Madison, Minneapolis, Austin, Portland, San Francisco.

These are America’s most progressive, forward-thinking, open-minded, and social-justice-focused cities. They also have the worst racial disparities in the nation and some of the worst racial segregation.

It just doesn’t make sense on paper. It’s not supposed to be this way. But the statistics don’t lie. Rampant black and brown poverty within blocks of white affluence. Eye-popping racial disparity numbers in employment, education, health, housing, and more. Black and brown people of all socioeconomic backgrounds feeling uncomfortable and unwanted in progressive cities that are often segregated as bad as Jim Crow Deep South. In the end, there is very little “Coexisting” in the land of “Coexist” bumper stickers.

Tim Wise, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-racist essayists, educators, activists, and pioneers, tells Madison365 about a conversation over coffee he had with an African American friend in the San Francisco Bay Area who explained in very stark detail why San Francisco was the most racist place he had ever lived in. “This man was in his 50s and had lived in Birmingham, Alabama. He’d lived in Dallas. He’d lived in St. Louis. He said that San Francisco to him was the most racist place he had ever lived,” Wise recalls. “As we teased that out, of course, he was talking about what Ralph Ellison talked about in ‘Invisible Man’ … that feeling of being invisible and of people looking right through you and not really being seen. In some ways, to have that happen in a place like San Francisco has to be more weighty … to have a reputation of being X, but you’re really Y.

“At least if you’re in Birmingham, you know you ain’t X and you know how to protect yourself and prepare yourself,” Wise adds. “This guy was like, ‘It’s amazing living in San Francisco all the crap I experienced that these white liberals just didn’t see at all.’ He ended up moving back to the South, too, because it was so much easier to deal with the overt racism than the covert, colorblind racism that you deal with in liberal cities.”

Tim Wise is one of the nation’s most prominent anti-racist essayists, educators, activists, and pioneers.
Tim Wise is one of the nation’s most prominent anti-racist essayists, educators, activists, and pioneers.

Wise, whom scholar and philosopher Cornel West calls “a vanilla brother in the tradition of (abolitionist) John Brown,” says progressive cities need to take a deep look at themselves on issues of race. It’s a populace that is so preocupied with pointing out and condemning racism in more conservative parts of the country, he says, that they completely ignore what is happening in their own progressive backyards. For example:

Austin is top-10 in the most segregated cities in the United States … described as “a rich Texas town that holds on to its whiteness for dear life.” Austin is the only fast-growing United States city losing African Americans.

◆ In comparison to their white counterparts, black adults in San Francisco are much more likely to be arrested, booked into county jail and convicted, according to a racial and ethnic disparities report

Portland shows a persistent disparity between how often whites and blacks are stopped and searched.

Minneapolis has seen the formation of the some of the nation’s widest racial disparities,and the nation’s worst segregation in a predominantly white area

◆ Closer to home in Madison, African Americans in Dane County are 5.5 times more likely to be unemployed than their white neighbors. African American families are 6 times more likely to be poor with children 13 times more likely to live in poverty than their white classmates. This disparity in child poverty was the largest among any jurisdiction in the United States. Nearly three-quarters of black children in 2011 were poor compared to 5.5% of white children. This is just the tip of the iceberg, to read more about Madison racial disparities click here.

How can this be, in a “unversity town”?

It’s true, some more affluent people reside in this city due to the existence of a large, world-class university. People with more money do create disparities.

Does that explain the exodus of brown and black professionals when they complete their four years at the university because they feel so uncomfortable and unwelcome in this town?

Does that mean that Madison has to be so severely segregated by race?

Does that mean that we have almost zero affordable housing in Madison for people of color forcing Blacks and Latinos to live in separated areas on the fringes of the city where they are disenfranchised economically, socially, and politically?

Does having an elite institution mean huge disparities in prosecutions and arrests and incarceration?

Does it explain why African American adults are 10 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts – mainly on drug arrests when studies have shown that whites are more likely to abuse drugs than blacks?

