In Milwaukee and in southeastern Wisconsin, we are on the front lines of the battle against racism whether we acknowledge it or not.
My social network feed is breaking over the weekend incidents in Charlottesville. So is my heart. Many have spoken out against the racism inherent in the alt-right march that sparked the violence, and rightfully so. Racism, hate, murder and violence cannot be tolerated. But the unfortunate fact is that all too often, it is tolerated now and has been tolerated in America’s past. Here is a sad litany of some of our racist actions as a people:
It seems easy to condemn the actions of our country in the past. It seems equally easy to sit at our computers and denounce the racists marchers in Virginia from our vantage point of living in the Midwest hundreds of miles from the “front lines”.
But, here in Milwaukee and in southeastern Wisconsin, we are on the front lines of the battle against racism whether we acknowledge it or not. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently published a series of articles looking at the similarities between the conditions fermenting the open housing marches in 1967 and those that sparked the unrest in Sherman Park in 2016, nearly fifty years later. Unfortunately, not much has changed and in many instances things have gotten worse. Poverty has deepened, incarceration rates have increased, unemployment of Black males is in double digits and the gaps in education between minority students and white students persist.
I have a challenge to all people of good will who want to stand up in opposition to what has transpired in Charlottesville recently and it is this: spend your time and energy working to alleviate the structural racism in southeastern Wisconsin instead. The racism here is much more insidious. We don’t have the easily identifiable evil of Nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets. What we do have is institutional racism hidden behind the doors of civility and carried out in dry and long-standing public policies. We have 72% of all poor people in the four-county region packed into the city of Milwaukee, with little support or affordable housing elsewhere. We have cynical politicians opposing mass transit in the suburbs and suppressing voter registration in predominantly minority communities.
Segregation is an evil that must be confronted by all people of faith and good will. We are willing to do so when the evil is far away – in Charlottesville. But it takes a special kind of strength and courage to confront the segregation in our own back yard.
When we search our hearts, perhaps we will understand that inaction on this home-grown segregation is tacit approval of its continuation.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.