Monday, December 5, 2011

Milwaukee has a racism problem

Ya think?  Of course, saying that can get you into a lot of trouble, a lot of rage directed at you. "We're not racists! We just don't like those people! We don't want to live near them. They are all drug addicts and lazy, living off the government dole!And we are terribly afraid of 'them.' Their neighborhoods are full of crime and they don't have morals like we nice people with nice houses and neat lawns."

But we are not racists...

I've heard it so often growing up here. We pretend that our de facto segregation, disdain for poor people in the 'inner city,' our disdain for MPS, etc., is about something else. We know what it's about.

Yesterday's front page story saddened me: Racial gaps found in traffic stops in Milwaukee. Again, people can say what they want, from Police Chief Ed Flynn on down, but we all know what it's about. The stats show that it is not even explained by crime rates. Read the article and you will see that. And, yet again, Milwaukee has among the highest rates of racial and ethnic disparities in this business of arbitrary traffic stops, or pedestrian stops, than other cities keeping track of such things. Why are we always so high on these lists?

I grew up in Wauwatosa. I remember what happened if an African-American walked down my street. I remember as a young person how shocked I was by long-time neighbors when a mixed-race couple dared to look at a house for sale across the alley and then actually bought it - a man from Biafra married to a white Montessori school teacher, two young daughters. I remember how embarrassed I was that my Mother was one of the few long-standing residents on that block who would actually greet them and do some neighborly chat. She thought they were really nice people with adorable children.

It's not that nothing has changed, it's that the change has not been nearly enough. Laws changed, civil rights were enshrined on paper, but this is one of those realities not truly addressed until the attitudes deep within are addressed.

Sandra and I became dear friends for reasons beautiful and always-to-be-cherished. She had raised her kids in a tough neighborhood holding a 3-generation household together. She told me about her son, how hard he worked, going to school, taking part-time jobs. He saved money so that he could buy a used SUV and a gold chain. What did he get for this? He was stopped repeatedly by police and ordered to go spread-eagle while they searched his vehicle. His mother pleaded with him not to react. Of course, the consequences if he had tried to defend himself or even say something out of understandable anger could get him in a whole lot of trouble. This was about who had power, not who had rights.

He eventually got rid of the SUV and stopped wearing the gold chain.

Can Flynn or Mayor Barrett or my old neighbors even imagine what it is like living with that sort of thing every day of your life - that sense of vulnerability and powerlessness, the fear and rage that would simmer inside, that awareness of the message the world is giving to you about who you are and how you are thought of by society? I can't; Flynn can't; none of us who grew up in privilege can. And then we wonder at the results that come from growing up at the other end of racist attitudes. We wonder at the suspicion and anger. We wonder why kids feeling this in every part of their lives don't perform better on school tests, or feel they have any shot at a decent future.

And here's the other thing: what happened to Sandra's son and to those cases mentioned in this article also violate the Constitution. The ban on unreasonable search and seizure does not end at the color line or neighborhood boundaries. And one of the most disturbing trends in the culture right now is that so many people are willing to see the Constitution gutted for the sake of some ephemeral sense of security.

I met someone over the weekend who said this clearly, this time in relation to the threat of terrorism in the US - to save the Bill of Rights, sometimes you have to violate the Bill of Rights - that old 'destroy the village in order to save the village' metaphor that we learned from the Vietnam War.

What really are we trying to save when we do this? Because it's not the Constitution and it's not democracy. It is the dominance of one class of people over another. We want our rights protected, our property rights, our privilege, the racial and class identity of our neighborhoods. And, well, shucks, if you have to trample on the rights of others for that preservation, so be it.

We are a long way from the kind of vibrant racial, ethnic, cultural diversity and inclusion that is essential to vibrant, inclusive democracy. We ought not be accepting routine, even mundane, violations of the Bill of Rights for any of our citizens. This article makes clear that there is not much connection between this kind of arbitrary police action and crime rates. Crime rates tend to go down when neighborhoods do not fear or suspect the police, when a relationship of trust is established, when neighborhoods pull together and form community bonds that open up and protect safe spaces.

In this article, Flynn says: "Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people. The point is, do folks understand what their role is as a cooperative citizen in having a safe environment...That level of inconvenience, if it's coupled with respectful treatment, is something communities will accept to be safe. If the price of me walking down my neighborhood in safety is once a month (a police officer stops me), people are going to say 'That's OK with me, it's about time we saw the cops here.' "

You can't dismiss violations of rights this way, violating civil rights as a matter of acceptable inconvenience. Sure, in high crime neighborhoods, lots of residents love seeing the police around. But what are they doing while in their streets? What are they demonstrating? What attitudes do they communicate?

Yes, work with neighborhoods. Get people talking about what's going on, passing important information, getting to know one another, counting on the police to come when called, to take them and their concerns seriously. Absolutely! Have block meetings, invite the officers, build trust. Yes, and yes. But don't cross the line to racial profiling. Don't cross the line when it comes to civil rights - because that undermines the very trust you are trying to build.

And don't make it fearful for African-Americans to walk down the streets of white neighborhoods by giving in to the race-based fears of some residents. Work with them, too, so that we can overcome the fears and deep-seated old attitudes and build understanding across the barriers of racial fears until those fears are dissolved by recognition and incipient trust. Milwaukee can boast some great work in this regard over the years; we need to deepen it, do more of it.

To say racism is not at work in what is described in this article is defying reality. We know it is at work. A lot of good community policing is being done in Milwaukee now, especially compared with some really bad old days under chiefs like Harold Breier. Crimes rates are down. Applause, please; this is very encouraging. Kudos to the police department for their role in creating this trend, along with all the neighborhood groups, community organizations, churches, and others who are working together to help make our neighborhoods safer.

But we have to stop being afraid to talk about how much racism itself sets a trap for a whole lot of young people who get the message early on that white privileged society has no place for them except in their own neighborhoods where those harboring these fears so hope that they will remain, out of sight, out of mind. Now there's an incubator for some troubling behavior if ever there was one.

But let's be clear about who is responsible for it. We all are. And that means that overcoming this history buried deep inside our psyches is also the work of all of us. Let's create a city where everyone feels included and respected, and where everyone's rights are honored at the same standards set in the Constitution.


Photos: Margaret Swedish

No comments:

Post a Comment