Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters

For years, the Milwaukee metro area has had a reputation as one of the most segregated in the United States.

How did this complex problem come about, and why does it endure? How does it contribute to persistent poverty? Are there ways to break through the boundaries?

WUWM seeks answers to those questions in our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

Help shape this series. What questions do you have about segregation? Submit your responses below.

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Pat Rabinson

Milwaukee Water Commons was created four years ago to educate the community about water - its rivers, streams and Lake Michigan - to cultivate informed stewards.

“I came from a more traditional environmental effort, which was the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition – working to make the river more beautiful, more accessible. There was already a ton of passion around that issue, but it was by and large a middle class and white group of people,” founder Ann Brummitt says.

David Flowers

Milwaukee native Davita Flowers-Shanklin brings a unique experience to the discussion of segregation, and its ripple effects.

“I remember being in high school and being really into science and biology. I was the co-director of Camp Everytown, which is a diversity camp for teenagers," Flowers-Shanklin says. "So my work even as a teenager was around anti-oppression."

Michelle Maternowski

Segregation comes with borders, whether they are manmade - 124th Street, the dividing line between Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, or natural - the Milwaukee River. Today, WUWM reports on one particular border, and how some people feel about crossing it.

Metro Milwaukee has a segregation problem. It's an issue prominently on display within area schools.

Some say, school segregation in Milwaukee as bad today as it was 60 years ago, at the height of the Civil Rights era.

How did we get here? Let’s take a look back...

Jim Moy for Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers

Segregation can impact a person's body, mind and health. Not everyone has the same opportunity to be healthy in a city like Milwaukee.

Dr. Julie Schuller says the lack of access to quality healthcare and environmental factors inhibit segregated African-American and Latino populations from living healthy lifestyles.

Courtesy of UWM, David Pate

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.  

Michelle Maternowski

It’s widely understood that Milwaukee is a segregated metropolitan area. But what’s less-appreciated is how segregation connects to other social issues the area faces.

Soon-to-be-released research by UW-Milwaukee professor Marc Levine links segregation to a key factor that overlays it – poverty. Levine is the director of UWM’s Center for Economic Development.

Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

Poverty is entrenched in some of Milwaukee's mainly black neighborhoods. People studying the issue say financial struggles piled up as employers left. So they say change only will come when more people are put to work, in family-supporting jobs.

Decades of racist policies and attitudes have led to entrenched segregation in metro Milwaukee. African-Americans remain concentrated in the city, including in its poorest neighborhoods.

Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Segregation impacts many different areas of our lives in metro Milwaukee. One that may not be top of mind is its connection to environmental health and justice. WUWM found an intricate tapestry of challenge and hope -- starting with Antoine Carter.

His childhood started on East Chambers in Milwaukee.

“I remember drugs and gangs and outdoor football and people getting jumped and all sorts of stuff. Just living in this area in the 1990s, I was a little too young to understand everything that was going on, but I still could see that things weren’t right,” Carter says.

Joseph Ellwanger

For clergyman Joseph Ellwanger, the battle to end racial injustices across the U.S. involved overseeing the desegregation of the pews of his church.

Ellwanger is pastor emeritus of the Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. During his stewardship, from 1967 to 2001, Cross Lutheran evolved from a predominately white congregation to an integrated one.

Louisa Thomson / Flickr

Segregation is connected to issues ranging from education to housing to health. So, it’s no coincidence that evictions disproportionately affects certain neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

Writer and researcher Matthew Desmond chronicled the issue of eviction and its impact in Milwaukee last year in the landmark book, Evicted.

LISTEN: 'Evicted' Book Paints a Heartbreaking Picture of a Milwaukee Under Stress

Rachel Morello

Metro Milwaukee has a segregation problem -- not least, within area schools. Over time, racial lines have been created here, dividing the area into distinct black, white and Latino neighborhoods. 

UWM Students Talk About Race and Segregation

Mar 7, 2017
Micaela Martin

UWM students Sydney Lee and Dwayne Lee – not related, are both black and grew up on Milwaukee’s North Side.

Voces de la Frontera / Flickr

There's a common misconception that many, or most, Latinos in Milwaukee are actually immigrants; however, Hispanic people have been living in the area since the 1920s.

There were relatively few Latinos in our community for decades. "The big numbers start in the late '70s and '80s and '90s is really when the large influx of Latinos come to Milwaukee," says Enrique Figueroa, the former longtime director of the Roberto Hernandez Center and an associate professor at UW-Milwaukee.

JFXie, flickr

Several reasons emerge as to why people in metro Milwaukee live in either segregated or integrated neighborhoods in what is the most racially segregated metro area in the country. Sometimes people have a choice, other times they do not. And one statistic sets this area apart from all others, according to UWM researcher Marc Levine - the rate of affluent African-Americans opting to live in neighborhoods saturated with poverty.

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