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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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. 

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.

UWM Libraries American Geographical Society Library

“Segregation is not an accident,” according to Reggie Jackson, the head griot for American’s Black Holocaust Museum.

“There’s this idea that people self-segregate, but the reality is that there’s never really been self-segregation in Milwaukee,” Jackson says. “The segregation that we have, in terms of people of color, was created by a variety of different in institutions and individuals.”

DUSTIN A. CABLE, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, WELDON COOPER CENTER FOR PUBLIC SERVICE, REFERENCE DATA BY STAMEN DESIGN

The assertion that Milwaukee is currently one of - if not the most segregated metro area in the United States is probably deserved but with some qualifications, according to UW-Milwaukee researcher Marc Levine.

An extraordinary number of blacks live in the city as opposed to in Milwaukee suburbs, and in the city itself - while it is diverse, African-Americans, whites and Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods with little diversity.

Chris Arnade

During the early to mid-1900s, the Great Migration brought millions of African-Americans from rural, southern towns to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and of course, Milwaukee.

To this day, many older, black Milwaukeeans have roots in the South. Many moved here as teens and young adults, looking for work in an industrial city that overflowed with jobs at the time.

Reggie Jackson -- America's Black Holocaust Museum

Milwaukee is one of the most segregated metro areas in America, according to the latest census figures. 90 percent of African-American households in the region live in Milwaukee. The numbers also point to huge economic disparities smothering African-Americans who live in the central city.

The Milwaukee metro area has a reputation as one of the most segregated in the United States. A number of studies support that reputation. Yet what's talked about less are the reasons the community is so divided, and the consequences.

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