The Racial Segregation And Economic Devastation That Made Milwaukee A ‘Powder Keg’

Family members of Sylville Smith gather where he was shot and killed by Milwaukee Police. CREDIT: AP Photo/JEFFREY PHELPS
Family members of Sylville Smith gather where he was shot and killed by Milwaukee Police. CREDIT: AP Photo/JEFFREY PHELPS

The police shooting death of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee unleashed a fiery protest over the weekend, with two nights of unrest that led to the burning of local businesses and people wounded by gunshots.

The protests started as a peaceful candlelight vigil in Smith’s honor, but the anger soon bubbled over. The swift escalation of residents’ mourning into outrage should come as little surprise, however. The city has long been plagued by racial and economic segregation that has cordoned off its black residents from opportunities, much the same as in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore before those cities broke into widespread protests after police brutality.

Milwaukee residents were quick to make the connection. City Alderman Khalif Rainey called the area a “powder keg,” telling CNN, “This community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become the worst place to live for African-Americans in the entire country.”

“Something has to be done to address these issues,” he added. “The black people of Milwaukee are tired; they are tired of living under this oppression, this is their life.”

“The black people of Milwaukee are tired; they are tired of living under this oppression.”

The Coalition for Justice, an organization that formed after the police shooting death of Dontre Hamilton in 2014, put out a statement saying, “What happened last night was a revolt and an uproar, not just a disturbance… The people are angry. The people are fed up, and the people are demanding their freedom.”


Milwaukee has a large black population, making up over a quarter of all residents in the county and 40 percent in the city proper. But it is not evenly spread out throughout the city.

Racial hypersegregation — black people living in neighborhoods with barely any white people that are concentrated in old urban cores — has declined significantly over the past 40 years. But not in Milwaukee, which has consistently been on the list of hypersegregated cities.

“Hypersegregation produces high levels of social isolation from mainstream society, but also high concentrations of poverty and disadvantage,” said Douglas Massey, a Princeton sociology professor who conducted research on hypersegregated cities. “If you look at the cityscape of the United States, hypersegregated cities are the places where our most severe problems of urban poverty, of racial inequality, of racial violence of various sorts are taking the most fervent root.”

The city is also no stranger to poverty, with a 22 percent poverty rate — significantly higher than the state overall. It’s a trend that may be getting worse as household income declined steeply between 2009 and 2014, falling more than 10 percent.

There is a racial divide there as well. Black city residents experience a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent, while the rate for whites is just under 15 percent. White households in Milwaukee make $61,675 on average, compared to just $25,646 for black households, or just over 40 percent of what a white household makes.


And the two forces — race and poverty — intertwine to make Milwaukee the large U.S. city with the highest level of poverty segregation.

“Hypersegregated cities are the places where our most severe problems of urban poverty, of racial inequality, of racial violence of various sorts are taking the most fervent root.”

The city’s segregation traces back to the 1920s. Although it had a tiny black population at the time, as it started to grow it worried the Milwaukee Real Estate Board, which undertook an effort of excluding black renters and homeowners from white areas and pushing them elsewhere. That effort resulted in the city’s nearly 9,000 black residents living in an area four blocks long and three blocks wide in 1940.

Black residents began to move to the city in large numbers in search of manufacturing jobs in the 1960s. But shortly after their arrival, jobs dried up and many people fled to the suburbs. White flight bloated the counties surrounding Milwaukee County, where the white population almost tripled between 1960 and 2010. Yet today their populations are less than 2 percent black and less than 5 percent Hispanic. Their poverty rates are also in the single digits.

Black residents were left behind and crowded into a city center with few opportunities. The Milwaukee city council repeatedly voted down a fair housing ordinance in the 1960s, only passing one after Congress passed its own law in 1968. So there were few avenues of escape for any black residents who might have wanted to leave.

The lack of jobs continues to plague Milwaukee’s black population today. The city lost more than 27,500 manufacturing jobs between 1975 and 1990 and gains in the service sector didn’t keep pace. At the end of last year, the black unemployment rate was over 17 percent, nearly triple the overall city rate of 6 percent (which has since declined to 4.9 percent).


So too do racial barriers to housing. A recent report found “an extensive mortgage lending imbalance in Milwaukee,” with lending concentrated in white neighborhoods and scant in black ones: Black residents make up 16 percent of the population but get only 4 percent of loans.


The evidence was made clear when the largest bank in Wisconsin settled with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2015 after HUD found that it was discriminating against black and Hispanic borrowers seeking mortgages, denying loans to qualified applicants who lived in heavily minority neighborhoods including Milwaukee.

Such redlining serves to make it difficult for black families to move to areas with more jobs and higher incomes, while at the same time making it nearly impossible for them to build wealth and increase housing values where they are.

The problems afflict renters as well. Research by Matthew Desmond found that in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods that are majority black, one in ten households are evicted every year.

Housing segregation has led to enormous protests in the city’s past. As the council failed to pass a fair housing ordinance, activists planned a march in August of 1967 across a bridge that spanned what some called the city’s “Mason-Dixon Line” in protest. The 200 protesters were met by thousands of white counter-protests on the other side of the bridge and huge numbers of police, and violence broke out. Undeterred, protesters staged 200 more marches that summer, and the violence escalated. Three were killed, 100 were injured, and 1,740 were arrested, and the National Guard was eventually deployed.

That the current protests are centered in Sherman Park, the neighborhood where Smith was killed, is significant. The neighborhood was established in 1970 by residents who wanted to focus specifically on racial diversity and improving quality of life. But the area has gone from mostly white to overwhelmingly black over the last quarter century.

Meanwhile, jobs there have shrunk along with the rest of the city, particularly after the recession.

Violence struck the neighborhood just last month, when 100 residents threw rocks and bottles at the police and burned the same gas station that was torched over the past weekend, as well as burning a public bus.

The current protests, according to residents, have been a long time in the making. “This isn’t just, ‘Oh, my gosh, all of a sudden this happened,’” Sherman Park resident Sharlen Moore, told the New York Times. “It’s a series of things that has happened over a period of time. And right now you shake a soda bottle and you open the top and it explodes, and this is what it is.”