Race Matters in Milwaukee: The Causes of Milwaukee’s Segregation

Racial segregation is a phenomenon with complex historical roots. The legacy of slavery, discriminatory housing policies, redlining, employment discrimination, tax inequity, racist covenants, and a wide variety of other practices swirled together to create a segregated Milwaukee. For an exhaustive documentation of Milwaukee’s history of segregation, I highly recommend “A Report on Past Discrimination Against African-Americans in Milwaukee, 1835-1999,” by Ruth Zubrensky (available in most Milwaukee Public Libraries). We won’t know where to go until we understand how we got here, and Zubrensky does a wonderful job of tracing that path.

While Milwaukee’s history is unique, social forces and government policies created and fortified residential segregation throughout the country. So why is it worse in Milwaukee than most anywhere else?


On average, housing in the area’s suburbs is considerably more expensive than housing within the City of Milwaukee. In looking at the ten biggest municipalities in metro Milwaukee, the recent median selling price of housing in the City of Milwaukee was well below every other municipality.

That suburban housing is more expensive than city housing isn’t unique. What distinguishes metro Milwaukee from other areas is the incredible racial disparity in median household incomes in metro Milwaukee, which prevents many minorities from being able to afford suburban housing. According to the most recent American Community Survey, metro Milwaukee has the 2nd worst black/white household income ratio amongst the country’s 50 largest metro areas. The median white household earns $79,145 while the median black household earns $33,273. This amounts to black households earning 42 cents on the white dollar.

Riverside, CA had the best ratio at 85 cents on the dollar, twice as good as Milwaukee. The bottom of the chart was dominated by Midwest cities, who tend to have relatively similar socioeconomic issues. However, even amongst this less competitive group, Milwaukee is still underperforming.

The income disparity reveals Milwaukee’s unique racial issues. One explanation for it is the education disparity. Just in the city alone, blacks are about twice as likely as whites to not have a high school diploma, and are almost three times less likely to have a college degree.

Worse yet, metro Milwaukee has the largest disparity between black and white unemployment in the country! This disparity can be partly explained by the spatial mismatch between black residents and jobs (which, in a circularity, is largely a result of racial segregation). Literally all of the net job growth in metro Milwaukee over the last several decades has taken place outside the City of Milwaukee. Meanwhile, black residents are concentrated in the city’s northside and are far less likely to own a car. This is especially important because public transportation in metro Milwaukee is sorely lacking. It’s hard to have a job when you can’t get to it.

(from Milwaukee Urban Atlas)

Yet another reason for the racial income disparity is brain drain. Many of black Milwaukee’s brightest young minds leave the city to pursue an education and never come back, resulting in the cream being continuously skimmed off the crop. Oftentimes, they wind up in the south, where racial income disparities are less extreme and where educated blacks can feel at home in many cities. Many educated blacks look at Milwaukee as a city in decline, a city with awful race relations, and a city where educated blacks have few peers and fewer opportunities for career advancement (I know folks in this boat, and I was formerly in this camp as well). In yet another circularity, segregation is bred by income disparity which is bred by black brain drain which is bred by a negative racial climate which is bred by segregation.

Just this cursory look hints at the complexity of Milwaukee’s racial income disparity. Each of the mentioned elements, along with others unmentioned, cause and affect each other and perpetuate segregation. But even this web of income disparity-linked socioeconomic issues cannot fully explain the extreme degree of Milwaukee’s segregation. Higher incomes for minorities do not protect against segregation, as segregation nationally among blacks with incomes over $60,000 is almost as large as the overall racial segregation that persists.


Much of the area’s segregation is the result of personal preference. The Public Policy Forum conducted a local survey on housing preferences in 2004. Significant majorities of whites, blacks, and Latinos agreed that “most people” take racial characteristics of the community into account when deciding where to live. When speaking for themselves, the survey revealed that the racial or ethnic makeup of a neighborhood was of great importance to 32% of blacks, 25% of Latinos, and 12% of whites.

A majority of whites who gave an answer said that, in their ideal neighborhood, nearby black families would be less than half of the population, only a few in number, or nonexistent. A majority of blacks who gave an answer said the same thing about nearby white families.

A separate 2006 survey found that a majority of whites and 60% of blacks believe it is common sense for whites to avoid non-white neighborhoods. On the flip side, over 40% of both blacks and whites believed it was common sense for blacks to avoid white neighborhoods.

Just as with the income disparity, personal preference is a cause and an effect of segregation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who grow up surrounded by people who all look like them end up preferring to live amongst people who look like them.


Both the City of Milwaukee and MPS require their employees to reside in the City of Milwaukee. While metro Milwaukee is only about 16% black, the city and MPS workforce are each around one-quarter black. The residency requirement disproportionately impacts black residents.

More to the point, black city and MPS employees represent a sizable share of black residents with enough income to afford to live outside of the city. According to the American Community Survey, there are approximately 16,000 black households with an income over $50,000 in metro Milwaukee, a range that will capture most public employee households. According to the above sources, the City of Milwaukee and MPS collectively employ somewhere around 3,500 black residents. If one assumes that some of these employees are married to each other, such that 3,500 employees make up 3,200 households, this means that 20% of metro Milwaukee’s mobile black households are forced by their employer to live in the City of Milwaukee.

These are “back of the envelope” calculations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that Milwaukee’s residency requirement is a contributing factor to segregation in metro Milwaukee.


Of course, direct discrimination still has a negative impact on segregation. Exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and discrimination in homeowners insurance are all causes of Milwaukee’s segregation.

