How colorblind is Madison?

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.

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10 thoughts on “How colorblind is Madison?

  1. Mario,

    Nice work. This subject needs to be discussed further, no doubt. Keep it up! Perhaps we can do it in person as well.

    I took a “Diversity” course a couple of years ago taught by a black man who is married to a white women. They are raising a “mixed” family, hers’, his’ and theirs, and I was amazed by the stories he shared about how they were treated by the locals, ie in restaurants, groceries stores etc. The incidents left me quite disturbed. I thought like many others Wisconsin was a colorblind communtiy, it may seem that way if you are white.

    Dean

    • Thanks for the comment, Sereno. Race is a really interesting concept when we start to unpack it, and there’s really no way to begin to understand it if separate communities don’t have contact.

  2. I think Professor Chavez sees what she wants to see. Many of us who have been working for equity in education (as well as other places, such as addressing the disparities in in criminal justice system, expanding affordable housing, protecting human services), have always recognized and brought attention to the racial dimensions, but opposed Madison Prep because it was a bd plan that would ill serve those who enroilled and harm the vast majority of students who would remain in public schools..

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, TJ. It’s clear that you could add some variety to this discourse, and from your blog I see that you’ve done quite about of work around this issue. You’d definitely be a good person to speak with to get a different side to the story, so I might have to check in with you again soon.

    • Thomas, I see that you’re a person who has extensive experience with this issue. Let me just ask, and I mean this with genuine curiosity, what are some of the main reasons for Madison’s racial disparities as they relate to education or the criminal justice system? And perhaps more importantly, how do we appropriately address the problems?

  3. Thanks for posting, Mario. Mr. Mertz, I am in agreement with you that charter schools generally are not the route to go; as tools of a conservative agenda to gut public education, I am no fan of charter schools. And the Madison Prep scenario was very complex, no doubt. But I am a bit concerned with your claim that “I see what I want to see,” which by the way, is a common thing that white people say to people of color when they call attention to racism. As a person of color who lives in Madison and who writes and teaches about issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and US imperialism, there is no doubt that I see things in a particular way. However, seeing Madison Public Schools as a place inhospitable to many students of color, especially given the numbers and the testimony and experience of many people of color seems hard *not* to see. I am no expert in education policy, so let me be clear about that. And from what I can tell about you, you are a tireless advocate for education justice and I commend you highly for that. However, I have to call into question even the way you’ve phrased your comments when you say that people, like you, who work on these issues “have always recognized and brought attention to the racial dimensions…” That very phrasing, “racial dimensions” as opposed to calling the problem one of systemic racism is at the very heart of the problem from the perspective of many people of color and white allies I know and talk with. So, I guess, all of this is to say I am very interested in your answer to Mario’s question above. I think we all agree that we want MPS and our community as a whole to be one that deals with its racism/classism/sexism/homophobia and that is a place where marginalized and privileged people alike can be treated with respect and fairness.

    • I think there needs to be a distinction between saying that race and racism or racial denial are significant factors in MMSD and saying that race and racism or racial denial were significant factors in the rejection of Madison Prep. Many opponenets of madison Prep have been among the most consistent voices calling attention to the former. I read your comments as quoted as furthering the latter view and I think that does injustice to what happened and the people involved.

      I just saw Mario’s question, but am on my way out the door.

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