I wrote this in January 2020 with no hope that anyone would ever interact with it in a positive, reflective way. In July 2020 I have renewed hope that at some point in the future enough people will hear this message and buy into the idea that we all participate in segregation without even thinking about it and we all need to figure out what we can do about it.
There are about one and a half million people living in the metro Milwaukee area. For the last 25 or 30 years, the population of the city of Milwaukee has hovered around 600,000. Milwaukee currently has the dubious title of being the most segregated city in America. Any time a statement like that is made the person reading it or hearing could respond in a couple of different ways.
A skeptical person would question the claim.
“How do you really gauge how segregated a city is. Or, just because one area has been historically more densely populated by African Americans, why does that make it segregated?”
Another viewpoint would attempt to devalue that statement by brushing it off as something that, while might be true, has no impact on themselves and therefore has little to no actual meaning.
“Yeah, but what does that have to do with me”
A third mindset could be one where low level anger or outrage comes up. Most of the time, this would lead to a statement imploring change to happen, while giving little or no actual next steps to execute the change needed.
“Someone should do something about this”
The first conversation on this issue might need to be one centered around deciding if segregation in Milwaukee is actually a problem. There are arguments to be made on both sides, I suppose. The decision on where to live can be complicated for some people. It is more complicated the more resources you have. Resources allow for greater amounts of choice and with more choice comes more decisions that need to be made. A person with less resources has a limited number of locations that will allow them to have a roof over their head while still affording them enough room to buy the rest of life’s necessities.
The strange thing about Milwaukee is that when a person with no money is deciding on where to live, they almost always align themselves with the racial or ethnic group they are most closely similar to. Doing so isn’t really a big deal. It reminds me of high school. High schoolers are allowed to make very few choices, however one of them is who they eat lunch with or hang out with between classes. I have probably been in two or three dozen high schools as an educator and students seem to naturally align themselves with people that look and act similarly to themselves. Even in a diverse school, students that look alike seem to attract or seek out each other. It seems natural and innocent. It actually kind of reminds me of that movie Mean Girls where Cady Herring is running through all of the different cliques – Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don’t Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, etc.
If I was poor and only had a few choices on where I could live I guess I would probably want to live near someone else who whose life looked like mine. Over time this would create larger and larger pockets of poverty that are cyclical and are growing.
The cycle of poverty is a term that gets thrown around a lot which can help the average person understand the concept that it is difficult for a poor person to become unpoor. The cycle part comes in when talking about generational poverty. Generational poverty is kind of similar to generational wealth. If a rich person has a son or daughter, it is more likely that the child will also be wealthy either because they are given access to some of that wealth (new, expensive cars for 16 year olds, the newest and best technology available, and housing in exclusive places) or because they are given access to and implored to take advantage of exceptional educational opportunities by attending universities with distinguished track records. These universities have distinguished track records because they are designed to create or maintain wealthy individuals and excel at doing so.
The middle class version of this is similar but not as extreme. If someone in the middle class has a son or daughter, that child will most likely be given access to the families middle class assets (entry level cars for 16 years olds, mainstream technology, and housing in a quiet “safe” neighborhood) and receive access to educational opportunities (state college) that are designed to create middle or upper middle class individuals.
Families living below the poverty line operate in a similar model. Assets are shared with children born into the family. However, if those assets are limited or, in the case of a renters who are not building equity by not owning the property they live in, non-existent, there is little to be shared. Educational opportunities are still there but in a different way. Many times the goal for a student coming from a family living in poverty is for their child to be a high school graduate. College, if any, is in the form of a tech school. A poor family sees their child attending a tech school the same way a middle class family sees their child attending the best state college in their given state which is the same way a wealthy family sees their child attending whichever college (in state, out of state, or private) the child wants to attend. The different class levels may all have the same ceiling for success, but the floors are different and therefore the averages, which is what is normal and acceptable for each class level, are not the same.