Wise says that Madison, like over progressive cities, has been lulled into complacency that pretty much renders the entire city complicit in the segregation and racial disparities they face. What perplexes people the most is that it is simply incompatible with everything the progressive platform represents. Wise believes the problem is that northern progressives came to their politics in other non-racial areas and have trouble seeing racial problems in their day-to-day lives.

“I think that white progressive liberal folks outside of the South almost always got politicized and radicalized around issues other than race,” Wise says. “So, if I’m a west coast, midwest, or northeast white liberal, I might be really progressive on the issues that I got politicized around which might have been the ecology, war, schools, health care, or LGBT issues. For most white folks, that’s their entry into progressive politics and race is oftentimes so far down the list of things that they get radicalized around that even for really well-intended people, it’s just a huge blind spot.”

Wise has studied this phenomenon and written about it in numerous books and essays. He has produced a DVD titled On White Privilege: Racism, White Denial & the Costs of Inequality and a double-CD entitled The Audacity of Truth: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. Wise contends that it is a different scenario in the South. “Those of us who are white, progressive, and radical in the South – and granted we are a distinct minority of people in the South — almost always came to politics through a racial analysis of some sort because race has always been so central here,” says Wise, who lives in Nashville, Tenn. “I’m not saying that’s true for all white progressives down here, but on balance we tend to be a little bit better on race because it’s constantly in the background of our lives.”

It’s the problem we’re seeing with Bernie Sanders right now and some of his diehard supporters who come from extremely white enclaves in the northeast. “Although they implicitly understand the issues, it’s really underneath a ton of stuff,” says Wise. “If you’re a senator from Vermont or the mayor of Burlington, you don’t really have to go to bed thinking about race. You don’t have to wake up thinking about race. You don’t have to think about it on a daily basis.”

Wise elaborated further on the disconnect in recent writings titled #BlackLivesMatter, Bernie Sanders and the Problem With (Some) White Progressives

Rather the issue is, are you connected enough to black and brown leadership to actually sit in struggle with them, listen to them, learn from them, and then offer your feedback from a place of solidarity, comradeship and love? Because if the answer to that last question is no, then you shouldn’t be surprised when the black and brown peoples you criticize think you’re full of shit. If they haven’t seen your face in their place, working on the issues that they prioritize as if their lives depended on it – because they do — then why in God’s name should they presume your commitment to the cause? On the other hand, if the answer to the question above were yes, my guess is you wouldn’t be losing your mind about what #BlackLivesMatter folks are doing, even if you had some strategic differences with them. You would take that shit to them, because you would be part of them, or because you actually knew them, and you’d work it the hell out.

And if you don’t know where those circles are, within which you could have those discussions productively, then that is the problem. It isn’t that white folks have to agree with everything black people do. Rather, it is this: until we show ourselves to be folks who are down for the eradication of white supremacy as a primary concern (and not something we’ll get to later, after we address the corporate oligarchy or climate change or Wall Street criminality), then we cannot expect to be taken seriously by those whose ability to put matters of racial justice on the back burner is constrained by this thing we call breathing.

These struggles that progressive cities face around race issues are the reason you see black folks leaving in large numbers for the last 20 years or so moving back to larger Southern cities. Gentrification has forced many blacks out of these cities — many of them have been left isolated, leaving them culturally, economically, and socially vulnerable.

“It’s not like they are even moving to Milwaukee, Chicago, or New York … they are moving back to Atlanta or Charlotte,” Wise says. “They will tell you very clearly that those places are not as progressive as other states. They know that politically they will be dealing with white folks who are far more reactionary. But it’s almost easier is what black folks tell me when we talk about it. I’d rather deal with the foe I know than the one I don’t.”

Universities need to play a much bigger role in halting this tremendous people-of-color brain drain if progressive cities want to thrive in the future, Wise says.

“For a lot of people in Madison at UW, it’s the most diverse place that they’ve ever been since they are coming from small towns in Wisconsin and neighboring states and they are like, ‘Oh, my God, this school is so diverse!’” Wise says. “Black students and other students of color will tell you it’s the least diverse place they have ever seen.

