Speaking Truth to Milwaukee
It’s probably bad form for a new executive in town to point out Milwaukee’s worst flaws right after accepting a $250 million welcome wagon gift from his new community.
Still, I can’t help wishing Peter Feigin, the new president of the Milwaukee Bucks, hadn’t scrambled quite so quickly to soften his tone and soothe feelings over his totally frank outsider’s assessment of the racial atmosphere in Milwaukee.
“Very bluntly, Milwaukee is the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Feigin, a native of New York City, told the Rotary Club of Madison. “It just is a place that is antiquated. It is in desperate need of repair and has [been that way] for a long, long time.”
It’s not that Milwaukee has never heard such disparaging remarks. In fact, it hears them all the time. Local black leaders sent that message out across the country again during the Sherman Park protests over a police shooting.
What’s more, the opinions of those who bear the brunt of racism are regularly supported by the continuing release of statistics documenting some of the worst racial disparities in the nation in income, employment, residential segregation, education and other measures of community health.
And Feigin’s right, it’s been that way for a long, long time. In 2009 when historian Patrick Jones published his chronicle of the city’s role in the 1960s civil rights movement, Jones called Milwaukee “the Selma of the North.”
What was novel about Feigin publicly acknowledging Milwaukee’s glaring racial inequalities was that it came from a corporate leader. Feigin clearly hadn’t adjusted to the local corporate culture of ignoring such problems.
Perhaps that’s why Mayor Tom Barrett’s reaction struck exactly the right note. Instead of getting defensive, Barrett agreed Milwaukee had a lot of work to do. Barrett welcomed the community engagement of Feigin and his employers, billionaire Bucks owners Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan, three of the richest men in America.
“I think anybody who lives here has to be very concerned about [the racial disparities] and I am very concerned about that,” Barrett said. “But I also know that in order to change that, you have to have partners. And [Feigin] and the ownership team seem to be a willing partner.”
Imagine that. A so-called public-private partnership that doesn’t just suck a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar subsidy out of taxpayers to expand the wealth of top executives, but provides real leadership aimed at making Milwaukee a better place to live.
CEOs Welcome to Join BLM
There actually was a time when homegrown corporate leaders took pride in improving Milwaukee. In the ’60s and ’70s, Irwin Maier, chairman of the then locally owned Journal Company, and Edmund Fitzgerald, chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, were driving forces organizing CEOs into the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC).
The GMC was always better at building stuff out of concrete (arenas, stadiums, museums, the Performing Arts Center) than tackling social problems. And the racial and class insensitivity of CEOs was shockingly obvious in their support of massive freeway building that devastated healthy black neighborhoods and businesses.
But there also was another spinoff of top executives led by the Journal’s Maier and Ben Barkin, the public relations man for Schlitz Brewery, called the Committee of We-Milwaukeeans.
It actively supported the open housing marches of Father James Groppi and Ald. Vel Phillips battling residential segregation over the united opposition of Mayor Henry Maier (definitely no relation) and every alderman on the Common Council except Phillips, the only African American.
Wouldn’t it be something if Milwaukee’s corporate leaders were once again committed to supporting positive social change? It actually would make economic sense, increasing the profits of private corporations like the Bucks with citizens of all races having equal access to family-supporting jobs and more disposable income.
Instead, too many corporate CEOs today are perfectly happy living far from the city and collecting tax benefits from Republican Gov. Scott Walker without raising a peep as he and the Legislature continue slashing state revenue and services for the city, its schools and its citizens.
Strong support already exists within the Bucks organization for corporate leaders and the players themselves taking an active role far beyond superficial public relations.
It was only a year ago that Bucks forward John Henson experienced the ugly racism of employees at a suburban Whitefish Bay jewelry store locking him out and calling the police assuming Henson was a black man planning to rob their store instead of a millionaire buying an expensive watch.
Jabari Parker, the Bucks rising star and one of their top draft picks, is one of those socially conscious, young athletes who publicly supports the Black Lives Matter protests.
There’s no reason the modern civil rights movement growing across the country around the principle that Black Lives Matter should be limited to black activists and their white allies in the streets.
Billionaires and millionaires in corporate boardrooms are welcome.