Kenosha Exposes Ugly Truth of Inequality in America’s Heartland

Ferguson. Minneapolis. Kenosha.

Clustered together within a 600-mile radius in the breadbasket of the U.S., they have become synonymous with America’s reckoning with racial injustice. In Kenosha, where Jacob Blake on Sunday became the latest Black man to be shot by White police officers, violent demonstrations show little signs of abating.

The proximity of these three hot spots shines a light on an under-appreciated facet of life in the Midwest: Inequality there is, by some measures, as high or higher than in any other part of the country. A 2019 report assembled by several progressive-leaning think tanks shows the region dominates lists of states with the greatest racial inequality in incomes, homeownership and incarceration.

Nine of the 14 states with the widest disparity in White-to-Black incomes are in the Midwest, according to areport by four public policy groups. Wisconsin ranks third worst in this category. And every single state in the region has a higher ratio of Black inmates to White inmates in state prisons than the five-to-one national average, the report shows.

Laura Dresser, associate director at the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Wisconsin Strategy think tank and a co-author of the report, spoke with Bloomberg News about the unrest in Kenosha and inequality in the region. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. The report notes how Midwestern cities like Madison often show up on lists of best places to live, while the region actually has some of the worst cities for African Americans. Why is that?

A. “The Midwest has a lot of cities that have still substantial White majorities in the population. And so population averages in many of the best-of lists represent the relatively good outcomes many of these states produce for their White populations.

“It’s a factor both of of having large White populations and having states that do pretty well — better than the national average — for income and employment, increases in housing values, those sorts of things that show up in those best-of lists. In those same cities sometimes, the Black population is still well below national averages. The distance between the White outcome and the Black outcome is huge.”

Q. You report that six of the eight most segregated big cities in the country are in the Midwest, including Milwaukee. How did they get that way?

A. “People came for manufacturing opportunity and were in neighborhoods where that opportunity was accessible. And as manufacturing collapsed in the 1980s in the Upper Midwest, it hit White and Black communities both, but it hit Black communities hardest because the next option was hard to get to because of the residential segregation.

“Transportation systems don’t work very well in the city of Milwaukee. For example, the public bus system is only in the city, but if the jobs are in the suburbs the buses aren’t going to get you there. And once you do get into those communities, the chances that you get tickets, or that you get police interaction in that town because you’re in that town — and I’m putting quotes in the air — because you don’t belong there. The fact that there is no bus line relates also to the barriers that those communities are establishing through their police forces.”

Q. Nationwide, African Americans are incarcerated at about five times the rate of whites. However, every state in the Midwest incarcerates Blacks at higher than a 5-to-1 rate. Why is the Midwest jailing so many?

A. “I don’t feel smart enough about criminal justice to know really what the answer there is. The reason I included that piece of data is not only that Wisconsin is second worst in the nation, but is 11 times the rate of incarceration.

“The disparity is so high in this state, but also I don’t want people to see only that disparity and not see how inequality is across the board, in every aspect of life, from among the worst in the nation in infant and maternal mortality, from the time you’re born through the schools, whether you’re looking at suspension to achievement in math to graduation rates to college attainment to income to poverty. And I think you have to see that system rather than a single measure to understand the kind of change it will take and the need to put economic opportunity into the Black community.

Q. Wisconsin was a crucial swing state in 2016 and is again this year. But only 47% of eligible Black voters turned out to vote in 2016, compared with 74% of Whites. Do you sense it will be any different this year?

A.“It’s very hard to know, but it is absolutely true that all sorts of people are paying attention to politics, to policing, to racial disparities, and that a lot of long term Black-led community organizing has really changed the conversation in a lot of the cities in the state. I’d be very surprised to see a less engaged electoral population here in 2020 than in 2016, though the pandemic makes a question of everything.”

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