Employment discrimination persists. People with “white-sounding” names on their resume are 50% more likely to get a call back from an employer than those with “black-sounding” names on an otherwise identical resume. A study done in Milwaukee showed that white felons were more likely to get a call back from a potential employer than black applicants who have clean records. Those that blame black people exclusively for Milwaukee’s income disparity should mind these examples of overt and explainable-only-by-racism discrimination that persist in our society. That said, focusing too much on discrimination makes it acceptable to avoid personal responsibility in the black community. Things won’t improve until personal responsibility is broadly embraced.


The above list of segregation causes is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it’s enough to provide a framework for further discussion. Feel free to add in other causes and elements of Milwaukee’s segregation in the comments section.


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

About Nathaniel Holton

Attorney, Milwaukee NAACP Executive Committee member. B.S, Mechanical Engineering and Philosophy, UW-Madison 2006; MPA, Urban Policy and Fiscal Administration, Indiana Univ. 2010; JD, Indiana Univ. 2010
This entry was posted in African American Employment, African American Families, African American History, Milwaukee Economy, Milwaukee Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Race Matters in Milwaukee: The Causes of Milwaukee’s Segregation

  1. Virginia says:

    Most MPS teachers are white. (Likewise, most city employees are white.) Therefore, I come to an opposite conclusion from yours. Residency requirements actually make Milwaukee more integrated, not more segregated.

    • Eric says:

      Is your statement “Most MPS teachers are white. (Likewise most city employees are white.)” an opinion? If not, could you provide some sort of information to support your statement?

  2. RoyBEsq says:

    Most MPS, City of Milwauke, Milwaukee County (and every other city in Milwaukee County) and State of Wisconsin employee is white. (And in the case of MPS mostly white female.) Most city employees live on the fringes of the City of Milwaukee. (There are demographic maps to prove this.)MPS has a billion dollar budget. Why are black fourth graders last in the country (which still has Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas) in reading proficency? Most highway and bridge construction as well as city infra-structure construction workers are white. (Do you currently see any black workers on either the 94 South or Zoo enterchange construction projects?) All of the large equipment workers on the Marquette enterchange project were white. Most city and County of Milwaukee sub-contractors are white and live in the surburbs. Most State contracts (95%) are awarded to whites and the majority (dollar wise) of DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) contracts are awarded to out of state firms and white females. (Trace the dollars. Open records will allow you the privilage of knowing who is getting paid.) Why are the freeways clogged every morning coming into downtown from the surburbs and reversed every evening? 99% are whites who never set foot in the city except for work and downtown entertainment (unless they own a cenral city business outlet.) Why is there only one black Millwaukee County and no black surburban EMT’s or firefighters? Why is Milkwaukee and Milwaukee County ranked as one of the most segregated housing and socio-economic areas in the entire country? My advice is do your own research homework and come to your own conclusion. If someone else has to tell you it means that you either don’t know or don’t really don’t want to know.

  3. Tony muhammad says:

    This report appears to contractict a paper you ( Ruth) published ( Discrimination Against Black Milwaukeens from the early 1800 to 2000) in 2003. Other studies suggest that 70% of white Americans are prejudice towards Blacks, and that 45% of Blacks are prejudice towards white Americans. Based on the history of the Black / White problem in America, we blacks have a justifiable reason to hate white Americans based on our passive struggle for freedom , justice ,and equality during our 300 years of captivity, and 135 years of Emancipation in America, but we don’t!!!

  4. Lisa Slapczynski says:

    After my husband, a community columnist for js, wrote an article about economic segregation in Milwaukee, my 9 year old daughter got to asking more questions about the cause of segregation here in Milwaukee. Your article answered many of her questions and left her asking more (great!). She is a searcher of truth and fairness. We are conservative, and white, and therefore labeled as racist and rich. Sadly it seems many racists use conservatism as a blanket to hide under, tarnishing the already rusty image others have. She was concerned when her daddy got race fueled hate mail (from a white “conservative), but I think he expected it. The whole thing is sad. I’m going to keep coming back, hoping to come across another article of yours about solutions everyone (from your average joe to law makers) can implement. Now that’s gonna be a tough article to write!

    • Sundiata The Moor says:

      I usually just read the comments after a compelling article and not engage. But i said, “what the heck” “I gotta give her her props”!! That being said, I like what you wrote. I never actually conversed with a White Conservative Woman before. Sounds like we have many things in common, even though I’m a fervent Pro-Black African American MAN. Great to hear that your daughter is dedicated to TRUTH at such young of an age.

  5. Anonymous says:

    BS!!!! “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”!! What the white people SHOULD have been doing is carrying weapons (based on prior years violence) and shot several of the bastards. Attack my family, at the fair, for no reason other than racial bullshit……you get shot and I drove off leaving you bleeding.

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  22. Critical_thinker says:

    The section on Milwaukee Residency Requirements doesn’t make sense. You write: “Both the City of Milwaukee and MPS require their employees to reside in the City of Milwaukee. While metro Milwaukee is only about 16% black, the city and MPS workforce are each around one-quarter black. The residency requirement disproportionately impacts black residents.”

    I’m confused about the difference between “metro Milwaukee” and “the City of Milwaukee.” The population of the city of Milwaukee is far more than 16% black, so it seems like they must be different … but if they’re different, what does “metro Milwaukee” have to do with a discussion about residing in “the City of Milwaukee”?

    In any case, since the city and MPS workforce are apparently three-quarters white, it seems to me like the residency requirement is actually helping to LESSEN the segregation, since all of those white people who might otherwise live in the suburbs are required to live in Milwaukee—far more than the number of black people required to live in the city.

    Also (just because it bugged me), the correct expression is “skimming the cream off the TOP,” not “skimming the cream off the CROP” (which would make little sense).

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