I am not suggesting that there are any issues with any family operating like this. I am not even suggesting that there is an issue with all families operating like this. The only problem is that when a super majority of them operate like this it doesn’t affect the wealthy or the middle class in the same way it affects the poor. Large concentrations of wealthy people living near each other creates societal problems that are somewhat acceptable, because from an outsiders perspective their problems seem like good problems to have. Rich suburbs have problems but the problems are rich people problems. Every people group has problems, some are just more appealing than others. Middle class neighborhoods have problems too. I bet most of the residents in middle class neighborhoods wish they had rich people problems without realizing that they kind of still do – having to drive to Florida for spring break instead of taking a trip to Belize or needing to take your five year old SUV into the shop for the second time in three months are still a rich person problem that a person living in poverty would love to have. Poor neighborhoods have poor people problems. The tricky part of this is that the ugliness of a rich person problem is typically in the mind of the rich person. Things like greed, entitlement, or jealousy aren’t always tangible or visually evident. Poor people problems are almost always visual. Their problems manifest themselves in equally ugly ways, they are just visible rather than invisible. Living on welfare or disability when you really don’t have to because to you it is a better option that working a shitty minimum wage job is an ugly problem that is easy for people in the other classes to make judgements on and because of the amount of choice and access individuals not living in poverty have it is easy for them to avoid the ugliness associated with poor people problems.
When members of the middle class and subsequently wealthier classes use their access to avoid an area because of the problems associated with poverty, poor neighborhoods are created. Several poor neighborhoods next to each other create poor zip codes and multiple poor homogenous and contiguous zip codes create sections of a city (ie north side, south side, and east side). The problem for me lies in the inability of a zip code or even a neighborhood to ever get themselves out of the cycle of poverty. It is insane to think that an entire zip code of poor black people is going to internally have enough resources to ever free itself from poverty.
The converse argument is that this is just how life is and, well, it is what it is. Commenting on that mentality is futile since what is needed to fix the problem isn’t for every single person not living in poverty to care enough to share their resources with those living in socio economic classes below their own. What is needed is for just enough of them to do so in order to start disassembling the societal structure inadvertently created by dividing parts of the city into poor black areas or poor hispanic areas or trendy white areas.
Large issues sometimes need to be looked at in overly simplified ways. It’s like the Cliff Notes version of novel. In summary here is the issue:
Jobs that offer middle class lifestyles are not accessible to poor minority families in part because the schools the children attend aren’t great because the kids aren’t supported in their education because the parents are beaten down by the stress of living in poverty (which causes a lot of other issues that on the surface seem repulsive but are just symptoms of poverty – alcoholism/drug addiction, welfare dependence, no parenting skills, or distrust of authority figures) and the inability to see a way out because jobs don’t exist within the areas they live, and jobs don’t exist in poor predominantly minority areas because the people with resources do not need to ever go near them and without enough people with resources ever intentionally utilizing those resources in poor minority filled areas the cycle will continue to produce more of the same.
This isn’t the only reason why this phenomenon is occurring. However, the fact that when one upper middle class white family intentionally moves into a poor all black neighborhood and uses its resources there and both their neighbors (poor black people) and their social groups (middle or upper middle class white people) question what they are doing means that doing so is so far removed from the societal norms that maybe it is time for the societal norms to start changing.
Here is a fourth mindset or viewpoint when presented with the statement that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America:
In order for a metro area to be so segregated, each of the one and a half million people living there are active participants, meaning they are actively choosing to keep Milwaukee segregated by choosing where they live. Anyone with enough resources and assets to make a choice on where they live, is either helping or hurting the problem. The blank stares I receive when I tell someone (black, white, poor or rich) where I live is a good indicator that very few people have ever thought of themselves as helping to fix the problem or participating in perpetuating it since someone living outside of the social construct is confusing enough to them to render them speechless.
There is nothing inherently wrong with someone with resources using those resources to avoid having to deal with poor people problems. If you live in a predominantly affluent suburb that is what you are doing. You are paying more than you need to for your housing in order to avoid having to put up with the outward actions of poor people that you find offensive or repulsive. It’s kind of like choosing to own a Lexus when a Toyota would be just as good. You want to avoid the road noise and potential discomfort associated with non-luxary vehicles.
