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Ethnic Diversity in Milwaukee

Tom August’s history of our multicultural city

Jul. 14, 2014
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Milwaukee is among America’s most historically unique cities, and yet, the problems that pervaded the U.S. throughout its history, especially the crucial issue of racism, arrived with the early settlers. Milwaukee historian Tom August examines the familiar and unusual aspects of how race and ethnicity played out in our city in his perceptive study, From Assimilation to Multiculturalism: Managing Ethnic Diversity in Milwaukee (AMS Press).

As August reminds us, ethnic prejudice can find many targets, racism as formulated in the 19th century made many assumptions beyond the presumption of white supremacy, and the guiding lights of the U.S. in those years would have had little use for what is known today as multiculturalism. To be American in those years meant adopting the norms of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, even if other faiths such as Roman Catholicism or Judaism were tolerated. Milwaukee’s New England “Yankee” settlers were initially appalled by the Germans, whose barbaric customs including drinking at beer gardens on Sunday afternoons. But the WASPs were unable to maintain ascendency. The influx of Germans into the area after 1848 was enormous enough to allow the new immigrants to maintain their cultural autonomy while dominating “virtually all spheres of city life.”

In other words, Milwaukee became an outpost of Middle Europe in the Midwest, a city where WASPs had to learn to German if they wanted to do business. The presumption was that the city’s dominant immigrant group could “Americanize” themselves at their own pace, by their own rules—until the Germanophobia of World War I sent the old arrangement crashing down. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and Deutschtum retreated, but not without leaving a heritage of fine architecture, neatly arrayed parks, public education and progressive politics. Milwaukee had a socialist mayor through 1960, and while August implies that Frank Zeidler didn’t give full attention to the rising tide of white-on-black racism before leaving office, it might be conceded that his efforts probably forestalled worse problems. For August, Zeidler lacked “the kind of courageous and visionary leadership the times demanded.” Zeidler’s successor, Henry Maier, stepped up programs of “acculturation”—readjusting African Americans and Latinos to white norms. This long held approach ran counter to the movement toward ethnic pride, even nationalism, that gained force in the ‘60s as “a new and far less patient generation of black leadership challenged the social order in Milwaukee and elsewhere throughout the country.

As August notes in his epilogue, problems persist. Despite strides made by recent mayors and police chiefs, African Americans and Latinos occupy a relatively small percentage of key positions in the city’s administration. Many shifts in attitude have occurred. “Increasingly, minority parents value proximity to home rather than nearness to white school children.” The largest “choice” schools are virtually all black or Latino, defying the assimilationist goals of earlier times.

August’s study makes a valuable contribution to understanding the chronicle of ethnicity in Milwaukee.


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