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Why Do “Progressive” Cities Have So Many Issues With Race? New Book by UW Professor Examines a Tough Question


Networked News, Racial Divides: How Power and Privilege Shape Public Discourse in Progressive Communities.

As book titles go, it’s a mouthful. But that’s the whole point.

Acclaimed University of Wisconsin journalism professor Sue Robinson has just released her new book, published by Cambridge University Press, chronicling her exploration of race-related power dynamics in media and, by extension, public decision making.

So the title is long, but so is the history of disproportionalities and racially imbalanced power dynamics in Madison.

Over a seven-year period and with the help of 17 UW Grad students, Robinson has crafted both a narrative about the evolution of talking race in the spaces we float through on a daily basis, and noted the media’s role in race talk and the search for equality in power dynamics at work and at school. She hangs the narrative on the story of Madison Prep, the charter school proposed by former Urban League of Greater Madison President Kaleem Caire which sparked much debate before being rejected by the Madison school board. The book uses network analysis as well as interviews with journalists, activists and other to examine the racial divides that pervade so-called “liberal” cities like Madison.

“I started the book in 2010 when I wanted to document the media information exchange that happens around race issues in Madison,” Robinson told Madison365. “And while we were figuring it out, the Madison Prep charter school happened. Everyone started talking about it, that it would educate first black boys and then eventually it was boys and girls. Gov. Scott Walker had just been elected, Act 10 had passed, and the progressives in town were circling the wagons. When you say charter school, some progressives freak out because it’s a seen as means for conservatives to defund public education. So that’s when I started writing the book. Collecting data trying to understand who was talking and what they were talking about and who was getting left out of the conversation.”

Robinson says at that time it was a much different era than how things would have played out today, at least socially. She said that it was fascinating to watch the conversations around doing the charter school. After the charter was rejected, Robinson said there was a school board race the next spring that became all about who had supported the proposed Madison Prep and who hadn’t.

“So, the conversation around race in general since 2010 has expanded exponentially,” Robinson said. “Back in 2010 things were very vitriolic. My book maps who was talking and who they were talking to back then. (My research showed that) Kaleem Caire, who was spearheading the charter school, was the bridge between people in the communities of color and policymakers. I think Kaleem really spurred change. What he did was brought disparities and reports into mainstream talk.”

Robinson says the sequence of events from Kaleem Caire’s Madison Prep proposal, to school board races the following spring, to the fatal police shooting of Tony Robinson and Alex Gee’s Justified Anger were the flashpoints that forced race into the everyday conversations of Madisonians.

Each of those issues showed different aspects of the discomfort around racial talk. Black parents don’t have strong representation on school boards in Madison and, thereby, control over the education of their kids. At panel discussions as recently as this Fall, black parents have lamented that their kids are expected to behave and perform like white kids while simultaneously being left behind academically.

Interestingly, Robinson brought up the 2010 Madison Prep issues as Kaleem Caire, who is now the CEO of One City Learning Center is pushing for a Charter for 4k and 5k to make sure black kids have the tools necessary to learn side by side with their white counterparts.

“In some ways the Madison Prep charter never would have happened at that time period (and in that political climate),” Robinson said. “But my argument in the book is that the discussion could have been different. So that we didn’t destroy trust between white policymakers and some members of the communities of color. It just could have gone better.”

Robinson said that when she ran focus groups with people who were engaged in the dialogue around those issues at that time, she was stunned at how angry people still were about what happened with Madison Prep even years later. People felt like their voices weren’t heard and people of color in Madison felt no trust towards the white, policy-making community.

When Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a panicking police officer in 2015, the mistrust and vitriol in race discussions perhaps reached a new high. Many in the black community felt like his death was emblematic of how police have treated members of the black community for decades. The failure of the system to prosecute the perpetrator coupled with the fact he was able to return to active duty lent to the idea that black lives didn’t matter.

That event, coupled with the release of the Race to Equity Report, led in part to the formation of this publication, Madison365, and a push by entities such as Madison Magazine and the Capital Times to have more racially inclusive themes and have open, dirty-laundry-airing conversations about race through articles and features. Robinson says that having news outlets geared towards making these conversations happen and allowing voices to be heard that never were before is what is different now from even five years ago.

“The black students I advise share stories about fairly explicit racism,” she said. “It has always been in Madison, but the last couple of years it has been really rampant… And it’s happening at the same time as other nasty dialogue that people feel empowered to talk about nationally.”

Nonetheless, she said that “the conversation around race in general since 2010 has expanded exponentially… I will say that Madison365 and other mainstream news organizations in town are trying to amplify voices that haven’t been heard before. We do have organizations working harder to look at things with a racial lens.”

But with the amplification of new voices comes the discomfort of hearing what they have to say. Voices of color are being heard, especially locally, while nationally President Trump and a band of seemingly white supremacist voices have captured power.  And that’s where things are now in 2017, according to Robinson.

“I think things are going to get uncomfortable for white progressives in Madison and I think that’s a good thing frankly,” she said. “But it’s happening at the same time as other nasty dialogue that people feel empowered to talk about nationally. I don’t know the answer to that. I can’t say, ‘yeah now the racists have been unleashed’ because they’ve always been here. But at the same time, we do have organizations working harder to look at things with a racial lens.”

With her book out now, Robinson says that it is time for white progressives in Madison to start looking in the mirror and seeing how they contribute to the racial environment. This era is no place for the colorblind.

“I’m a super-white academic and I’m still learning,” she says. “I’m embarked on my own journey. I didn’t know I even had a racial journey to embark on. It’s been super uncomfortable and difficult. A big part of my book is that white progressives need to educate themselves about race.”