We all have a choice on how we use what we have. We just don’t do ourselves and society any favors when we sugar-coat what is really going on. Just like the owner of the Lexus insulates themselves from perceived potential discomfort by avoiding a lower quality vehicle, residents of predominately white suburbs insulate themselves from the perceived discomfort associated with persons, specifically minorities, living in poverty.
Having enough wealth or at least the understanding and capacity to build wealth throughout a lifetime is wonderful. It is one of the driving factors to our country’s success as a whole. Using that wealth to separate yourself from the poor is also fine as long as we call it what it is. Over and over when I tell people where we live, they say something like isn’t that a bad area. Dozens of times someone has told me a story of driving through a neighborhood just like mine (although they didn’t realize it) and told me how they drove through the sketchy part of town.
Calling it what it is, is saying that if you live in an area where the effects of poverty have no impact on your day to day life and within 30 minutes you can drive yourself to an area where the outcomes of poverty are readily apparent and access to your neighborhood is limited because of the amount of money needed to live reasonably comfortably, you are choosing to use your money to insulate yourself from bullshit that comes from concentrated groups of people with no resources.
When we start to see ugliness and disgusting behavior through the lens of poverty it helps to frame what we are actually seeing. Reckless driving is a good example of this. Most cities have terrible, sometimes scary, drivers. This would be something easily excusable and socially acceptable as a reason for avoiding the central city of Milwaukee. Keeping in mind that no one actually likes reckless drivers, especially those living in poverty since they are much more likely to be passed by one in the wrong lane going 70 in a 30 mile per hour speed limit zone. In fact, poor residents and anyone else who lives in the central city have to deal with this problem so often that they are just used to it.
Why does this problem exist or why is it allowed to exist? One reason is that the police force is overworked because of other issues associated with widespread areas of poverty and cannot enforce the traffic laws in the same way that a suburb can. The second reason is that the person driving insanely doesn’t have much to lose. If I drove like that and got caught, I would lose a lot more than whatever the value of the ticket would be. The third reason is that the person driving thinks that it is ok to do what they are doing. This is the most depressing of the three reasons. Societal norms were never transferred to that individual in the same way there transferred and taught to the majority of us. There is a lacking skill there. The lacking still is understanding that your actions sometimes have consequences far beyond what you might intend them to be. You could kill someone. Another lacking skill is knowing how someone else will feel by what you are doing and having enough compassion on a stranger, the other drivers, to not put them in a situation that is frightening for them. Even worse would be lacking the skills to care about the feelings of others so little that you knowingly and willfully understand what you are doing scares the shit out of everyone else around you and not caring enough to not give into your impulse to drive like a jackass.
Seeing the reckless driver as a damaged skill deficient individual that society didn’t properly help guide into acquiescing into its norms doesn’t validate what they are doing, it just helps the rest of us to have empathy for the person. It also, then, comes back to the idea of choosing to insulate ourselves from the problems and allowing them to perpetuate or participating in making changes by experiencing the same discomfort those living in poverty deal with regularly even though we have the resources and assets to allow us the opportunity not to.
Milwaukee’s racial and socio-economic segregation problem is easily solvable, which might be why it hasn’t been fixed yet. All that is needed is for people with access and means to intentionally choose to live in areas that are below their own means. While that would require a lot of sacrifice from a few individuals, a start to that process would be to begin to call isolating ones self from poverty and the resulting racial segregation what it is, a choice to not be discomforted by the affects of poverty. The next step would be to start viewing the resultant aspects of poverty for what they are, symptoms of a larger problem, not a socially acceptable excuse to distance oneself, and owning that the problem has been created by all one and half million residents of the metro Milwaukee area. If enough people did those two things, that would begin to create the type of environment where a 36 year old white upper middle class man and his wife and two kids and their dog living in the poorest, almost entirely black, zipcode with the highest incarceration rate for black men anywhere in the country wouldn’t solicit blank and confused stares when describing where he lives.