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The History of Segregation in Milwaukee

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3986 words Published: 18th May 2020

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 Segregation is commonly defined as “the social and geographic separation or isolation of people based on perceived group affiliations, which can include race, ethnic origin, religion, and class” (University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, n.d.). Recent reports released by the U.S. Census Bureau demonstrate the bleak reality that is segregation in the United States. Although the 2013 to 2017 American Community Survey suggests that black-white segregation has modestly decreased since the top of the century, the reality is that white neighborhoods remain largely while, while black communities are diversifying due to an increase in Hispanic residents moving into predominately black neighborhoods (Frey, 2018). In general, black-white segregation is more pervasive in northern metropolitan areas, which may be a surprising fact when thinking about the history of Jim Crowe Laws in the South. The current reality suggests that black communities face more housing discrimination in northern metro areas, compared to other parts of the country such as Atlanta and Dallas (Frey, 2018). A prime example of segregation enforced by housing policies can be found in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has recently been deemed the most segregated city in the U.S. and has often been at the top of the list when considering black-white segregation. To understand how Milwaukee became so segregated it is first necessary to examine the history of the city and consider how the city’s history continue to impact its present day reality.

History of Discriminatory Policies

 The segregation in Milwaukee did not merely happen due to chance, but instead a range of policies at both the local and federal level forced the separation of communities based on the sole criteria of race. This notion was eloquently stated by Reggie Jackson, the head for America’s Black Holocaust Museum, who said, “there’s this idea that people self-segregate, but the reality is that there’s never really been self-segregation in Milwaukee. The segregation that we have, in terms of people of color, was created by a variety of different institutions and individuals.” The tools used to instill segregation in the city included redlining, restrictive covenants, and government policies that were all ultimately upheld by underlying tones of prejudice and racism (Maternowski & Power, 2017). 

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 Redlining. The term redlining often refers to the discriminatory policies that denying communities of color access to housing opportunities by denying home loans and selectively raising the prices of home making it impossible for people of color to live in certain neighborhoods (Foltman & Jones, 2019). In the 1930’s redlining was embraced by real estate companies for decades. In its essence, redlining was part of a larger housing policy that enforced in order to help communities recover after the detrimental effects of the Great Depression (Foltman & Jones, 2019).

The major policy was the National Housing Act of 1934, which eventually led to the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The main goal of the new policies was to reduce the rate of house foreclosures by giving out government-sponsored bond to refinance the mortgages of homeowners who could not keep up with their bills. In doing so, the FHA worked alongside the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to determine which neighborhoods were high or low risk investments. In deeming neighborhoods high or low risk, assessors following instructions provided by HOLC rated neighborhood based on the “aesthetics and age of houses, their proximity to recreational facilitates and environmental hazards and the characteristics of the people who lived in each neighborhood” (Foltman & Jones, 2019). Evaluating the characteristics of the residents ultimately meant considering the demographics (i.e., race, religion, ethnicity, national origin) of the residents and using these demographics as one way to grade neighborhood as worthy or unworthy of investment. The result of this mapping was the development of four categories: green, blue, yellow and red (Foltman & Jones, 2019). Green meant the neighborhood was the most desirable, and included least risk, blue zones were considered still desirable, while yellow mean the neighborhood was declining and red was equated with hazardous (Maternowski & Power, 2017).

The 1938 residential security map of Milwaukee had 19 areas designated as red zones because of polluted water ways, old housing, and lack of modern sewage. In an interview with Reggie Jackson he pointed out that 3 of those red zones were chosen as such because of the demographics of the people who lived there. For example, one area with predominately Polish resident was considered undesirable because of the “detrimental influence” of the resident, whereas another was labeled as a red zone because of the “infiltration of Mexicans,” and another neighborhood was a red zone because of “Negro slum residents and lower-type Jews” (Maternowski & Power, 2017). In fact, Jackson’s words seem to be met with real truth when considering the notes that were written about Hayland Park, Hillside and Haymarket, neighborhoods in Milwaukee deemed red zones. The assessors’ notes wrote, “ This is the Negro and slum area of Milwaukee. It is old and very ragged. Besides the colored people, a large number of lower type Jews are moving into the section” (Foltman & Jones, 2019).

For residents of red zones, it was nearly impossible to achieve any sense of economic growth, and often left them stuck in conditions that were less than desirable, and even deemed “hazardous” by the FHA.

Racial restrictive covenants. In addition to the use of redlining, racial restrictive covenants were used a tool to enforce segregation. Banks, realtors, and mortgage lenders were given authority by the federal government to use racial restrictive covenants as a way to deal with people of color (Maternowski & Power, 2017). When someone purchased a home or property and received the deed, a restrictive covenant included on the deed often stated that any person that was not racially white could not build or live on that land. In Milwaukee, one of the first suburbs to be granted a green rating was Washington Highlands, a suburb located in Wauwatosa, which was given this rating based it being a “highly restrictive and exclusive area” (Foltman & Jones, 2019). When this suburb was developed in 1919 the property deeds specifically stated that, “at no time shall the land included in Washington Highland or any part thereof, or any building thereon be purchased, owned, leased or occupied by any person other than of white race” (Foltman & Jones, 2019). Anyone living in these areas had to abide by the rules set out by the racial restrictive covenants, which all had an expiration date but were often extended into the 2000’s (Maternowski & Power, 2017).

