Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 5:00 AM EDT Jul 6, 2020
MILWAUKEE — As issues of race, racism and structural inequities dominate the national consciousness, Milwaukee Public Schools board members are laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a new push to address hyper segregation in southeastern Wisconsin.
The board unanimously passed a resolution last week calling on activists, elected officials and others to develop a regional plan to desegregate schools and reduce inequities among schools in the region.
While the plan would initially focus on schools, board members said it must also address the myriad factors that have created and maintained what is a white ring around a predominantly black and brown city — from housing and transportation to job creation and economic development.
“The purpose of this resolution is to really raise the ante, to publicly push school districts, municipalities, county boards to address how they’re going to help end Jim Crow in metro Milwaukee — the systematic, institutional racism that has been part of this region’s history since the first white people came and took the land from Native Americans,” said board member Bob Peterson, who proposed the resolution with board member Sequanna Taylor.
The resolution passed unanimously.
Taylor said it is time for well-meaning leaders and residents in surrounding communities to move beyond protests and proclamations and take actions that show they believe Black lives matter.
“For those individuals or organizations or boards who have stated that they stand with Black Lives Matter, or they stand with equity, we would like it to be seen in action, not just in words,” said Taylor, who also sits on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.
The Milwaukee metropolitan area has for years been considered one of the most racially segregated areas of the country. It regularly lands on or near the top of the list, depending on the study. And, because of the links between segregation and poverty, Milwaukee is considered among the worst cities for Black Americans in terms of economic opportunities, homeownership and a host of other measures.
Those dynamics play out in the schools across the four-county metro area. Schools outside the city of Milwaukee are overwhelmingly white and relatively more affluent. Milwaukee Public Schools, the state’s largest district with almost 75,000 students, serves mostly low-income children of color.
Even within Milwaukee, because of white flight, open enrollment, school choice and other factors, most Black students attend schools that are considered hypersegregated. That is, schools with 90% or more students of color.
Despite years of trying to integrate schools, school segregation across southeastern Wisconsin has risen and remains stubbornly high.
As of 2018, 70% of Black students in the metro Milwaukee area attended hypersegregated schools, up from 29% in 1995, according to a new report due out in July by Marc V. Levine, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of its Center for Economic Development.
“Milwaukee now has the highest percentage of Black students attending hypersegregated schools among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas,” said Levine.
Changing that dynamic “would take a comprehensive set of policies and commitment on all levels, which obviously isn’t there right now,” he said.
“Some communities clearly will be more amenable than others. … Yeah, it’s a huge policy agenda. But it has to start somewhere. And this seems like a transformative moment where perhaps some big thinking can emerge.”
A ‘moral obligation’
More than policy, it would require individuals to acknowledge the root causes of the inequities and to accept that they have a “moral obligation” to address them, said James Hall, former president the NAACP in Milwaukee and a civil rights attorney who represented MPS in the 1980s lawsuit to desegregate surrounding suburban schools.
“For the first time, certainly in recent years, and maybe the first time historically, there is a kind of reckoning around these issues,” Hall said. “Certainly, it requires changes in policy, but it really requires a moral obligation to change them.”
MPS board members believe that many people across Wisconsin and the country have come to those realizations in the weeks following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
Protesters, including many white citizens, have marched and protested in communities across the state to protest racism and police brutality. Students and alumni of suburban school districts are calling on their leaders to address the concerns of students of color. And school and civic leaders have decried racism and pledged to support equity initiatives.
In June, the Wisconsin School Board Association issued a statement saying it would prioritize discussions about racism and inequity and calling on its members to “determine how their policies and practices have a disproportionate impact on students of color.”
And the MPS board’s plan, which will be developed over the next two months, would build on that momentum. Board members acknowledged that they will also have to address the inequities in programming and resources within MPS’ own schools.
“People know that segregation … makes it easier to rationalize fewer resources to black families, black schools, black neighborhoods,” said Peterson, adding he would like to see a broad coalition of organizations and individuals take part in the discussions.
“I hope we’ll be able to put this issue on the table,” he said. “It’s time to call the question.”
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