“Part of it is if a community is so embedded with a school and the school is so committed to putting forth a particular image that doesn’t comport with the lived experience of the people who come here or the people in the community that are left out of that experience, then it’s not all shocking that people will leave, transfer schools, go to a different city, or just never come there in the first place,” he adds.

So, it’s not enough to Photoshop a black guy into a football game and reproduce it on the university literature?

Diallo Shabazz (far left) was photoshopped onto a UW application booklet.
Diallo Shabazz (far left) was photoshopped onto a UW application booklet.

“Yeah, that didn’t help. I do make jokes about that in speeches sometimes,” Wise laughs about the 2000 incident in which University of Wisconsin officials added the face of a black student, Diallo Shabazz, to a file photo for the cover of the school’s 2000 application booklet. “They found a guy that hadn’t even been on the campus for two years and inserted him into a football stands where he was clearly not sitting. It’s like, ‘We really love this picture from the Badger game but, damn, there’s no black people. Let’s get some Clipart!’ If that’s your go-to move, then that’s a problem. And I haven’t really seen too much from them to address that problem in a substantive way since then.”

But I tell Wise that Madison is going to be different now. Madison has studied the problem. It has analyzed the numbers. It has held forums and panels and pow-wows on race. I tell Wise that we have the resources here. We have wealth. We have passion. We have nothing if we don’t have activism. We have 100,000 people swarming the Capitol when Gov. Walker does something we don’t like. What will it take to put that passion into racial disparities?

“I’m not quite sure what it will take to get good white liberal folks really animated behind racial issues there,” Wise says. “The good news is that we are beginning to see nationwide some white involvement because of Black Lives Matter and the police violence issues. There are possible entry points and we are seeing a few white people make it out of their comfort zones and talk about these issues that maybe they wouldn’t have a couple years ago.”

Cities and towns need to commit to doing somethings differently, Wise says, that will take away the option for white folks to continue to ignore racial issues. “We need to implement policies that limit the ability of white people to opt out of this work,” says Wise, who was recently part of a panel on “Undoing Racism in the Nation’s Cities” for the National League of Cities at the Washington D.C. Newseum.

“We are going to have to have a lot of conversations about issues like gentrification and housing and inclusionary zoning, but I think that at least now we have a couple of ways of entering into the conversation because of the BLM movement and hopefully that will continue to bear fruit and we will continue to develop emerging cadres of white allies and accomplices in the struggle,” Wise adds.

They can be creative. Policies, practices, and procedures can definitely help, but the people in community need to work at it, too. They need to live less-segregated lives. It’s one thing to tell people that they should intermingle and socialize [with other races.] But if you don’t do it yourself, you send the message that you’re not really serious about it. So if a mayor of a town or the City County or a business leader says, ‘We should do this!’ but then you know where they live and you know who they socialize with …. Then it just becomes a very contradictory message.”

In the meantime, what can Madison do to be that unique city that doesn’t go down the path that every other city has?

“It’s very much about having leadership that’s willing to acknowledge the problems both historically and contemporaneously and naming institutional and systemic and structural racism as one of those issues,” Wise says. “We need to talk about ways that we have done things from schools to policing to housing policy to economic development policy that have perpetuated, not necessarily on purpose, racial injustice. That’s going to really require getting as many of the stakeholders in Madison as possible involved in that conversation. It can’t just be the UW. It can’t just be the big employers. It can’t just be the state government. And black folks and people of color are going to need to be very prominent in the conversation to figure out what really needs to be done.”

The main problem in Madison and in progressive cities, Wise says, is that people of color don’t really have the autonomy and self-determination that they need to make decisions that affect their lives. “We can have city leaders and mayors and council people make all kinds of pronouncements, but unless the communities themselves actually have a say — here’s what we need and here’s what we’re talking about — it’s not going to work. It’s about giving more power to those in the marginalized community whether it be how they run their schools or how policing gets done.”

