Racial equity - South Park Street sculpture

Racial equity is a major theme in the campaign for Madison mayor. Sculptor Edgar Jerome Jeter's piece, "South Madison's Gateway," was commissioned by the Bram's Addition Neighborhood Association and dedicated in 1987. 

The thread running through virtually every issue of the campaign to lead the city between Mayor Paul Soglin and challenger former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway is racial equity.

For good reason.

In October 2013, the Race to Equity report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, now called Kids Forward, showed blacks faring far worse than whites in virtually every quality-of-life indicator in the county. Two months later, Rev. Alex Gee’s essay on experiences as a black man in Madison intensified reaction and his follow up last December outlined progress with much more to do.

Madison is growing in diversity, yet city, county and state systems are inadequate to support all communities equally, said Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano. The community lacks culturally competent mental health services, and while there are many resources, the city lacks a grander vision to unite efforts to reduce the impact of deep-rooted inequities, she said.

“Our city is remarkably segregated,” Menendez Coller said. “Those working in the system rarely really understand the communities they’re supposed to be serving.”

Soglin contends the people of Madison are not racist, but that the city shares a legacy with the rest of the nation.

“When you look to what’s in the hearts of the overwhelming majority of people in this city, they are caring and compassionate about everyone, regardless of race, ethnic background and heritage” who look to “take affirmative steps to bring about greater equity,” the mayor said.

Disparities, he said, occur because self-proclaimed liberal, progressive leaders “were not paying attention and didn’t understand the complicated nature of institutional racism.” And while there’s more to do, multiple indicators show significant economic progress for African-Americans since he retook office in 2011, Soglin said.

Rhodes-Conway argues that the question of racism is best answered by people of color, that institutions and systems here are racist, and that denying the problem makes it harder to resolve.

“It’s not up to me to say Madison is racist or not. It’s for people who experience it every day,” she said. “Most of us have the best of intentions. But it’s not about people, it’s about impacts. I’m willing to acknowledge we have a problem and we have work to do. I’m not trying to pretend racism doesn’t exist. I’m not trying to parse numbers to pretend things are getting better.”

Changing culture

The city has long been trying to address racial equity.

Its Equal Opportunities Ordinance and commission were created in 1963, followed by an Affirmative Action Commission in 1973, with the commissions brought under a Department of Civil Rights in 2006. Soglin and the City Council launched a Racial Equity Social Justice Initiative in 2013 and hired the city’s first racial equity coordinator in 2015.

The initiative is delivering bias training for all employees, a study of disparities in purchasing and contracting and the rollout of a “Racial Equity and Social Justice tool,” which requires city policies, plans, programs and budgets to be evaluated for potential impacts on minority and low-income populations. The process, for example, was used to broaden community planning for a new fire station on the Southeast Side and ensures minority participation in the coming Madison Public Market. Already, most city agencies have equity teams, and 58 projects have been analyzed this way.

Register for more free articles
Stay logged in to skip the surveys

Soglin said he has also moved to ensure appointments to city advisory committees better reflect the city’s population and hired a more diverse team of managers, noting the new human resources director is African-American and the heads of Fleet Services and Traffic Engineering are Asian-Americans. Diversity in management encourages racial and gender diversity in overall hiring, he said.

Rhodes-Conway said the city has made progress, citing the equity coordinator position and use of the social justice tool, but stressed there was more to do.

As chairwoman of the city’s Oscar Mayer Strategic Assessment Committee, she said the racial equity analysis was helpful in achieving community outreach but said more must be done to determine if such development might hurt prospects for housing for people with low incomes in the area.

Like Soglin, Rhodes-Conway said she would seek diversity in hiring and appointments, improve transparency in hiring and promotions, make sure city managers have an understanding of racial equity and how implicit bias and structural racism may enter into their day-to-day work and create a reporting and discipline process for racial bias in the workplace. She’d enhance recruitment by reaching out to historically black colleges and universities.

The bigger picture

After publication of Race to Equity, Kids Forward followed with a Roadmap to Equity report in 2016. It recommends a two-generation approach — delivering services to children and their parents — to reducing disparities, focusing on employment, income and wealth, improving support for low-income families to help balance parenting and jobs, and support for children to increase academic success.

Rhodes-Conway is proposing an Office of Community Engagement to bridge a communication and trust gap with minority communities. She said she’d use city contracts and spending to encourage the private sector to incorporate racial equity into their work.

Broadly, she said, the city needs to do more to promote low-cost child care, increase youth employment, support entrepreneurship and business ownership in communities of color, work with the private sector to retain and attract diverse talent, and find and support grassroots solutions in neighborhoods.

Examples of programs she said she’d like to see expanded include health care outreach through initiatives like Aaron Perry’s Men’s Health & Education Center in the backroom of JP Hair Design on the West Side, which helps teach customers, mostly African-American men, about topics like obesity, diabetes and heart disease in a place they’re comfortable.

The challenger would create an Office of Violence Prevention and look to incorporate more concepts of a 15-point anti-violence plan offered by the Focused Interruption Coalition of community and faith leaders — the spark behind funding for the city’s successful peer-support initiatives — offered in 2016.

The mayor said he’s already doing much of what Rhodes-Conway calls for, citing the Madison-area Out of School Time program, partnerships to deliver summer jobs for thousands of youth and support for United Way’s HIRE program for adults who haven’t graduated. A Market Ready program is preparing minority entrepreneurs for the Madison Public Market, a Healthy Retail Access initiative helped establish a grocery in the Allied Drive neighborhood on the Southwest Side, and there’s new bus service to the isolated Owl Creek neighborhood on the Southeast Side.

It’s made an impact, he said. African-American unemployment in Dane County dropped from 25.2 percent when he retook office in 2011 to 6.7 percent in 2017, going from above state and national levels to below, he said. Also, African-American household median income rose from $20,664 to $35,394, now ahead of the state and nearing the national level, and African-American children in poverty dropped from two-thirds to one-third by 2017, he said.

Soglin said he’d like to engage a small number of African-American youth responsible for a large number of car thefts and other crimes through re-establishing group homes with supervision and case management. He’d use peer support to connect people to health insurance. He said he’s used innovation to create jobs, such as the use of tax incremental financing (TIF) to support booming Exact Science but with requirements for training and employment.

The mayor said he’s now preparing an Equity Business Initiative aimed at aligning and enhancing city programs that nurture small businesses to focus on entrepreneurship for people of color, women, immigrants and veterans. It will combine existing programs, add some new ones, increase city funding by more than $1 million, and look for new partnerships from the private sector, including lenders, he said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.