9/27/2010 update: When properly standardizing and averaging the U.S Census Bureau’s five published segregation measures, Milwaukee goes from being the most segregated metro area to the second most segregated metro area, behind Detroit. Read more.

Milwaukee is a wonderfully diverse city full of unique cultures and a broad array of worldviews and life experiences. But like many cities, these cultures and worldviews are too often walled off from one another due to the effects of segregation. Such segregation, and the racial climate that is part and parcel to it, create challenges and inertia that reach every significant issue that the city ever faces. Issues of citizen empowerment, education, economic development, poverty, public service levels, and countless others are all intimately impacted by the state of Milwaukee’s racial climate. The poor racial climate makes collective action difficult and sometimes impossible, burdens business attraction, fosters brain drain, and reduces quality of life in the entire region. If it doesn’t improve, the city’s potential will forever be constrained. While there’s commendable activity taking place at the individual and grassroots level to improve racial climate, civic leadership in this fundamentally important area tends to be absent.

Residential segregation is a worthwhile starting point when examining Milwaukee racial climate and what can be done to improve it. The following is the first in a multi-part series that will take a look at the prevalence and impact of segregation in the Milwaukee area. The meaning of segregation, its causes and effects, how it can be addressed, and how it impacts racial climate are all issues that will be examined in this series.

It’s commonly accepted that Milwaukee is very segregated, but how segregated is it really? First, most information on this involves not the City of Milwaukee itself, but rather the Milwaukee Metropolitan Statistical Area (“metro Milwaukee”), a region that includes the entire counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. Second, there are lots of ways to measure segregation, and it’s not easy to tell which measures are better than others. Third, the mainstream measures of segregation can only handle two races at a time. The publicized segregation claims tend to involve only white and black populations, excluding Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans entirely.

So when it is said that “Milwaukee is the X most segregated city in the country,” what is really meant is that “the area comprised of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties is the X most segregated area in the country when it comes to black and white residential patterns based on some measurement of uncertain quality.”

Maybe the most respected measures of segregation are drawn out in a study done by the U.S Census Bureau. This study focused on five measures of segregation: dissimilarity, isolation, delta, absolute centralization, and spatial proximity (for descriptions of these measures, see U.S Census study, pages 8-10).

The study analyzed data from the 2000 census, compared metro areas that had a large enough minority population to analyze, and then ranked these metro areas in terms of segregation, with a ranking of 1 being the most segregated. The following table displays metro Milwaukee’s segregation rankings in terms of black/white segregation and Hispanic/white segregation. It also shows metro Detroit’s black/white segregation rankings for context. Metro Milwaukee did not have a large enough Asian-American or Native-American population for analysis, so there aren’t rankings for those populations.

Metro Milwaukee Metro Detroit
black/white Hispanic/white black/white
Dissimilarity 2 8 1
Isolation 8 21 2
Delta 1 15 12
Absolute Centralization 10 22 13
Spatial Proximity 6 8 1
AVERAGE 1 12 2

There is a user-friendly website that focuses on the dissimilarity index. This website ranks metro Milwaukee 3rd, behind Detroit and Gary, IN in the black/white category.

In response to the U.S Census rankings, researchers from UWM created their own ranking system based on the number of blocks in an area that had populations that were both at least 20% black and 20% white. They created their rankings “not as a competitive model for ranking cities and metro areas, but to expose the biases and limitations of the segregation indexes” (which they describe in their report). Metro Milwaukee ranks 43rd in this ranking system, substantially better than its rank in any of the Census’ measures.

The publication of the UWM report created an impassioned debate, with various individuals and groups coming out in support of or in opposition to UWM’s rankings. Marc Levine, a highly respected UWM social scientist, slammed the UWM report as “a blend of shoddy research and specious analysis” in an op-ed that systematically critiqued the report. John Gurda, Milwaukee’s foremost historian, wrote that the UWM report confirmed his firmly held impression that Milwaukee was “somewhere in the middle of the pack” when it comes to integration.

When the UWM report questioned the severity of metro Milwaukee’s segregation, some politicians and business leaders took this as an opportunity to gloss over the area’s racial issues for the purposes of improving the city’s image, an image that consistently makes business and talent attraction difficult. Some black leaders expressed outrage at the UWM report and responded by citing racial disparities and using those disparities to reaffirm the victimization of the black community in Milwaukee. If the UWM report placed segregation into question, the response to the report left no question that the city’s racial climate is poor.

This spring, the 2010 census process will begin. The result will be an updated view of Milwaukee’s demographic and socioeconomic standing. This sharing of new information and insight will provide Milwaukee the perfect opportunity to reassess its level of segregation, what it means for us, and what can be done about it.

Confronting metro segregation is critical, as Milwaukee’s economy spans across municipal and county borders. Action here involves heavy cooperation between the City of Milwaukee, its suburbs, surrounding counties, and the State of Wisconsin. Historically, such cooperation has been difficult to sustain (to say the least).

Almost as importantly, Milwaukee must examine the level of segregation that exists in the city itself. Such segregation works to frustrate cooperation and unity of purpose amongst the city’s population. As a result, the city often is not able to put up a united front when seeking action and cooperation with surrounding suburbs and the state. Before the City of Milwaukee can secure this cooperation, it first needs to get its own house in order.

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Race Matters in Milwaukee

Part I: How Segregated is Milwaukee?

Part Ia: How Segregated is Milwaukee? Part 2

Part II: The Causes of Milwaukee’s Segregation

Part III: The Effects of Milwaukee’s Segregation

Part IV: Segregation and Education

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