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Reggie Jackson on Milwaukee’s Racial Segregation

America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s head griot explains why we’re No. 1

Feb. 21, 2017
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“Segregation is an issue nationally, but Milwaukee takes it to a whole other level,” said Reggie Jackson, head griot at the Milwaukee-based America’s Black Holocaust Museum

Think about this: If residents were distributed evenly, without regard to race, a full 81% of Milwaukee’s African Americans would have to move to integrate neighborhoods.

That bit of data from the University of Michigan, which measures white/black segregation, makes the Milwaukee metro region the most racially segregated region in the country. Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin is the second-most segregated state in the country. 

Jackson took a deep dive into the data to better understand why Milwaukee is so racially segregated when similar urban areas have a more dynamic, healthy racial mix. Jackson found that a historic combination of restrictive national policies, housing practices and biased attitudes have contributed to our present segregation. And it’s having a negative impact on the region’s ability to thrive in a myriad of ways.

“Segregation is very hurtful,” Jackson said. “It impacts the places people occupy, where we shop, where we eat, who we know.”

How Did We Get Here? 

As Jackson explains, national forces had a hand in shaping Milwaukee’s demographics and residential patterns. For example, manufacturing jobs boomed during World War II and the post-war years, which provided family-supporting jobs for tens of thousands of Milwaukee workers. Although Milwaukee was a national manufacturing leader, those jobs were also in abundance in other Northern cities. African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South sought out those jobs in the North, so Milwaukee became a destination for these Southerners, but not immediately. As Jackson put it, “Chicago was in the way.”

Although we tend to believe that Milwaukee began losing significant manufacturing jobs during the 1970s and 1980s, Jackson said they began to erode as early as the 1950s. That had a huge impact on working families, including African Americans, and the city has never recovered those jobs.

In addition, the federal government played a large role in determining who could live in various parts of the Milwaukee region.

For example, instead of promoting equitable, color-blind guidance, the Federal Housing Authority wrote an underwriting manual that provided guidance on the use of racially restrictive covenants to be attached to property deeds.

“The Federal Housing Authority told people that if you want to keep your communities all white, this is how you can do it,” Jackson said.

The FHA promoted covenants as a better alternative to zoning as a way to restrict property ownership to whites only, Jackson said, although zoning in the outer suburbs ensured that lots were big, homes were built just for one family, and only more affluent residents were welcome. 

The covenants typically required the owner of the property to be white or forbade the sale of the property to a black buyer. Some covenants in the suburbs prohibited any non-whites from purchasing the property. Some stated that non-whites were allowed on the property only if they were a domestic worker. Jackson said many properties in the City of Milwaukee had covenants attached to them, and a startling 16 of the 18 surrounding suburbs used them widely as well as they developed. That means that many people—blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians—couldn’t buy, rent or occupy property in large swaths of Milwaukee County for decades.    

These racially restrictive covenants were finally outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but Jackson said some are still attached—although no longer in effect—to some properties’ deeds. He turned up one covenant in a South Milwaukee neighborhood that would be in effect, were it legal, through 2024. And he said real estate agents’ informal but common practice of steering black homebuyers toward certain neighborhoods and away from white enclaves produced the same kind of segregation the covenants did.

“They’d say, ‘I don’t think you really want that place,’” Jackson said.

Working in tandem with the racially restrictive covenants was the practice of redlining. Again, the federal government was involved. Back in the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a government agency, mapped cities throughout the U.S. to determine the feasibility of issuing mortgages. The agency’s Residential Security Map identified and color-coded four types of neighborhoods in various cities—the worst of which, colored red on the map, was the least desirable in terms of lending. That map, in turn, determined whether property owners could purchase insurance. And if you couldn’t buy homeowners insurance, you couldn’t get a mortgage. 

Nineteen portions of Milwaukee were redlined. Jackson said he was surprised that only three areas were redlined due to their racial or ethnic makeup, while the majority were redlined because of factory pollution, lack of infrastructure and other non-demographic factors.

Jackson said one side effect of redlining negatively impacted returning veterans. Veterans of color couldn’t get a low-interest VA mortgage on homes that couldn’t get insurance in redlined neighborhoods, while white veterans could easily access this earned benefit. 

Although property covenants and redlining were outlawed in 1968, Jackson said their impact lingered long after. Generations of black Milwaukeeans were less likely than their white peers to own a home in the neighborhood of their choosing, build up equity, stabilize neighborhoods and purchase other properties. 

“Blacks with the means and ability couldn’t buy a home, while most whites had that ability,” Jackson said.


