Dane County has the worst racial disparities in the nation.
This has become conventional wisdom since the 2013 release of the Race to Equity report, which made its case with data in educational attainment, juvenile arrest rates, unemployment rates, and many other measures. The report has driven much of the dialog surrounding racial disparities since. It has also become a significant challenge for those charged with presenting and promoting the city as a good place to live, visit and do business.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has long told colleagues and associates that he disputes the report’s data and conclusions, according to several people close to the mayor. And now, Soglin is looking to change the narrative. Following a closed-door meeting with about a dozen community leaders, the mayor has pledged to announce new racial disparity data in the coming weeks.
“It’s going to take us a little longer to get the data we want,” Soglin told Madison365 yesterday. Soglin declined to say whether the new data would reflect well on Madison or Dane County.
“I’ll let other people make that judgement,” he said. “Hopefully the data will speak for itself.”
Soglin said he plans to release the data jointly with the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, the organization behind the Race to Equity report.
The 2013 report says, “the alarming truth is that our numbers, taken as a whole, suggest that the distance between whites and blacks (in terms of well-being, status and outcomes) is as wide or wider in Dane County than in any jurisdiction (urban or rural, North or South) for which we have seen comparable statistics.”
“(Soglin) has denied the validity of the report since it first came out,” Alder Maurice Cheeks told Madison365. “The first time he said that to me was in the airport on the way to DC” in March of 2014.
At a Board of Estimates meeting on September 26, Soglin said it was “absolutely false … that this city is among the worst in the United States in regards to racial disparities. And not only that, but a review of economic progress in the last five years shows that we are probably among the best, if not the best in the United States, in terms of improving both household income as well as lowering the number of families who are living below the poverty line.”
At that time, Madison365 asked the mayor’s office for the five-year data Soglin referred to, but his office was unable to provide that data.
The following week, Soglin invited about a dozen community leaders to join him and the Race to Equity team to discuss racial equity data. According to some in attendance, he challenged some of the data in the Race to Equity report and attributed some of the report’s Dane County data to racial disparities in Fitchburg and the Town of Madison.
Madison365 has requested the data that was presented at the meeting, as well as a list of attendees. The mayor’s office declined those requests.
The mayor’s sentiments were taken up by mayoral aides on Facebook yesterday.
“The Mayor gets frustrated at times because there is little the City can do to improve the lives of people of color living in the Town of Madison and Fitchburg, for example,” Deputy Mayor Enis Ragland wrote. “Yet the City gets the negative press. We understand that people in poverty don’t see boundaries. However, Madison residents expect our tax dollars to provide services to people that live in Madison. The Race to Equity Report’s focus is on Dane County and not specific to Madison. How about those who live in Fitchburg and the Town (of Madison) challenging their leaders on Race and Equity?”
Ragland’s comments came in response to a post by Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson, who was invited to the meeting with the mayor but did not attend. Johsnon’s post reads in part, “I just learned a case is being made that racial disparity in Madison is not as big of an issue as we’ve been led to believe.”
Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes also took to Facebook Tuesday, saying in one comment that the mayor’s staff are working “behind the scenes” on racial equity issues. In a later post, she wrote, “Our Mayor met with several community leaders last week about racial disparities and examining new data. They spoke he listened. There will be more meetings with selected leaders to discuss the racial disparities in our city. We all recognize that there are racial disparities. We need to come together to evaluate if what we have been doing since 2013 working off 2011 data is working and how to improve while providing hope for our families.”
“I just can’t believe that we’re even having this conversation,” Johnson told Madison365. “(Soglin is) the mayor of our city. Maybe he thinks this is a reflection on him. I would challenge him to look at the data and respond to it, not ignore it. I’m pretty sure he’s getting questions from different segments of the community, saying (racial disparity) is a black eye on our community. Of course it is. But if we ignore it, it’s gonna get worse.”
“Is (Race to Equity) a little bit dated? Yeah of course it is,” Johnson said. “If (Soglin) has other data, put it forward. Put it forward.”
Cheeks cautioned against arguing over data instead of working on solutions.
“If it is true that our city is making appreciable gains on closing the disparities between whites and folks of color around the rate of housing, the rate of unemployment, arrest rates, all of that would be exciting news,” Cheeks said. “I don’t want our community to be quibbling over margins of error. We’re talking about real people and their lives.”
Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Executive Director Ken Taylor agreed.
“That long and short of it, for me, is that we need to figure out a way to work together on these things,” Taylor said. “And I’m sure we will.”