They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam
Many years ago, when I was arranging teacher exchanges between the United States and China, there was what seemed at the time to be an unusual conversation in Milwaukee. We were discussing housing for the teachers who would be coming from China to spend a year in Milwaukee. The folks from the University said that there would be a problem: “You see, in Milwaukee there are White neighborhoods—German, Irish, Jewish—and we have a Black neighborhood, but we don’t have any places for Chinese people to live.” This seemed odd. How could a city that cold be that segregated? I haven’t thought about it much since then, except as a story to tell at dinner parties.
Then a few days ago the BBC showed a video entitled “Why does Wisconsin send so many black people to jail?” It includes data about mass incarceration of Black men in Wisconsin and particularly in Milwaukee, from Lois Quinn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Nationally, six times as many Black men as White men are incarcerated. Wisconsin imprisons the highest proportion of Black men among all the states: 13 percent of Black men between the ages of 18 and 64 in Wisconsin are currently in prison. Over half the Black men in Milwaukee County are now or have been in prison. Much of the video has Black men who live in Milwaukee telling their stories. They are heartbreaking.
After watching the video I started looking around for more information about Milwaukee. Here is some of what I found:
Poverty: More than 40 percent of Black families with children in Milwaukee have incomes below the poverty line. The median household income of Black families in Milwaukee is $26,600. The poverty line for a family of four in Wisconsin is $23,550. That means that the income range for those Black families in Milwaukee with an income above the poverty line is pretty narrow.
The usual exemplar of American poverty – and American segregation – is Mississippi (Goddamn!). Forty percent of Black families with children in Mississippi also have incomes below the poverty line. The median household income of Black families in Mississippi is $24,609. If an average Black family moved from Milwaukee to Mississippi, there would likely be no change in their income. Given that the cost of living in Mississippi is lower than in Milwaukee (no snow), they would probably be slightly better off.
Literacy: Eleven percent of male Black students scored at or above Proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Grade 8 Reading examination in Miami-Dade and Charlotte. Three percent of those in Milwaukee did so. Seventy percent of male Black students in Milwaukee scored at the Below Basic level. For most purposes that means they can’t read.
Mississippi is usually ranked as last or next to last in the quality of education it provides to its children. The percentage of male Black students reading at the Below Basic level on NAEP in Mississippi is four points lower (better) than that in Wisconsin. If an average Black family moved from Milwaukee to Mississippi, their children would probably have a slightly better chance of learning to read by the time they left school.
It is important to learn to read, isn’t it? They know that in Wisconsin, don’t they? Don’t they?
Educational Achievement: Of the 3,100 male Black students in grade 9 in the 2007-08 school year in Milwaukee, 1,300 made it to grade 12 by 2010-11. How many graduated with a regular diploma? 600? 700? The chances of a Black male anywhere in Wisconsin graduating on-time, college and career-ready are less than fifty-fifty. The graduation rate for male Black students in Mississippi is five percentage points higher than that in Wisconsin. If an average Black family moved from Milwaukee to Mississippi, their children would be more likely to graduate from high school than if they had stayed up North in Wisconsin, where the state motto is “Forward,” reflecting, according to the state’s website, “Wisconsin’s continuous drive to be a national leader.”
Incarceration Rates: Mississippi has a higher incarceration rate for White people than does Wisconsin: 503 compared to 415 per 100,000. Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for Black people is 4,416 per 100,000, ten times the rate at which it imprisons White people. Mississippi’s incarceration rate for Black people is 1,742, about four times the rate at which it imprisons Black people. Ten times?
Would it be better for a Black family to live in Milwaukee or Mississippi? In Mississippi they would be a little better off, or about the same, on average, financially than in Milwaukee. In Mississippi the children of the family would have a little better chance of learning to read.
In Mississippi the children of the family would have a slightly better chance of graduating from high school. In Mississippi the young men of the family would be less than half as likely to spend time in prison.
What Nina Simone said about Mississippi decades ago remains true today: Everybody knows about Mississippi. But who knows about Milwaukee?
Cover photo courtesy of Radio Milwaukee