Wise says that cities can do things to desegregate and bring down the levels of racial isolation right away.

“They can be creative. Policies, practices, and procedures can definitely help, but the people in community need to work at it, too. They need to live less-segregated lives,” Wise says. “It’s one thing to tell people that they should intermingle and socialize [with other races.] But if you don’t do it yourself, you send the message that you’re not really serious about it. So if a mayor of a town or the City County or a business leader says, ‘We should do this!’ but then you know where they live and you know who they socialize with …. Then it just becomes a very contradictory message.”

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.


    • Is that really you? I was an elementary kid when the controversy surrounding your image came up. I decided quickly that I wanted nothing to do with UW-Madison or any community that could literally treat any nonwhite person as an image instead of a person, because I was nonwhite in Madison and felt like I was just an image too. You were my hero for standing up for yourself. No one knows what it’s like to be nonwhite in Madison cos all the white people spend so much time talking about what it’s like to be nonwhite in Madison.

  1. FYI — you can’t have a powwow without song, dance and food. It’s a social gathering with some cultural protocols, such as honor songs. The misuse of the term in your article proves the entire point of your article.

    For a quick lesson, see The Ways feature Powwow Trail by Wisconsin Media Lab:

    • Thank you. When I read that my heart sank… Then i got angry ☺ Why do so many people think it’s ok to misuse the term powwow? I am a graduate student at UW Madison and am so disappointed by how faculty staff and students use inappropriate language and how many overt and subtle microaggressions students of color face on a daily basis. I have thought about leaving at the start of each freaking semester.

  2. FYI — you can’t have a powwow without song, dance and food. It’s a social gathering with some cultural protocols, such as honor songs. The misuse of the term in your article proves the entire point of your article. smh.

    For a refresher, see The Ways feature Powwow Trail by Wisconsin Media Lab.

  3. You allude to the actual reason in your article – Madison is a University city that boasts one of the most highly educated populations of any city in the world. This inevitably leads to wealth generation amongst the educated and disproportionally disadvantages those without degrees. Unemployment spikes amongst those without degrees – of all races, because there is a greater pool of qualified applicants and higher wages amongst the qualified increase rents and property values – largely pushing out the lower classes.

    I’m not sure what policy changes are being advanced in this article – as nothing is concretized, but you can see why the city would be resistant to adding more low-cost housing, especially when Madison is experiencing a boom – in large part to the success of a few large employers.

    I also find this article a little strange, because Asian Americans are almost entirely excluded from the discussion – when they account for the same percentage of the local population (7.77% vs 7.89%).

    What is similarly interesting is the fact that Asian Americans represent 5.3% of the local student body, to a 2.9% African American student population. Which, when considering the permanent residency numbers for the city and the state, would at least indicate that Asian graduates leave the city at higher numbers than do African American students. Asian Americans are also similarly aesthetically distinguishable from local whites, but don’t seem to incite the ire of local law enforcement.

    In any case, I look forward to continuing coverage of Madison’s racial tensions.

  4. I am a white woman, born and raised in the Twin Cities of MN… This article is so right on… divided we fall… We need to stand in solidarity against the oligarchy, despite any judgements, or differences we have. If we are to achieve any real meaningful change… we have to face whatever is inside of ourselves feeding the fear of achieving racial equality. Racial issues, are my issues too. No matter how uncomfortable it makes anybody to face, talk about, or learn about… many more lives of people of color are infinitely more uncomfortable living as a person of color, in my community. I think I can deal with not being the ultimate authority… because guess what? I’m not… and I can be open to learning, and hearing stories, and really truly looking around with my own two eyes wide open, to see what I’ve always seen in a new light, with a new understanding. Renewed compassion, and empathy… White people… please deal with your discomfort surrounding racial discrimination… so we can help end the suffering in our communities…

  5. Actually, your measures of progressive are fuzzy. St Paul which is next to Minneapolis is more racially integrated although dispariies exist. However you should also take into account the recentness of immigration which then paints an entirely different picture.

