Milwaukee Riots Fed by Decades of African American Economic Insecurity

AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps

Police move in on a group of protesters throwing rocks at them in Milwaukee, Sunday, August 14, 2016. 

The recent outbreak of violent rioting in Milwaukee came as no surprise to anyone paying even the slightest attention to the deterioration of conditions for the city’s African Americans, especially the young.

The immediate trigger for an outbreak of gunshots, rock-throwing, and the torching of six businesses was the slaying of a 23-year-old African American by an African American cop. The shooting victim, who had a record of serious crimes, was reportedly carrying a 23-shot pistol, but videotape footage taken by the officer’s “bodycam” has not yet been released, although officials contend that it vindicates the officer’s actions.

The killing took place in the volatile context of the city’s “hyper-segregation,” intensifying poverty, and repeated police abuse. Discontent with the police escalated over the past several years with the fatal shooting in 2014 of an unarmed, mentally-disturbed African American in broad daylight and the death of a black man with asthma who suffocated in the back of a police car while pleading for air.  

Other police practices like stopping and frisking young men on the street without cause and pulling over black motorists for minor or nonexistent offenses have been widespread. Some officers, eventually brought to justice, even stripped black men on city streets to perform invasive body-cavity searches for drugs. These patterns of police conduct have antagonized many of Milwaukee’s blacks, who make up about 40 percent of the city’s population.

Along with these official affronts to personal dignity, the economic fortunes of African Americans in Milwaukee have plummeted during the past 40 years. In 1970, according to journalist Richard Longworth in his book Caught in the Middle, when Milwaukee had thousands of manufacturing jobs, “African American family income was 19 percent above the national black average for African Americans; 30 years later, it was 23 percent lower.” Further declines have dropped Milwaukee’s black families to 40 percent below the national family income average for other African Americans.

A central cause of misery for African Americans as well as working-class whites and Latinos is the flight of profitable corporations first to the low-wage, anti-union South and then to the much lower-wage, high-repression sites like Mexico and China. Johnson Controls, once a major employer of African Americans, now operates some 60 plants in China and an estimated 30 in Mexico. The city’s other large manufacturing employers—Briggs & Stratton, Master Lock, AO Smith, and Rockwell Electronics—followed the same strategy for maximizing profits. The city lost jobs for both unskilled workers and its much-acclaimed high-skilled workers that won Milwaukee the reputation as “the machine tool capital of the world.”

The upshot is that Milwaukee has lost about 80 percent of its manufacturing base since the late 1970’s, according to Marc Levine, director emeritus of the Center on Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “No metro area has witnessed a more precipitous erosion in the labor market for black males over the past 40 years than has Milwaukee,” Levine found.

The flight of manufacturing helped to drive Milwaukee from its place as the city with the second-highest median household income, a place The Wall Street Journal once nicknamed the “Star of the Snowbelt,” to its current status as the fourth poorest major city.

On top of massive losses of family-sustaining jobs, the remaining jobs in the area have been subjected to a wave of anti-union onslaughts. The percentage of unionized jobs has decreased from 24.4 percent in 1986 to just 8.9 percent in 2014. Along with the incessant anti-union tactics of major employers, Governor Scott Walker wiped out most basic rights for public employees in 2011 and followed up with the signing of a “right-to-work” bill in 2015. Some observers perceived a distinct racial tinge to Walker’s policies

These anti-union measures serve to further depress wages in Milwaukee: All of the new net jobs created between 2000 and 2013 (taking into account the loss of middle-income jobs and their replacement that have been replaced by a much larger number of low-income jobs) in Wisconsin are low paying. Further, the state’s economy under Walker has been growing at a far slower pace than other Midwestern states and the nation as a whole.

The result has been a gigantic shortage of jobs particularly for African Americans: Just over half of black males in their prime working years are employed compared to 80 percent of white men. The problem is especially demoralizing for young black men. As civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson noted shortly after the riots, “For males aged 20 to 24, at the beginning of a work life, over two-thirds of blacks are unemployed—68.4 percent—a staggering increase from 25.3 percent in 1970.”

As factories in Milwaukee have emptied out, the state’s prisons have filled up. Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation, at nearly double the national average. Nearly one in eight African American males in Milwaukee have served time in state correctional facilities.