1938 residential security map of Milwaukee. The areas in Milwaukee designated green zones were given a grade “A” and used as example neighborhoods for investors and lenders. The Washington Highlands area was given an “A” because it included mainly white residents, had homes that were structurally sound, and aesthetically appealing to the eye. The next grade was a “B” which was the same as being dubbed a blue zone and was considered to have some potential. Lenox Heights was designated a blue zone, and the assessor noted, “There was a mix of fine homes and lower-class residence,” but the area was maintained well. The racial composition of the area was predominately white, with no black residents, and some foreign-born families (Foltman & Jones, 2019). Areas graded “C” were yellow zones that were declining, so investors were urged to approach with caution before investing anything into homes or property in these areas. In Milwaukee, the yellow neighborhoods were Arlington Heights, Franklin Heights, Williamsburg Heights, and Borchert Field (Foltman & Jones, 2019). These neighborhoods are located on the north side of the city, and not coincidentally, are now predominately Black neighborhoods. The worst grade of “D” was equivalent to being labeled a red zone. In Milwaukee, these areas were Halyard Park, and Hillside and Haymarket. At the time these neighborhoods were occupied by many laborers, Black Americans, and Russian Jewish individuals (Foltman & Jones, 2019). It is no coincidence that the neighborhoods with higher grades were the same spaces occupied by White communities, and that the racial layout of Milwaukee today is consistent with the residential security map just described.

With the tools of redlining and racial restrictive covenants in the belt of the federal government Milwaukee emerged into the same segregated city it still is today. The effects of these policies are still seen today as many of the black-white segregation patterns found in Milwaukee mirror the patterns created by redlining. The way the city is currently laid out, black communities live on the north side, White communities have moved into suburban areas on the south side, Hispanics are on the south side of the city, and Asian Americans reside on the west side of the city (Downs, 2015). The major implications of redlining led to the lack of reinvestment in poor areas (i.e., black neighborhoods), and the investment in already well off white neighborhoods, only increasing the wealth disparities between white and black folks. It has been nearly 80 years since the mapping of Milwaukee by the HOLC and yet, resemblances to the city’s racial demographics are strikingly similar today.

Racial Segregation Deemed Unconstitutional

 Although many of the racial restrictive covenants and policies surrounding redlining were permissible under law for quite some time, as the Civil Rights movement erupted in the U.S., so did the push against discriminatory housing policies. Beginning with a popular case in 1917 and leading to the establishment of the Fair Housing Act, discrimination against people for their race, religion, national origin, and sex was deemed illegal and above all, unconstitutional in regard to the selling and buying of homes and property.

Buchanan vs. Warley. In 1917 the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially biased zoning unconstitutional in the case of Buchanan versus Warley (Nelson, Sanchez, & Dawkins, 2004).  This case came to be when a black man named William Warley purchased property in Louisville, Kentucky, from Charles Buchanan, a white man. The property was located in a white neighborhood with a racial restrictive covenant in place that forbid black residents from moving into the area. Although Buchanan accepted Warley’s bid for the property, the sale did not go through because the City of Louisville refused to let it happen. Buchanan argued that the racial restrictive covenant that forbid Warley from purchasing the land was unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this notion (Capps, 2017). The result of this case was seen as a first step in breaking down racial segregation and discrimination in housing. It was not until many years later in that Congress would finally pass an act prohibiting discrimination in the buying and selling of homes.

Fair Housing Act of 1968.  The purpose of the Fair Housing Act specifically prohibits discrimination by housing providers, such as landlords, real estate companies, banks, homeowners’ insurance companies, and others to make housing unavailable to people for any of the following characteristics: race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). If any of these entities were to force of threaten force as a way to deny fair housing rights to anyone, criminal proceedings can be carried out. Although this act was seen as monumental in moving towards maintaining the rights of all people of color, racial discrimination is still seen in housing today, although it may not be as explicit as before (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.).

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In other words, the passing of this law did not end racial segregation, but rather, housing providers have gotten creative in their discrimination and started to disguise the ways in which they enforce this discrimination, ultimately attempting to uphold the segregation that begin years ago and is still present in many of our cities today. For instance, providers may give false information about the property, mention that no properties are available in certain areas, or steer people into picking neighborhoods based on the racial composition of the area. Many times, people given this false information or those who are misled, do not even know they have been victims of discrimination (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). It appears that law itself cannot dismantle the racist ideologies that are grounded in this nation’s history. Communities of color or paying the ultimate price of living in this dual reality that deems discrimination unconstitutional while allowing mass inequalities to exist between races. 

