Monday, March 9, 2015

Shorewood versus 53206

Perhaps nothing explains the problem better than the numbers: The clip below of Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has gotten nearly a million hits, despite being on YouTube only since last November. But the clip of University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Professor Lois Quinn, who was commissioned by the NAACP to look at rates of incarceration of black men in the entire state of Wisconsin? It’s been up on YouTube three months longer, and has had 86 hits.

I came upon both Flynn and Quinn through a BBC video clip entitled “Why Does Wisconsin Send So Many Black People to Jail,” and that was jarring enough. Shouldn’t the BBC be writing about the mystery of Wisconsin’s famous cheeses, or the remaining legacy of Vince Lombardi in Green Bay? Sorry, guys—this is where we are now.

And I got to that clip because I had read a news story—again in the BBC—about, well, here’s a screen shot of what I saw:


Right, so people the world over are reading about what happened to a 19-year old black kid on the near east side of Madison, Wisconsin; it’s a place I know well, since I lived over there, and still have good friends over there. So I should know the area, the city, and the state—right?

I’m not so sure….

Certainly, the professor is a type I know well: Earnest, sincere, well-meaning. Her points are valid: It’s not just the city of Milwaukee that has an horrific are of incarceration of young black men, but the entire state of Wisconsin. And why is that? Well, the mandatory sentencing guidelines play a part, as do the stepped-up efforts of the Milwaukee Police Department to crack down on driving offenses. Why should that affect black people adversely?

Several reasons, the first of which is that the police are probably targeting the black population. But the real reason is simple: Once you have gone to jail, it is nearly impossible to stay out of jail again.

Everything is against you: The jobs that are available are not on the bus lines, so you need a car. But wait, your license has been suspended, so you drive in fear of being stopped. And even if you have a car and your license hasn’t been suspended? Well, what do you tell your boss, after you have been late three times to work this month, after all these stops?

Assuming, by the way, that there is any job at all, since telling your prospective employer you’ve been a guest of the state of Wisconsin for the last 2.4 years (the average time a prisoners spends in prison for a non-violent drug offense)? Inexplicably, it seems to have a dampening affect on the interview….

So it’s a problem, since Milwaukee has the third highest number of young black men per capita in the country, and do those guys have a high school education? A lot don’t, but it’s more than the lack of jobs and the lack of education. At one point in the clip, Quinn talks about one zip code in the inner city of Milwaukee, and I was interested to learn that she had studied it, and reported this:

This 2007 publication introduces two new sections addressing critical (and previously unexamined) issues facing the neighborhood: the unprecedented increases in subprime and high-interest rate housing loans to neighborhood residents and investors, and the growing population of ex-offenders of prime working age in the neighborhood. These new measures stand in sharp contrast with prior indicators which have generally shown relatively slow downturns and in some cases modest improvements. The new analyses, however, show substantial movement in a negative direction, particularly in the last 4-5 years as prisoners released to these neighborhoods have risen dramatically and subprime lending for refinancing mortgages has escalated.

Melancholy, isn’t it? Because apparently the neighborhood has been studied for the last twenty years, since 1993, and the neighborhood had been struggling, but not plummeting. Oh, and by the way, see that “this 2007 publication,” right up there in the first sentence of the paragraph above?  2007 was before the economic collapse, and remember, all of that subprime lending affected the poor more than the middle class or rich. No one will shed a tear for a rich guy buying ten apartments on spec to flip who then ends up shirtless, but a family who ends up on the streets, or sleeping in their car, because the bank has leant them money? All so that the bank could turn around and sell a package of mortgages to Korea? Sorry, that pulls my heartstrings.

Am I just another do-good liberal, then? Because Ed Flynn, the police chief of Milwaukee certainly lost it in the clip below, and with good reason. Yes, cops are out there putting their lives at risk while I sleep away, only waking up to go out and protest that black lives matter, but never showing up when a black kid is shot in a drive-by killing—as was the case with Flynn, during the protest—or worrying about the 80% of crime victims who are black, and their 80% of perpetrators who are black.

Nor is it really fair to point out that, statistically, crime tends to take place in the same neighborhoods as the perpetrators: If I live in zip code 53206—the zip code studied by the professor—am I going to hop a bus up to Shorewood or Fox Point to knock over a gas station?

No, the real problem is this. But wait: Let’s stop this finger-pointing and go back to basics. Ask any little black kid what he wants to be when he grows up, and what are you going to hear? That he wants to be an ex-con? A drug dealer? The biggest pimp in the neighborhood?
Don’t think so. He or she will want to be a doctor or a fireman or a policeman or a teacher. And somehow—those dreams are getting realized for little kids up in Shorewood or Fox Point, but not for 53206. And I suspect that however unequal things were in the Madison I grew up in, they are infinitely worse now. And it starts, as it always does, at the beginning: From prenatal care that is substandard in 53206 to the single-parent home to the underfunded schools to the societal norm of pushers and drug dealers on the street to the reality of drive-by killings and drug murders to gangs to school dropout rates to…. Do I have to go on?

One of Quinn’s points is that for Shorewood residents there’s a pass, when a rich kid gets in trouble with the law. He was swerving through the main drag in Shorewood with a blood alcohol level of .15? Kids will be kids! But one tangle with the law in 53206 is a life sentence.

So by all means watch the clip of Flynn, who is feeling understandably besieged. What shouldn’t you do? Read the comments by the viewers—all 5,681 comments, who may have been inflamed by the chief, as well as by the poster of the clip, Brian Solonge. He ends his introduction with this:

If black people in America dont wake up we are going to be an endangered specie like the Native American within the next 100 years,bet on it.

In order not to have to use a decade's worth of “sic” above, I will only say that the spelling and punctuation are as in the original.

So it’s a war, Shorewood versus 53206. Now then, we can fight it, or we can stop, take a deep breath, and look at all the systemic issues that keep this war going on. But for anyone disinclined to do that, let me tell you, there will never be a winner in this war. 

Not the way we’re fighting it.