Despite the depth of misery among Milwaukee’s African Americans, the city’s most influential leaders have largely written off the situation as tragic but largely intractable. A mid-1990s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series about globalization’s devastating impact on Milwaukee offered this memorable advice about about the corporate decisions to send jobs from Milwaukee to China and Mexico: simply “Get used to it.”

The acute shortage of employment relative to the massive number of African Americans, whites and Latinos seeking decent-paying jobs has been redefined by Milwaukee’s corporate, political, and media elites as a “skills gap;” that is, the jobless and under-employed lack sufficient training and skills. First, this “under-skilled” label is often used to conceal employers’ desire to obtain skilled workers at a relatively low rate of pay. Second, in stunning contrast to these calls for a better-educated workforce, state forecasts of future needs show a growing number of jobs that merely require a high school degree or less. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development projects that 22 of the 25 job categories that provide the largest number of job openings between 2010 and 2020 require only a high school degree or less.

Given this reality, the “skills gap myth” takes the spotlight off corporate decisions and pro-corporate government policies and places the problem on the shoulders of jobless men and women. As Levine notes in a key report: “There's a strong ideological component behind the ‘skills gap’ myth: It diverts attention (and policies) from the deep inequalities and market fundamentalism that created the unemployment crisis, and focuses on a fake skills gap that had nothing to do with the surge in unemployment since 2007.”

So far, African American community leaders, including progressives like Congresswoman Gwen Moore and State Representative David Bowen, both Democrats, have sought to discourage further outbreaks of violence, while insisting that the city’s leadership finally confront the root causes of the rioting in the few job opportunities, intensifying segregation, underfunded schools, and little hope for much of the black community. To begin formulating a plan for addressing these problems, a “listening session” was scheduled for this past Friday night at a church near the site of the rioting.

Bowen told The American Prospect that Milwaukee, like the nation, has failed to implement the recommendations issued back in 1968 in the Kerner Commission report issued after a major series of urban riots. “The clearest way to see it it is just to compare the situation of inner-city youth with white young people in the thriving suburbs,” says Bowen. “Suburban white kids get support for graduating from high school and going to college, and they have job opportunities so that they have something to show for their efforts. But black young people lack access to the workforce and the economy.”

Along with providing better schooling and access to jobs, Milwaukee needs to confront long-standing abuse that that the African-American community has suffered at the hands of the police. “We need to have a vigorous discussion with law enforcement about accountability,” he says.

Meanwhile, figures like Donald Trump have been “playing on racial fears,” Bowen says, referring to Trump’s appearance on August 16 at a rally in a 95 percent white community located 40 miles from Milwaukee. “Trump and his supporters were “avoiding a real discussion about racism and the needs of Milwaukee’s African American community,” he adds

Local NAACP President Fred Royal, a former United Auto Workers union leader, notes that his organization had issued a six-point plan for improving police-community relations just two weeks before the rioting broke out. “Last year, city had to pay out $32 million in damages because of police misconduct,” he says. “The police wind up seeing themselves as ‘social janitors for a broken community.’ So when the police go into a community looking at some people as garbage, it’s going to create problems.”

Adding to the tension is the “broken windows” theory of crime whish is based on the notion that strict enforcement of minor regulations is essential to preventing serious crime. “The ‘broken window’ theory leads to frequent stop-and-frisk actions by the police, which create greater tensions without resulting in less crime,” says Royal.

“To address issues like this, we need for the city’s Fire and Police Commission to hold a serious listening session,” he adds. Along with establishing positive community-police relations, Milwaukee needs to undertake a serious job-creation program. “Poverty creates more crime,” and that has been true of every ethnic group trapped at the bottom of society, says Royal.

The city’s widespread poverty and unemployment among African Americans can and must be addressed, Royal adds. “Strategically, our elected officials need to get some urgency about problems like the 50 percent unemployment rate in the black community.”

Solving the problem of astronomical unemployment is not beyond reach, Royal says, but the city’s leaders must commit themselves to this goal and be willing to allocate public funding. Major job-creation programs in the past have proven successful, he adds. “It’s not rocket science. We did it during the Great Depression.”

However, as long as Milwaukee’s overwhelmingly white elites fail to focus on genuine issues like the shortage of jobs, brought on in large part by the offshoring of work by corporate CEOs, and widespread distrust of the police produced by years of harassment and abuse, the recent explosions may signal more episodes of rage to come in the months ahead.

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