UWM Professor: Segregation Normalized Through Institutional Structures & Practices

Mar 8, 2017

The road to modern segregation has been a long one. "There's been 350 years of segregation in our country that was perpetuated by the government as well as by the social norms, based on race in particular," says David Pate

Pate studies the complex causes, effects and potential solutions of segregation in his role as an associate professor of social work at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UW-Milwaukee. He says that after centuries of segregation, it's become normalized.  

"Many families on the north side of Milwaukee believe that they're supposed to be segregated. That's the norm, that's just something they have accepted as the way of life," says Pate. 

In this way, Milwaukee isn't unique. Although the city is hyper-segregated, but it's not so far behind cities like Detroit or Chicago. "I don't think Milwaukee's any more racist than anywhere else, I definitely wouldn't say that," he says.

"I don't think Milwaukee's any more racist than anywhere else, I definitely wouldn't say that."

Still, in one of the nation's most segregated cities, in a state that ranks among the most segregated in the nation, Pate believes, "there's something going on there that makes a difference." He cautions that the issue isn't as simple as individual people with racist beliefs, the solution requires a deep look at how our culture views people based on race. 

"It's about racist institutions or institutionalized ways of thinking that people should be treated in certain ways," he says. "That's the bigger question for me and the bigger issue of looking at structural issues, systemic issues that make a difference."  

Part of the solution, in Pate's opinion, is sharing and accepting the stories of people of different races and ethnicities. "I think there's some ignorance on the side of people, when you don't know how people's lives are and what are some of the challenges they face and you're not opening to a dialogue that engages you in a way that allows you to think about: what are the challenges they face, what is your day-to-day," he explains.

"It's not just a segregation of place, but segregation of mind, segregation of attitudes, and an increased prejudice of who we think people are."

While Pate believes that most people are "well-meaning, well-intended," they often perpetuate the issue of segregation through deeply held beliefs about what race means. "It's not just a segregation of place, but segregation of mind, segregation of attitudes, and an increased prejudice of who we think people are." 

He believes that ultimately, an end to segregation must come through greater understanding of other people. It will require people from various communities opening themselves up to the stories of other people, something he sees happening with his own students.

Pate is optimistic that the next generation of Americans will work toward creating a more egalitarian society - defined by the people, not for the people. "They're requiring some of that dialogue and those discussions about: what does it mean to be who I am and don't box me into one space." 

A true solution, however, will require everyone - not just young people. "I would hope that people who are older adults are willing to allow people to engage in those conversations and are open to those conversations as we move forward," he adds.

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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