The statistics are grim: Wisconsin is at or near the worst when it comes to racial gaps in incarceration rates, graduation rates, test scores, poverty, infant mortality and unemployment. One report even called Wisconsin the worst state to raise a black child.
“This is not fake news,” said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, Monday at the first annual State of Black and Brown Wisconsin. “This is real.”
The event, which comes during Black History Month, was organized by black and Hispanic lawmakers to focus on the adversities minorities in the state face while their white counterparts thrive. And some pointed to state and federal policies that disproportionately harm people of color.
The caucus currently comprises only Milwaukee lawmakers.
“I can’t wait until we have someone who’s African-American from the Madison area sitting on this panel,” said the Rev. Alex Gee, giving a nod to Dane County Supervisor Shelia Stubbs’ candidacy for the Madison Assembly seat held by Rep. Terese Burceau, a Madison Democrat who’s not seeking reelection.
Participants detailed the disadvantages state minorities face while addressing criticism that the event could be seen as divisive.
"Many people may look at this and say, ‘This is dividing our state,’” said Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, an organizer of the event. “But this actually makes our state stronger."
Speakers identified barriers that impede blacks' and Latinos' ability to learn, work and thrive.
Crowley pointed to transportation, particularly policies that prevent minorities from getting to work.
“There are many individuals in the state of Wisconsin who do not have a driver’s license due to their background, because we suspend licensing based on different criminal activities that they have been convicted of,” he said. “The majority of the time they’ve been suspended or revoked because of drug offenses.”
Sen. LaTonya Johnson recited a list of benchmarks where blacks and Hispanics trail whites, including school test scores, youth incarceration and foster care. But she pointed to bright spots: a bipartisan proposal to give foster kids a chance at a free education at state colleges and technical schools, Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Promise scholarships for low-income students and the recently announced UW-Madison Bucky’s Tuition Promise for low-income students.
“These are huge outreaches to help education the community, especially those low-income kids who probably wouldn’t have much of a chance of going to college,” she said.
Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, faulted Republicans at the state and federal levels for policies that have imposed a culture of fear in Hispanic communities, pointing out that Gov. Scott Walker in his recent State of the State address didn’t mention the struggle of Latinos or immigrants.
“The governor and his party seem unconcerned with the nearly 7,600 DACA Dreamers who call Wisconsin home, who right now their lives hang in the balance,” she said.
She condemned Republican efforts to require local law enforcement officials to cooperate with federal agents to enforce immigration laws, “which would mean more Latinos and more immigrants living in fear.”
Rep. Leon Young, D-Milwaukee, who’s been in the Legislature since 1992, said he voted for welfare reform policies enacted under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, later adopted on the federal level under Democratic President Bill Clinton. But now he sees it as a mistake that forced single mothers to work, leaving low-income children at home to raise themselves.
“You look at the disarray today, you look at crime, you look at the lack of education,” he said. “We lost control of our households.”
Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said scarce job opportunities in black communities in Wisconsin belie the narrative coming out of the White House.
"President Trump claims to have delivered results for black Americans," he said. "But here in Wisconsin, black unemployment is still at recession-type levels."
Eve Hall, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Urban League, said minorities need to take advantage of what opportunities exist, including the controversial $4 billion deal to bring Foxconn to the southeastern part of the state.
“The fact of the matter is those are jobs, and at the Urban League it’s our responsibility to help make sure there are opportunities for us there,” she said.
Gee, a pastor who founded the Justified Anger Coalition to empower the black community, bemoaned that fact that while groups like his work to improve conditions for minorities, black and brown residents still don’t have the resources to address core problems.
“We've got to find a way for black and brown people to control some money in this state if we’re going to move forward,” he said.