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The ugly truth about being black in Wisconsin

Increase in hate crimes, continuing racial disparities show Wisconsin has a long way to go in racial equity

· Dec 3, 2019 Tweet

Riley Steinbrenner/The Badger Herald

When you think of the midwest, or more specifically, Wisconsin, you may think of the hospitality or the great beer. You’d probably even agree that it’s one of the safest, most habitable regions in the country. The real question, though, is for who?

Could it be possible that our cheese-loving state, home of the great Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers, is the furthest thing from a safe home for those who don’t exactly fit the midwestern look?

The answer is a resounding yes. So much so, in fact, that while across the country, hate crimes have slightly decreased between 2017 and 2018, in the country, during that same time period, hate crimes have risen in Wisconsin.

When I first told people I’d be going to Wisconsin for school, the first question I always got was why. It still is. Not because it’s not a great school, but because it’s not necessarily the melting pot people imagine when they think of where I’m from, D.C., or even our nation as a whole.

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In reality, Wisconsin, including Madison, is terrifyingly homogenous, both ethnically and geographically. This means that not only do we attend a predominantly white institution, but also are around a majority of people who have grown up in Wisconsin towns with limited exposure to diversity in any form.

While this explains many’s lack of awareness regarding racial issues and discomfort, and even ignorance in the form of microaggressions, it doesn’t excuse purposeful acts of hate against people of color, specifically the black community. It’s concerning that for many students here, Madison is the most diverse city they’ve ever been to, but it’s even more concerning that the issues black people face within this “liberal hub” are completely disregarded as a result.

In other parts of Wisconsin, the black communities face similar obstacles, with Milwaukee and Racine ranking as “among the worst cities in the United States for African Americans to live.” This can be attributed to a variety of factors, from high rates of unemployment and poverty, to high rates of mass incarceration and wrongful conviction.

I’ve noticed how often “high rates” is used to describe oppressed and marginalized groups in this country, but sometimes we forget that these aren’t just statistics. They’re reflections of the everyday battles people face, many of which stem from institutionalized racism that never went away.

When we look at our prison systems, for example, it strikes me as odd that although the violent crime rate fell 51% between 1993 and 2018, the incarceration rates in the U.S. are still among the highest worldwide. And although the number of people imprisoned has decreased by 10% in the past 10 years, this is largely a result of a 2014 decision​ by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce sentences for drug crimes, rather than the lowered crime rates themselves.

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President Nixon’s war on drugs was initiated in 1971 and came as a direct target to the black community, by placing mandatory sentences on non-violent drug offenses and holding unequal views on sentence types.

According to the Center for American Progress, “Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite equal substance usage rates.”

This is a root cause of an incessant cycle of black people cycling through an already unjust system. These rates also explain the unemployment and poverty patterns that plague many families, since incarceration often hinders any chance at a decent-paying job — a reality which is complicated by being a person of color. This has caused alarm in many parts of the country, drawing policy makers together to find a solution, but Wisconsin has long turned a blind eye to its big elephant in every room.

That is, at least up until November of this year, when Gov. Tony Evers and fellow Democratic legislators decided to implement policies to address discrimination within the state.

“We’re the worst in the nation as a place to raise a black child, to be a black American,” said State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. “We need this more than, I think, anything.”

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Taylor said it best when recognizing the need for such a change, but pointing out that it’s not a call for celebration quite yet. It’s just a start, and a great one at that.

As young, educated individuals on a college campus, it’s our responsibility to use our privilege to become advocates for one another. We might not be able to make legislative changes throughout Wisconsin, or even Madison — at least not right this moment — but we can help foster a better community for all students on campus.

It shouldn’t be uncomfortable to say that black people don’t have the best experiences here because that’s just the truth. In her book, “Woman at Point Zero” Nawal Saadawi quotes a young woman who has lived a long life. “I am speaking the truth,” she said. “And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

The truth isn’t meant to start a never-ending blame game that victimizes or attacks different groups of people. It’s meant to be accepted and used to act. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and we’ve come a long way since then — there’s no denying that. But the racial disparities that existed 55 years ago still exist today, in 2019, and that should concern us all.

 

Saron Setotaw ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying psychology.