Saturday night, I drove from Wisconsin’s western city of La Crosse across the state to Milwaukee to attend the sixth annual fundraising gala, “Carnival Milwaukee.” I was dazzled by table after table of wonderful ethnic food from dozens of restaurants, stores, and caterers, by creative raffles and other activities, great costumes, dance lessons, and the amazing dance band De La Buena. It was all to benefit one of Milwaukee’s many assets — the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin. Most striking, the tables at the banquet hall at the Milwaukee County Zoo were filled with a constant stream of African-Americans, whites, and Latinos gathering in genuine ethnic diversity to dance and celebrate the energy and creativity behind the rebuilding of one of America’s great cities.
I had heard or read many statistics about Milwaukee’s challenges, which are real and deserve acknowledgment. Milwaukee got a lot of attention after the 2010 census as “the most segregated city in the nation,” but, in fact, the census showed that the city itself is made up of 37 percent white, 40 percent African-American, 4 percent Asian and 17 percent Latino residents, plus a few other ethnic groups. In contrast with the city’s diversity, most of the counties that surround Milwaukee are overwhelmingly white. But it’s true that many of the city’s problems do still derive from the white flight decades ago that prompted such demographics and impoverished the city. Sixty percent of black students in Milwaukee Public Schools are habitually truant, so it is not surprising that over 50 percent of black males were jobless through the recession, or that the same population has a high incarceration rate. The city’s afflictions also include a high rate of black infant mortality and high obesity rate among children.
As is the case with so many of the nation’s cities, the seeds of Milwaukee’s downward spiral were sown by federal policies. The discriminatory exclusion of domestic workers from the benefits of the Social Security Act, explicitly racist practices of the Federal Housing Administration starting in the 1930s, and discriminatory application of the GI bill are just a few examples of such policies that made it harder for people of color to gain housing, education, health care, and other benefits afforded to whites. In years leading up to the recent recession, African-Americans and Latinos nationally were targeted at much higher rates for subprime mortgage loans than were whites.
But nobody Saturday evening was pointing fingers about the past. We were having too much fun together, and besides, Milwaukee, for all of its problems, is rapidly becoming too exciting a place with too many creative social, cultural, and business initiatives to focus on the past. There were people out on the dance floor who are making Milwaukee a national hub for agricultural production and food system innovation, for community-powered health care innovations, for new business innovation, city planning efforts, environmental remediation, and much more.
Saturday night’s event was not one of those good-faith gestures toward social inclusion or a cynical response to November’s election results when one political group or another suddenly noticed that people of color hold electoral leverage. Rather, it represented the far deeper realization among Milwaukee’s vast talent pool that healthy communities require healthy culture, genuine communication and collaboration among people of good will of all races. Not to mention that it represented outstanding food, great music, classy costumes, fascinating people, and a whole lot of fun.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is a member of the state Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. firstname.lastname@example.org