This incident was unlike the recent police-related deaths of unarmed Black men, including Alton Sterling. Smith was armed, a foot chase ensued and he refused to drop his gun, according to authorities. The clashing of citizens and police is more indicative of a tipping point for the city of Milwaukee in regard to racial tension mixed with oppressive economic conditions.
City Alderman Khalif Rainey said Saturday tension between Black residents and police has turned the area into a “powder keg.”
“What happened tonight may not have been right and I am not justifying that, but no one can deny the fact that there are problems, racial problems in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that need to be rectified,” Rainey said. “This community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become the worst place to live for African Americans in the entire country.”
Clarke said the riots in Milwaukee were due to “tribal behavior.”
“It was a collapse of the social order where tribal behavior leads to reacting to circumstances instead of waiting for facts to emerge,” he wrote. “The law of the jungle replaced the rule of law in Milwaukee Saturday night over an armed career criminal suspect who confronted police.”
He also said the riots resulted from households led by single mothers due to “dysfunctional lifestyle choices.”
“The officer-involved-shooting was simply a catalyst that ignited the already volatile mixture of inescapable poverty, failing K-12 public schools, dysfunctional lifestyle choices like father absent homes, gang involvement, drug/alcohol abuse and massive unemployment,” he wrote.
Poverty, Education and Incarceration in Milwaukee
The collapse of heavy industry and manufacturing is still taking its toll on Milwaukee. During the Great Recession, the poverty rate increased to nearly 30 percent. (The latest Census.gov information states the poverty rate is at 29.4 percent.)
Blacks comprise 40 percent of the city’s population, while whites make up 44.8 percent. However, 17.3 percent of Blacks were unemployed in 2015, compared to 4.3 percent of whites, according to a report by the National Urban League. The report also states that the median household income for whites in Milwaukee was $62,600, compared to $25,600 for Blacks.
In an analysis of socioeconomic data published by 27/Wall Street, Wisconsin was ranked the worst state for Black Americans in 2015. The survey is based on an examination of a number of socioeconomic measures and illustrates that Blacks do not fare well in Wisconsin economically.
According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report released in 2013, Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rates for Black men in the United States. The report states, “records show incarceration rates at epidemic levels for African American males in Milwaukee County. Over half of African American men in their 30s and half of men in their early 40s have been incarcerated in state correctional facilities.”
There’s also a disproportionate suspension of Black students in public schools. From 2011-2012, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) posted an average high school suspension rate of 33 percent, which is more than three times the national average of 10 percent. The district suspended 43 percent of Black students, 18 percent of Latino students and 16 percent of white students.
According to state data, from 2012-2013, MPS suspended 26 percent of Black high school students. From 2007-2008, 56 percent of Black students were suspended.
The Black Population in Milwaukee
Fair housing demonstration, Milwaukee, 1967. Photo by Ben Fernandez. James Groppi Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
The New Republic published an article in 2014 that speaks to the history of Blacks in Milwaukee:
“As the twentieth century wore on, Milwaukee stood apart for another reason: It remained remarkably and stubbornly white. The Great Migration that had brought some six million African Americans from the South between 1910 and 1930 and in a second wave around World War II transformed just about every major city in the North except Milwaukee It wasn’t until the ’60s that African Americans started to drift into Milwaukee in large numbers.
“The city had never been exactly welcoming to African Americans its tight-knit enclaves of Germans, Jews, and Poles had fiercely resisted housing and school integration White flight, like the Great Migration, came late to Milwaukee, but it came fast and fueled with resentment.”
When the Black community finally began to form, the city’s industrial base was already collapsing, and its manufacturing jobs began to vanish. As a result, there wasn’t much opportunity for Milwaukee to develop a Black middle class or leadership elite. The slow pace of change in regard to ending police brutality and housing discrimination against Black residents prompted riots in July 1967. This was similar to inner-city riots across the nation at the time in cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit.
Many white Milwaukeeans wrote off the entire African American community, or blamed the community for the city’s troubles.
This very sentiment was reflected in a statement Wisconsin Republican Rep. Bob Gannon issued in January, titled “Murder, Mayhem and Jobs,” in which he blames Milwaukee’s Black residents for the entire state’s financial distress.
In January, Wisconsin’s workforce development agency said it received notices of more than 10,100 layoffs in 2015, the highest amount since Gov. Scott Walker took office five years ago. Of last year’s layoff notices, 37 percent came out of the Milwaukee area.