similar message in numerous communities.

Madison School Board President Ed Hughes posits that Madisonians are swimming in the water of white privilege. Whites are swimming with the current, while people of color are moving in the other direction, as evidenced by huge racial disparities in graduation rates, unemployment rates and incarceration rates. Hughes thinks many white Madisonians identify poverty as the source of the problem, and blame that poverty on those greedy 1 percenters and Republican legislators who won't help the poor. Too convenient, he says. And he points out that many white Madisonians apparently thought the biggest social justice issue of 2013 was whether protesters could have singalongs in the Capitol without a permit. Ouch.

The pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ, Phil Haslanger, sounds a positive note, offering a list of "next steps" to start addressing the huge gaps in racial equity. Haslanger suggests more discussions of the problem; worship communities looking for ways to cross divides of race, ethicity, beliefs and worship styles; connecting with others at events like the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Monday; and going deeper by participating in programs like the upcoming racial justice conference being sponsored by the YWCA.

Ald. Anita Weier, who represents Madison's north side District 18, uses facts and figures to show how segregated the city is by race and ethnicity. A recent study found that while the citywide percentage of African-Americans is 7.3 percent, parts of the north, south and southwest sides are over 20 percent African-American. The Latino community is even more segregated and concentrated. Another study found that two census tracts in south Madison have a poverty rate above 40 percent — three times the metro average — and a nonwhite population above 50 percent. Three other tracts in north and south Madison approach those levels too.

In addition to op-ed columns, we're also publishing letters to the editor that respond to Rev. Gee. Here's a sample:

-- Former UW-Madison administrator Mary K. Rouse suggests ramping up support of Gee's Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. 

-- Dean Anderson suspects the only way faith leaders will get a spot at the table with Madison's power brokers is if the Dalai Lama intervenes on their behalf.

-- Britton McKenzie writes from the Jefferson County Jail, saying that African-American boys need responsible black male role models.

-- Hanna Roth says Madison's race problems became obvious to her shortly after moving here from the east coast.

We'll be publishing more columns and letters on Madison's race issues. We'd like to hear your thoughts. Send your letter of 250 words or less to

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