Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day 2020

Racism, at home in Wisconsin

It’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., day. Every year today, I re-read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and reflect on racism in America.

This year, it is hard not to think about racism here at home, in Wisconsin. On New Year’s Day, the NY Times reported on racism at my alma mater: the University of Wisconsin. Black students’ experiences were literally edited out, and white students either ignored the facts or denied the black students’ experience. One white student is quoted as saying: “If you’re a student here, you can leave.” The conclusion of the article actually reflects that reality, that our city and state is inhospitable to people of color, and people of color leave:

Qualified students often choose to leave Wisconsin, Mr. Sims said, finding other places more hospitable.

And lest I simply attempt to hand wave this problem to the University or to state-level politics, two weeks ago, the Wisconsin State Journal wrote about the City of Madison’s Task Force on the Structure of City Government and its report, which concluded:

The City’s structure is fundamentally unfair to a large portion of the City’s population, including, most notably, the City’s residents of color and low income.

Whatever you may think of the report’s recommendations, the inescapable reality is that racism and inequality persist in our state’s capital. As a tragic example of the effects of racism here, in Dane County, black infants are 3 times more likely to die than white infants. We have a problem.

In my city of Fitchburg, WI, the most recent Census data suggests that Latinos are more likely to live below the poverty line than those who never finished high school.

We do not have a long history lynchings or slavery here in Wisconsin. And yet, the effects of racism are not the past in our state. Race and racism continue to create a fundamentally unjust society, today, now.

For those of you outside of the state who may be reading this, before you draw conclusions about my home as hopeless, I need you to understand that the University, Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin are generally generous, open-minded, and very much want a better world. And yet, I am afraid we resemble the “white moderates” that Dr. King warned of:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

As I sit here today, writing, I admit that I do not know the best means of action; nonetheless, it is clear that we have urgent work to do.