Intersections Milwaukee’s Black Middle Class
“I was going to blend in, and maybe live there forever.”
It was 2002. I might have been the only person alive who’s ever been excited about moving to Milwaukee. Everyone in my hometown of Madison, an hour and a half west, had always spoken of Milwaukee in the sort of hesitant tone you might reserve for a dead aunt you didn’t know very well but found uncouth. According to them, Milwaukee had more culture than we did—plays and concerts and the orchestra—but enough crime to leave one wary about an extended visit and firmly opposed to living there. They weren’t wrong about the crime. By the time I left a year later, I could sift through my friends’ stories and only count a couple who didn’t have friends or family who’d been mugged or shot. My boyfriend’s roommate’s car was stolen twice—in the year before I showed up and once while I lived there—and it always returned a little more dinged-up each time. We said hi to both our downstairs neighbors every day, and roughly once a month each of them would mention right after greeting us that they’d been robbed.
But Milwaukee was also about forty percent black. I practically swooned at the idea that I’d be just another black girl walking down sidewalks or going to the grocery store or taking the bus to work. I pictured myself seamlessly blending in there through my entire senior year of college, where one of my roommates asked me if I put okra in my hair and another spent fifteen minutes telling me that she’d told her coworker I was her first black friend, even though we’d never hung out. Milwaukee was going to be my escape from all the people who struck up conversations about fried chicken and watermelon immediately upon meeting me, and the random hair touching, and the friend who asked me to “translate” rap songs, and the general misfortune of living in a town full of people who’d decided my skin color made me an alien. I was going to blend in in Milwaukee, and make black friends, and maybe live there forever.
I moved in with my boyfriend that fall, and eventually landed a job with Americorps, where I worked as a paralegal at a low-income legal services office four days a week and did team-building activities with the other volunteers in my program on Fridays. All of the other black volunteers were Milwaukee natives who always eyed me strangely, never talked to me unless we’d been put in an activity group together, and generally seemed disdainful of my presence. They made fast friends with each other, and loudly talked about the bars and the clubs they went to together on weekends, while I sat puzzled nearby, wondering if twenty-two years in virtually all-white environments had warped me in some way.
But three months into the program, a woman I’ll call Marie confronted me directly. On Fridays, we had a meeting where we could stand up and say absolutely anything that was on our minds, even if it concerned our personal lives. Marie announced to the roughly thirty-person group that she was uncomfortable with me. When the group leader asked why, she said because I was light-skinned and middle class. I looked around the room—sure that everyone would think she was wrong or at least mean for going after me so hard—and found that all the other black people in the room, maybe half of our group of thirty, were quietly nodding along. The humiliation of being labeled bad in front of so many people left me mute.
I’ve never thought there was a whole lot of value to being light skinned in a society that hasn’t embraced its black people of whatever shade, but if people want to be colorist, you can’t stop them. The middle class thing knocked me flat. Before the Americorps job, I worked at a mall in the suburbs. To avoid interstate traffic, I drove ten miles west from my East Side apartment through the belly of the city, down streets that lay empty because people feared the crime on them. I’d noted the abandoned and occupied but falling apart houses as well as the empty lots packed with overgrown weeds. But my dad worked a second-shift factory job that wrecked his knees enough for yearly surgeries, and we ate a lot of cheap box mac and cheese. While I knew that growing up in a virtually crime-free city somewhat cushioned my family’s relative disadvantages, I’d clearly underestimated the distance between my black coworkers and I.
And I’d bought into an American Dream version of the world that still seemed possible for young people before the ’08 recession where, after earning my college degree, I’d find my way into the sort of job that would let me have some version of comfort, even if I liked cities a little too much to want the sanitized, suburban three-bedroom house and two point five kids and a dog that dream promised. My black coworkers ranged between eighteen and thirty, with the majority of them on the younger side. To disdain me for being middle class meant they’d given up on making it there in a way that I didn’t understand, given how young we all were.
It took me years and a great deal of research to realize that in Madison, middle-classness operates as a floor, and in Black Milwaukee a ceiling that remains, for the overwhelming majority of black families, impossibly far out of reach. That simply being from Madison meant you were better off than a black Milwaukeean. That even as a first-generation college student—and although I was pretty confused about what the hell I should do with my degree—simply having it erected a wall between myself and all but one of my black coworkers.
But I also knew Milwaukee’s lack of a black middle class was strange. I’d been to Atlanta and seen avenue after avenue of successful black businesses and driven through the tony black sections of the city; I’d met black hipsters in Chicago and upper-middle-class black suburbanites; after living in Milwaukee, I’d end up moving to a city with a borough where, during at least one point in the relatively recent past, blacks made more money than whites . While generally black people are worse off than everyone else in this country, I’d collected enough stories of black success that I knew it was possible. And so it was heartstopping to land in a place where that wasn’t true.
When World War I brought European immigration to a halt, recruiters told African Americans to come north to work in industries that saw a spike in demand due to the war , sparking the Great Migration. While many of the jobs black migrants found involved low pay and awful working conditions, and sent migrants north to live in overcrowded slums or the limited housing options northern cities set aside for blacks via redlining, racially restrictive covenants tied to house deeds, and the fact that many whites didn’t want to live near them, the Great Migration was also responsible for the rise of the modern black middle class . Some blacks found unionized manufacturing jobs that promised a living wage and some protection against getting fired, as well as public sector work . In Chicago, black workers entered the middle class by finding quality employment as Pullman porters and in steel mills ; in Detroit the auto industry and city government; in Philadelphia migrants worked on the railroads .