What Makes Milwaukee’s Segregation Unique 

Jackson said Milwaukee’s segregation is more intense because unlike in other major cities, African Americans largely aren’t moving into the suburbs while whites have fled from the city to them in droves.

“Even though we changed the laws, we didn’t change hearts and minds,” Jackson said. 

Even after all of the gains made by civil rights and fair housing advocates, just 6% of African Americans in Milwaukee County live in the suburbs. In Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, African Americans’ presence is negligible, thanks to zoning laws and a lack of multifamily or low-income housing. (See sidebar for details on demographics.)

As a result, middle-class and prosperous African Americans are more likely to live in city neighborhoods alongside more-disadvantaged blacks and are far less likely to live in the suburbs, which is pretty unusual for a large metropolitan area, Jackson said. 

“What makes Milwaukee unique is the chance that blacks with higher incomes are living with poorer people,” Jackson said. 

Even within the city, African Americans are concentrated in a few neighborhoods. Citing demographic data from the 1970s and today, Jackson said even the Open Housing marches didn’t open up the South Side to blacks, as intended. According to the 1975 special census taken eight years after the marches, just nine African Americans lived the Muskego Avenue area; 23 lived in Walkers Point; six lived in Koziusko Park area, where the marches terminated; 43 lived in Jackson Park; 12 lived in Bay View; and nine lived in the Tippecanoe neighborhood south of Bay View. Obviously, those numbers have increased in the past 40 years, but not enough to lessen the city’s segregation. 

Jackson chalked up the concentration of African Americans to certain parts of the city to a lack of policies to promote integration and personal attitudes that keep people apart. Federal housing laws have never been vigorously enforced at the local or national levels, and many neighborhoods just didn’t—or don’t—seem to welcome black residents. When African Americans have moved out of the city, they’ve done so by moving into Northwest Side neighborhoods that had once been home to Jews, which had previously been home to Germans, Jackson said.

It hasn’t helped that the city’s African American business and residential district was torn up in the 1950s and 1960s for development that never really materialized. A full 99 businesses and more than 400 homes were razed, Jackson said, displacing black families and business owners and destroying a thriving neighborhood. 

Jackson said the region’s segregation comes at a high cost. Young, professional African Americans, seeing a lack of opportunity in Milwaukee, are leaving for better circumstances in more attractive cities. Up-and-coming workers can’t find the good jobs that their parents and grandparents had. And living in a racially determined bubble just isn’t a good thing for any of us, on a personal or societal level.

“Segregation has a huge impact on keeping people from knowing other people,” Jackson said. “When there’s a lack of contact, you rely on stereotypes, you don’t communicate and you make assumptions about other people. It really does the city a disservice.” 

Reggie Jackson will present “The Hidden Impact of Racial Segregation on Milwaukee County” at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 20, at the Tippecanoe Library, 3912 S. Howell Ave.


How White Are the Suburbs?

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, here are the demographics of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs and exurbs:

Milwaukee County: 61% white, 27% black, 13% Latino, 3% Asian

Ozaukee County: 95% white, 1% black, 2% Latino, 2% Asian

Washington County: 96% white, 1% black, 3% Latino, 1% Asian

Waukesha County: 93% white, 1% black, 4% Latino, 3% Asian


City of Milwaukee: 45% white, 40% black, 17% Latino, 4% Asian

Bayside: 91% white, 4% Asian, 3% black, 3% Latino

Brown Deer: 62% white, 29% black, 5% Asian, 4% Latino

Cudahy: 89% white, 10% Latino, 4% Asian, 3% black

Fox Point: 92% white, 4% Asian, 3% black, 2% Latino

Franklin: 87% white, 5% black, 5% Asian, 5% Latino

Glendale: 74% white, 14% black, 4% Latino, 3% Asian

Greendale: 93% white, 5% Latino, 3% Asian, 1% black

Greenfield: 89% white, 8% Latino, 4% Asian, 2% black

Hales Corners: 95% white, 4% Latino, 2% Asian, 1% black

Oak Creek: 88% white, 8% Latino, 4% Asian, 3% black

River Hills: 82% white, 8% Asian, 6% black, 4% Latino

Shorewood: 88% white, 6% Asian, 3% black, 3% Latino

South Milwaukee: 92% white, 8% Latino, 2% black, 1% Asian

St. Francis: 89% white, 9% Latino, 3% black, 2% Asian

Wauwatosa: 90% white, 4% black, 3% Asian, 3% Latino

West Allis: 87% white, 10% Latino, 4% black, 2% Asian


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