I wrote this op-ed piece for a local newspaper recently. It’ll make the most sense to locals, but concepts can be applied no matter where you live. Is addressing racial injustice the work of love in action…or if racial tension doesn’t appear to be a problem in ta localized area, is it fine to stay out of the conversation? I would content that no matter where you live, there is responsibility to join the work of reconstruction between races, and call out injustice and abuses by those in power.
After relocating to Ozaukee county three years ago for my husband’s job, I had a positive first impression. The tidy tree lined streets appeased both my love of nature and neatnik German heritage, the charming downtowns bustled with life, and the people seemed warm and generous.
We’ve settled here; gained friends in our neighbors, regularly battle hordes of other involved parents for seats at our childrens’ school events, and frequently walk and bike the Interurban Trail behind our house—stopping for coffee or a slice of pizza along the way. My impression of the place we now consider home remains positive.
However, having lived in urban areas for the majority of my adult years, I noticed a difference upon moving here: lack of racial diversity. According to 2017 data, 94.2% of the Ozaukee County population is white, 1.6% is black, and Asian, Hispanic, and other minorities are represented in the remaining 4.2%. I realize this is not uncommon in suburban America, but the divide is more stark here. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated metro areas in the U.S, scoring comparable to Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Cleveland’s index of dissimilarity (a measure of the degree of by which the population would have to be rearranged to reflect a fairly even distribution of race).
Driven by the desire to better understand the underpinnings of segregation, I went to seminars, devoured resources, and listened to many people—of all colors—share their perspective. What I found was eye opening. First, there were the stories. People of color in my town of Cedarburg being asked to leave a store, “because they weren’t going to buy anything anyway,” or an African-American woman being followed by police from the county line as she drove to a work meeting at a colleague’s home.
I teach nursing for a local university and learned that my students of color had experienced being followed in mostly white communities as well. They were apprehensive about coming to my house for an end-of-semester celebration because it meant having to drive through the county. You want me to come to your house? You know I’m black, right? And DWB (driving while black) is a real thing.
When I moved here, white residents warned me to avoid the city and the Brown Deer Walmart because they’re “unsafe.” In Summer 2016, when major riots were raging 20 miles south in Sherman Park, life here went on as normal; nobody talked about it or seemed to care. Through these anecdotes, and others, I noticed a clear divide along racial lines.
Then there’s the history I’d never been taught in school. I learned much from local educator and consultant, Reggie Jackson, who’s extensively researched the complicated roots of segregation in Milwaukee. Originating early in the 20th century, racially restrictive covenants, redlining by realtors and civic governments, and predatory lending are examples of institutionalized racism that prohibited people of color from purchasing or even occupying housing outside small sections of the city. As job opportunities moved away towards the suburbs, black people weren’t allowed to follow and the inner city became more blighted. Though most of these practices became officially illegal in the late 1960s, their impact has lasted well into the present, contributing to the severe wealth disparity and geographic segregation between whites and minorities that exists today.
It has become clear that society still bears the impact of racism in deep-seated ways, but also that this view remains deeply suspicious for those who have grown up in the suburbs, like it once was for me. We don’t like to think of ourselves as propagators of racism.
There is pride of community here—we’re used to doing things well. Our test scores and home values are high. When schools and charities ask for donations, we show up with full hands. We’ll stop at nothing to get our kids into good colleges. We have manicured lawns and are willing to run in the bitter cold to stay fit. But when it comes addressing the impact of racism here in Ozaukee County, we have work to do.
So where do we start? What if we begin by questioning our deep-seated notions around race? What if we make 2019 the year of cleaning house of old attitudes, racist jokes at the table, prejudices in the workplace? What if you make this the year to become curious about history? And what if we teach our kids and grandkids what we’re learning?
I also invite you to join my friend and woman of color, Erica Turner, and me at our monthly Bridge The Divide meeting where we host speakers and discussions to bring new perspective around racial reconciliation to Ozaukee County.
Author and social critic James Baldwin once said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” I love you Ozaukee County, but it’s time to address our blind spot.