Milwaukee’s first migrants didn’t arrive until after World War II, and migrants didn’t roll in en masse until the ‘60s. Thousands of black people moved into a community that had remained extremely white for twenty years longer than the other industrial northern cities . Almost immediately afterwards, Milwaukee’s industrial jobs began to disappear. Given that Milwaukee employers practiced a great deal of racial discrimination , and the city was already deeply segregated , the declining industrial base and shift of jobs to suburbs far away from the black part of town meant Milwaukee’s black community didn’t have a shot at the kinds of jobs that had allowed migrants in other northern cities to join the middle class .
The city’s attempts to desegregate housing were met with white mobs , white flight, and a subsequent steep drop in black home values , all of which contributed to Milwaukee’s current status as the most segregated city in the country . The city’s decision to ignore Brown v. Board of Education’s order to integrate its public schools until 1979 , when white flight was in full bloom, was followed by public school funding cuts and a voucher program that shifted funds from public to private schools, giving Milwaukee one of the worst public school systems in the U.S . Wisconsin leads the nation in black students’ school suspensions and has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the United States. Since Milwaukee is home to about 70 percent of the state’s black population, it’s responsible for most of the gap.
Wisconsin prisons jail more black men than any other state . As of 2015, 17.3 percent of Milwaukee blacks were unemployed and only 4.3 percent of whites . The median white household income was $62,600, while black households lagged far behind at $25,600 . Four out of five black Milwaukee children live in poverty . During last month’s post-officer-involved-shooting protests, Khalif Rainey, the city’s alderman, said that “Milwaukee has become the worst place to live for African-Americans in the entire country .”
Elections are unlikely to improve Black Milwaukee’s fate. Unlike cities elsewhere, Milwaukee’s suburbs haven’t grown more diverse over time; they’re about 2 percent black and 5 percent Latino , and the success of right-wing talk radio that demonizes the city and its black residents allows suburban voters to see themselves as occupying one side of a sky-high cultural wall, and city residents the other. While both Milwaukee and its suburbs enjoy some of the highest election turnout rates in the country in presidential election years, suburban voters dominate midterm elections, meaning that in non-presidential years the state is won by people who have long since decided that majority-black Milwaukee is a lost cause .
Suburban Republicans have exercised their immense political power to vote for decades of policies that have left Milwaukee economically unable to tackle its black poverty problem, from killing a proposed light rail system to limiting the amount of tax revenue the city receives from the state in conjunction with capping the amount the city can raise taxes on its own . On top of the economic measures, suburban Republicans have run racially coded anti-city campaigns, like now-governor Scott Walker’s decision to cut off food stamps for almost 20 percent of eligible applicants during the 2008 recession .
As governor, Walker undermined workers’ rights by passing anti collective bargaining legislation that hurt an ethnic group that potentially has the most to benefit, given the racial discrimination that remains common in Wisconsin, from jobs with a guaranteed wage and some protection against getting fired. He also eliminated Milwaukee’s regional transit authority, which hurt already paltry efforts to get urban residents public transportation to suburban workplaces and got rid of Milwaukee’s city residency requirement for cops and firefighters. He’s eliminated much early voting, which black Milwaukee residents have depended on over the years, and presided over the state’s withholding of much of the settlement award for fraudulent mortgage practices from the city . During his recall election, he stated “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee [,]” a quote that emphasized the strictly enforced existential distance between Wisconsin’s largest city and the rest of the state. The message is clear: Wisconsin doesn’t plan to fix Milwaukee’s economy.
I ended up making some black friends from my volunteer group, and kept in touch with everyone for a couple of years after I moved. And I did find, after a while, plenty of that comforting blackness I was in search of in the first place. I enjoyed going over to friends’ houses to eat black-eyed peas and greens and barbecued ribs and banana pudding, and to find copies of Ebony and Jet in their bathroom magazine racks. But that initial flood of class-based disgust everyone aimed at me at work made me want to leave Milwaukee almost immediately. After a couple of months of hanging out with my new friends, they started to mention that they wanted to leave too. It’s soul-crushing to live in a city where no one who looks like you has a decent education or a middle class job or a relative who hasn’t been to jail and you can’t see a way to better yourself.
My friends and I would get drunk and fantasize about moving to Chicago, Atlanta, DC: cities where we knew black people were doing better than us, and where we sent resumes everyone ignored. We’d imagine our new and improved lives in places where we could send our future kids to decent schools, live in more than a handful of neighborhoods earmarked for us, and where driving or walking or existing while black carried a lesser penalty. I was accepted into a law school program near the end of my year in Milwaukee, but I’m sorry that many of my black friends there never managed to escape.
This is a much bigger story than me and the way people thought of me at work; it’s a story about one of the poorest cities in the U.S. and how everything—from government to employers to general attitudes about how lost it is—seems determined to keep it poor because it’s filled with a group of people the rest of the state doesn’t like. When I heard that protesters had burned down a gas station after Sylville Smith’s death at the hands of a cop in Milwaukee last month, I felt sad, angry, and unsurprised. You can’t let a group of people end up so badly off without protest.
We Americans, we’re a fighting people. As in we don’t give up on what is important to us—our families, our jobs, our homes, our ability to believe that what is less than ideal about these things will change—without a fight. When you’re a citizen that knows the legislature or the city government or an employer has your back in some way, that fight is often conducted through milder means: a petition, or a conversation, or maybe the gentle organization of a group to protect what is yours. But when these mild means have been put out of your reach, your fight may grow more vicious. I hope that positive economic change comes to poor, black Milwaukee. But if it doesn’t, it’s easy to see more people getting shot and killed, more gas stations exploding into air; more shit that hurts everyone involved going down out of sheer frustration.