Michael T. Sullivan
Madison residents rally Dec. 5 to protest police killings of black men around the country.
Over the last year, thanks to the Race to Equity project, Madisonians have been coming to grips with the fact that we blithely inhabit one of the worst cities in the nation for African Americans.
It was shocking to discover that, on a comprehensive survey of wellbeing, African American children in Wisconsin were the worst off in the nation -- and that the situation is particularly bad right here in Dane County.
If you are white, you might not even notice. That's because our state and our county rank in the top 10 for wellbeing among white children. Yet, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, disparities between black and white children in Madison are among the very worst in the whole United States.
"The status quo is toxic, not only for the future of the African American population and for other communities of color, but for our state as a whole," the Foundation concluded in its Race for Results report.
People of color are not going to want to live here, the report warned, and the economic and cultural life of our state will suffer as a result.
The achievement gap, and the general environment for black kids in Madison, is so bad, "I sleep with one eye open, thinking about sending my kids to the Madison Public Schools," an African American professor who was recruited and moved here with her family recently told me.
All you have to do is travel to less segregated cities -- Atlanta, Washington, DC, New York or Chicago -- to see a more multiracial, egalitarian environment, and to realize how different things are here.
"I remember the first time I visited D.C., when I was a teenager. I was wearing a hoodie and baggy jeans, and I walked by this African American woman, and she clutched her purse!" a local banker who grew up in Madison told me, laughing. He was so accustomed to getting the hairy eyeball from white people as a young, black male in Madison -- despite being a great student and athlete -- he had never had the opportunity to get the same sort of treatment without attributing it to race.
The YWCA, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and other local groups have been working hard on the problems that create such a heavy feeling of racial disparity in our town.
Part of the problem is poverty: In Wisconsin, about a third of white children live below 200% of the poverty level, while for black kids the rate is a jaw-dropping 80%.
But part of it is cultural. We have grown accustomed to living in separate bubbles in Madison. People who move here from other cities -- like that anxious UW professor -- are taken aback by how segregated our city is.
The combination of these factors creates unconscious biases that are hard to talk about, because they make people so defensive.
"This is going to be a little controversial, but our job is not to root out the racists," Rinku Sen, the president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, told me recently. "It's not whether we are good anti-racist people or not. Some of us are good anti-racist people. Most of us are just well-meaning, trying-to-be-colorblind people."
Often there is no racist person to blame for racial injustice, she says. Instead of pointing fingers, we need to look at changing systems and rules that cause disparities.
Sen's group created the tool used by Madison and other cities to assess the racial impact of all sorts of policies, "kind of like an environmental impact assessment, but for race."
In trying to address racial disparities, Sen says she has found that by focusing on concrete results, not intentions, "you can lower the heat level enough in a lot of these discussions so you can get past the automatic defense that goes up when people are afraid of being accused of being racist."
That creates the possibility for real progress.
After years of going nowhere, Madison is grappling with our yawning achievement gap.
We also need to confront the kind of unconscious bias that leads to wildly different outcomes for white and black people who come in contact with the law. Everywhere from traffic stops to prosecutions of crimes large and small, police, prosecutors and the courts often show very different faces to people of different races.
The recent spate of police killings of unarmed African Americans and the Black Lives Matter protests all over the country have turned up the heat.
"There is a growing movement among folks who are actually trying to run cities in ways that are good for communities of color," says Sen.
Madison is joining that movement, and not a moment too soon.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.