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The Selma of the Suburbs

Jul. 12, 2011
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A couple of years ago, historian Patrick Jones published a book about the 1960s civil rights movement in Milwaukee with a title that starkly summed up just how vicious the city's racial divisions really were: The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee.

Most of us would prefer to think we have nothing in common with brutal Southern sheriffs tear-gassing, clubbing and turning dogs and fire hoses on black children and adults demonstrating for their American rights.

Of course, we'd also like to think those hateful battles ended with the passage of U.S. civil rights laws more than 40 years ago.

Jones quotes Milwaukee civil rights icon Vel Phillips, the first African American on the Common Council and the only vote for the city open housing ordinance she repeatedly introduced over objections from Mayor Henry Maier and every other alderman.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1968 Civil Rights Act, including open housing guarantees, Phillips said, "Even Milwaukee had to concede it was part of the United States."

That was decades ago, but many still haven't really accepted that fact.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans controlling the state Legislature just passed a new assault on voting rights that intentionally makes voting more difficult for people of color, young people and the elderly.

And, once again, the Justice Department is taking legal action against a Milwaukee-area community for racial discrimination that denies the rights of African Americans to live wherever they choose.

Only this time, instead of being played out in the streets of Milwaukee, the racial hatred is on public display in the suburbs, where in reality the problem has always been the worst and addressed the least.

Many Milwaukee suburbanites are proud to say that when they look at someone they don't see a black person or a white person: They just see a white person.

The ugliness that festers behind such racial isolation largely goes unspoken. Sometimes community leaders can even lull themselves into believing they actually are living among decent, pleasant people.

That is what New Berlin Mayor Jack Chiovatero thought when he and other officials on the city's Plan Commission approved a City Center project that included 100 senior apartments and 80 affordable housing units.

People don't usually hate grammas and grampas, and doesn't everyone want to live somewhere "affordable" these days?

But to many people in New Berlin, "affordable" translated into housing for people without much income. And everyone knows the color of the people who have been kept at the bottom in America.

So the next thing Chiovatero knew, his family was receiving death threats, his tires were slashed and shots were fired at his home. A sign calling him "N----- Lover" appeared in his yard. Other epithets and threats were spray-painted on his driveway and fence.

The subject of race that everyone politely avoids mentioning in suburbs suddenly was being discussed out loud in angry public meetings, using the ugliest, most vile racial slurs and stereotypes.

As a result, Chiovatero and other local officials caved to the public threats and rescinded their approval of the housing project.

In an email that was unusually candid for a politician, Chiovatero told a friend: "Our city is filled with prejudiced and bigoted people who with very few facts are making this project into something evil and degrading. Unfortunately, I will be doing everything in my power to end this project; it will result in lawsuits and making New Berlin a community of bigots."

Denying American Rights

The predicted lawsuits have come not only from the developers, but also from the Department of Justice.

This is the same federal justice department that in the 1960s had to move against small-town Southern sheriffs, judges and local officials who routinely acquitted members of the Ku Klux Klan—who doubled as small-town Southern sheriffs, judges and local officials—for murdering and committing violence against black citizens.

Many in New Berlin and other suburbs don't recognize that their crime—denying American rights—and the ugly motive behind it—racial hatred—are exactly the same.

How can denying access to housing on the basis of race be equivalent to lynching and murder? Simple. Where we are allowed to live—or prevented from living—can determine everything else in our lives.

It can determine access to employment for adults and the education available to their children, which in turn affects future aspirations, dreams and possibilities in life.

Being confined to a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood on the basis of race can determine whether children end up in prison or have a chance to attend college. For far too many, it can literally determine life or death.

A hate-filled community denying safe housing to African Americans in 2011 can be as deadly as a lynch mob in the 1950s.


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