Last week’s unrest in Milwaukee wasn’t caused by the police killing of Sylville K. Smith, a 23-year-old black man. It’s been brewing for decades.
As Roger Bybee explains,
The recent outbreak of violent rioting in Milwaukee came as no surprise to anyone paying even the slightest attention to the deterioration of conditions for the city’s African Americans, especially the young.
Even CNN [ht: ja], which botched (and then, later, apologized for) its reporting of Sherelle Smith’s remarks about moving violence away from the local community, understood “The ongoing protests and violence that have occurred over the past several days in Milwaukee are about more than the police killing of Sylville Smith.”
In a recent report, the National Urban League (pdf) examined economic data for African Americans (and Hispanics) in 70 metro areas and found that Milwaukee has the largest gap in unemployment between blacks and whites in the country and the second biggest income gap.
The unemployment rate for blacks in Milwaukee is 4 times that for whites, while the median income for black households is only 40.8 percent of white household income. (Nationally, the corresponding numbers are 2 and 60 percent.)
Those racial inequalities in Milwaukee are both a condition and consequence of the economic and racial segregation of the city. Thus, while the majority-white downtown area is booming (with trendy new restaurants and craft breweries), outlying majority-black neighborhoods in and around Sherman Park (where the shooting took place) are falling farther and farther behind.
And, in the final contribution to the foul Milwaukee brew, the homicide rate (at 23 per 100,000, higher even than Chicago’s) is also unequally distributed across the city. Thus, for example, in the police district that includes the downtown, the homicide rate was just two, while in the bordering district to the northwest of downtown (which includes Sherman Park), the murder rate was 36, or 18 times as high.
As Daniel Kay Hertz explains,
High levels of gun crime profoundly affect neighborhood residents whether or not they are a direct victim. Witnessing a shooting, or having a friend or loved one become a victim, can be deeply traumatic, leading to depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating at school or work, and other issues. High crime rates can affect whether businesses are willing to locate near your home, reducing your access to important services like banking, and contributing to depopulation and abandonment. . .
Nor are neighborhoods facing these issues randomly distributed: They are much more likely to be home to disproportionate numbers of people with low incomes and people who are black or brown. That racial and economic segregation play an important role in perpetuating deep social inequalities has been well-established. Directly and indirectly, violent crime is itself a crucial part of the basket of disadvantages that make living in a segregated neighborhood so costly.
It should come as no surprise then that the Brew City, with its strict segregation and profound racial inequalities, should have erupted after the latest police shooting.
And, as Bybee warns, unless the racial political economy of Milwaukee is criticized and transformed, “the recent explosions may signal more episodes of rage to come in the months ahead.”