  6. The fact that this article about institutionalized racism and segregation in “progressives cities” focusing specifically on the black experience and the BLM movement is written by someone who appears to be a white man, and who cites almost exclusively another white man, is oh so telling. You couldn’t find an actual black person to write this piece? Or were you just better qualified? If that’s your answer you are guilty of doing exactly what you’re cautioning against. You are not only sending a contradictory message, you are being a hypocrite. Elevating your own voice above the many voices of *actual People of Color* is harmful, not only are you taking away opportunities for speaking gigs and articles from people who are better equipped to speak on race, you are ACTIVELY silencing those who you presume to be speaking for. People like you and Tim Wise, who consider themselves allies, but fail to really show up and learn from people of color, are the problem.

    • K, I think the reason they interviewed Wise is so that the white people reading it would face the reality more and not try to set the matter aside as a “black issue” and continue on their merry, progressive way. I think there is a tendency for the majority to read articles about people of color and think to themselves “power to them! go fight your battles!” I think it makes sense for a white person to tell white people to take action to work on racial issues.

  7. Thank you for this excellent article. I do want to point out that Burlington, VT is indeed a multiracial community, as VT is becoming, with a significant African- American population as well as home to many Somali and Sudanese refugees.

  8. When your identity begins with race, you create a racial divide. It’s the primary issue with all racial disparity. People in these “disadvantaged” groups grow up being told that “The White Man” discriminates and so they look for it at every turn and it becomes their facts for failure. I am white. My ancestors came to the U.S. In the early 1900’s and had no part of slavery. I grew up in a very poor home of a single mom (dad left, never to return) and paid my own way through both high school and college. The driving force behind that route was not my race, but the circle of people with whom I surrounded myself. I would suggest that building from within as a collective group that is focused on success through education is the best path out of racial disparity. That requires leaders of each group change the dialogue from one of blame to one of strategy and empowerment. No matter how much white people engage people of color, we will never change the perception that we discriminate. It has become its own sort of drug to the “disadvantaged” and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that will always generate numbers which support the claims. Some level of racism has and always be present – within all groups. Rise above it.

    • T- stands for Typical conservative tropes around racism and why it persists. It sounds like you haven’t done much work thinking and uncovering the structural reasons why you were successful and live within the narrative that you are where you are because of the good choices you made despite adversities. Instead- your understanding of the world revolves around personal choice and unwavering belief that we are all born with the same tools and will of spirit to rise above! What a beautiful, fictional way of seeing the world while placing yourself in a position to look down on others.
      Good for you. And good for you for being in a position where you are able to tell others to “rise above” their situations. Unfortunately, we know little about your race, the time you lived in (economics of that time), geographical location and the cultural capital the people “you surrounded yourself with” may have had. For many, even those opportunities don’t exist. And the reason for that is much more complicated, psychologically and historically than merely being able to pick yourself up by your bootstraps. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit into the ideology of conservatism-both in terms of religious and economic ideology. Madison seems like a good fit for you.

  9. The whole country needs to be re-integrated, and it’s not going to happen by itself. Government will have to take the initiative, just like it did in the 60’s.

  10. The article doesn’t explain how Madison can even be considered a progressive city. Austin and Portland are mentioned as if Madison is in the same category.

    The only justification given in the article is that it is a college town. Other than that, I have never heard a non-white person in Madison say that it is a progressive city but I have heard plenty complain about the racism there.

    That is not true for Austin, Portland and even San Francisco. It’s not fair to put Madison in the same category without explaining why. Or is this is just an assumption that is never questioned because it helps white Wisconsin progressives feel superior?

  11. I have no answers. Certainly, these observations are accurate. I have observed that most people are exhausted by their everyday challenges- work, food, housing, children, crime and on and on! Rascism seems way too big to make room on their plates with everything else they are dealing with. No excuses just observations. If faith communities began to deal with these issues in a holy, faith filled manner, we might just make some headway. There is little hope of progress with these issues politically-we are paralyzed governmentally. Our hearts must be guided by spritual impetus. I continue to oray!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here