Modern-Day Consequences of Historical Actions

The effects of segregation are widespread and do not solely determine where a person is allowed to live, but inevitably impacts access to employment, healthcare, and education. As Black communities started moving in to Milwaukee the industrial business also collapsed, and jobs vanished. So, while racial disparities were forming through housing policies, the economic welfare of Black communities was jeopardized, making it impossible for the development a Black middle class or leadership elite (MacGillis, 2014). While white communities were given access opportunities that would lead to even more wealth, Black communities were faced with the stark reality of living in conditions that were less than adequate, with poorly funded education systems, increased environmental hazards, policing, crime, and poor access to social services (Foltman & Jones, 2019). The effects of redlining have limited the chance for generational wealth to accumulate among groups of color, and have perpetuated patterns of financial, physical, and social inequalities. One major effect of housing segregation can be witnessed in the lack of access to fresh produce and healthy foods in minority neighborhoods.

Food deserts. Many communities of color in Milwaukee live in food deserts, commonly referred to as areas without convenient access to grocery stores that limit residential access to healthy and affordable food (Walsh, 2008). Of the 297 neighborhoods that makeup Milwaukee county, nearly 113 neighborhoods do not have easy access to healthy and affordable food (Rook, 2018). Food desserts in this statistic are specified as not living within half a mile of a grocery store. According to the Hunger Task Force, this means that almost 40% of neighborhoods in Milwaukee country live in a food dessert. Another brief suggests that individuals living in zip codes with lower socioeconomic status (SES) are 9 times more likely than individuals living in high SES zip codes to have limited access to healthy foods. Factors that play a role in access include issues with transportation, cost of healthy food options, and the distribution of healthy food sources across the city (Healthy Food Access in Milwaukee, 2016).

Since healthy food is very much tied with good nutrition when people do not have access to healthy and affordable food the option is often to turn to fast food restaurants or other unhealthy options, such as shopping at corner snacks and eating foods that are high in sugar and fat (Walz-Chojnacki, 2017). As we know, eating this poorly can contribute to larger health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. Since the people living in food desserts are often the same communities living in “red zones,” and greatly impacted by poverty, the choice to pay rent or buy food is a reality for many. Rather than spending money on healthy food options that are more expensive, people who live in food desserts prioritize calorie density and the need to make food last longer than those who can afford and have access to healthy good (Walz-Chojnacki, 2017).

According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, counties with high amounts of households living in food deserts had higher rates of both obesity and adult diabetes in 2008. Although diabetes is also connected to factors such as poverty and unemployment, even when these factors were controlled for, the relationship between food deserts and negative health outcomes were still significant (PBS, 2011). These same counties are the ones who also have higher per capita expenditure rates at fast food places. All of these numbers suggest that food deserts are indeed connected to concerns with physical health. Children growing up in these areas are at higher risk of becoming obese and developing diabetes due to these realities (PBS, 2011). This is one way in which the cycle of inequality continues to persist throughout the generations, leaving communities of color struggling to escape poverty.  

Communities of color who have been pushed and forced to stay in certain neighborhoods through discriminatory housing policies, are inevitably enmeshed within this cycle of poverty that has effects on so many different aspects of life, including what food is and is not available to them. These food deserts are not only a symptom of the historical actions grounded in racism, but also cause larger problems related to the health of our communities (PBS, 2011). So, not only are Black communities in Milwaukee forced to deal with inequality in housing but are faced with worries about whether they can provide nutritious and affordable food to their children and families.

Fighting against food deserts in Milwaukee. In order to tackle the problem of the food desert epidemic in Milwaukee many community leaders are working to provide people with equal access to healthy and affordable food. For instance, the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee works with a local grocery store to deliver fresh and affordable food to neighborhoods living in a food desert. Since one of the main factors influencing access to healthy food is transportation, the Hunger Task Force makes it a priority to deliver foods directly to communities (Rook, 2018). In addition, Will Allen developed the non-profit organization Growing Power, which produced large amounts of food at farming sites in both Milwaukee and Chicago. Will Allen involved urban youth in the organization in order to teach them how to produce healthy foods while instilling self-sufficiency and commitment to community. Unfortunately, Growing Power was shut down in 2018 due to multiple lawsuits and unpaid bills. This shutdown caused devastation in the urban Milwaukee communities, but Will Allen was able to make a comeback by starting a new business with the same initiative, titled Will Allen’s Roadside Farms and Markets (Sussman, 2018). Although these efforts are commended by many, concerns about whether these gardens and farmers markets can feed people year round are present (Hess, 2019). The ultimate responsibility falls on the shoulders of city officials who should be addressing this problem head on through the development and implementation of policy.

Similar to other cities with conditions were access to fresh and affordable food is a major concern, the people of Milwaukee have tried to take it upon themselves to take control of their city and fight against the systems of oppression that have led to the numerous inequalities faced by communities of color today. This is no small feat. Although the city of Milwaukee is trying to recover from the detrimental effects of racial segregation that look placed decades ago, the fight for change is met with many challenges. With few resources, and racism upholding the inequalities witnessed across our nation, Milwaukee is just one example of how systems of power converge to oppress some and privilege others. As Foltman and Jones (2019) accurately concluded, “Even if racism completely stopped in policy and interpersonal terms, continued disparities in outcomes would persist because of the deep imprint of this historical policy.”


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