Last post I told a bit about me and how I qualify as a person of color—a minority, if you will. I’ll never say that this has disadvantaged me. But I see it as an experience that first sparked my interest in the idea of race, and how we in Wisconsin seem to treat it.
There weren’t many minorities in my hometown—I remember only a few—but I never truly felt ostracized or alienated. My family was white. My friends were white, I identified as white—that is, if I thought about race at all.
Sure, I can remember a time on the school bus when a farm boy outed me—“hey, Mario. Spic. Spic. You a spic?”—and the year my football coaches invented a play, just for me, which they affectionately called The Taco Pass. But for the most part, things were cool. I was an athlete and I was accepted.
The emotion that sticks with me from those memories isn’t resentment, even if some kids tossed around racial slurs as if they were unloaded observations. I don’t necessarily excuse, but I don’t bear a grudge. What stays with me is confusion.
My dad’s from Virginia—a state where Jim Crow laws slowly gave way to separate, but equally painful psychic scars—and I grew up hearing his stories of an unspoken colorline-awareness.
Compared to Virginia’s history, Wisconsin exists in a state of enlightenment, I thought. Institutionalized racism has never been a part of our culture. That stuff is for the dumb southerners, those drawling hicks who spit tobacco juice all over the place.
Besides, whom could we be racist against? According to the 2010 U.S. Census data, Wisconsin is 86 percent white. Only 6.3 percent of the state consists of African-Americans and 5.9 percent is Hispanics.
But something still bothers me, something unseen and subtle. The numbers don’t seem to add up. If blacks are such a small part of the state’s population, then how do they compose 45 to 50 percent of the state’s prison population?
And why, according to this Wisconsin State Journal graph, is a black man in Dane County 97 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug crime than a white man?
I used these questions as a starting point when I spoke with Karma Chavez, a UW-Madison assistant professor and expert in immigration politics and xenophobia in the United States.
I asked Chavez to help me understand the ambiguity of racism in Wisconsin. After two minutes in her office, I knew I’d found the right person.
“We have this idea in the Midwest that we’re colorblind,” said Chavez. “In the South, they know they’re not colorblind. Nobody’s playing down there; they know they see whites and they know they see blacks.”
“And I think, “ she said, “In the Midwest we have convinced ourselves that racism exists in the South and it doesn’t exist here. So you have colorblindness, coupled with the fact that there aren’t very many people of color, coupled with the fact that we have a scapegoat in the South, and it creates this misconception that we don’t have a problem.”
To explain her point, Chavez mentioned the current controversy in Madison over Madison Prep, a proposed charter school which aims to close the city’s achievement gap between black and white students.
Despite Madison’s image as an academic, progressive and liberal city, our achievement gap is one of the worst in the nation.
“One of the things about Madison is that people are very invested in the idea that they’re not racist,” said Chavez. “And what that does is that is prevents people from actually doing anything, or doing the right thing.”
“When you live in a town where there are more black men incarcerated than there are in high schools, where they have a better chance of getting kicked out of school than they have of graduating, we have a pretty serious problem,” she said.
The issue has seemed to divide Madison parents, educators and school officials into competing camps. On one side is a group opposed to the charter school, a group that sees privatized education as a liability instead of a long-term solution. On the other side is a group that looks at the problem and sees the charter school as a necessary step in the right direction.
With roughly a month of community meetings on the way, the discourse is sure to continue heating. But to Chavez, the current standstill further demonstrates the city’s inability to properly address the problem.
“There’s a way in which people are afraid to act on issues that highlight the racial disparities and destroy the myth that a place like Madison has of itself,” she said.
“And I think that what is so hard for people with this issue; it’s airing all of our dirty laundry. I think that’s the Midwest in general, but it’s particularly stark in a place like Dane County,” she added.
Granted, I’ve offered a very narrow and subjective view of these issues. If you’d like to research more on the Madison Prep saga, there’s plenty available online.
But if I can offer one, albeit preachy, conclusion, it’s that Madison can no longer afford to hide behind its liberal image or colorblind façade. There’s no such thing as colorblind, and I believe even promoting the idea is borderline ignorant. To be colorblind is to ignore history, statistics and trends in legislation. It keeps us stuck. And just like any doctor knows, we need to diagnose the problem before we can treat it.
***Graphs published originally by madison.com; reprinted with permission.