Polarization or Social Control in Metropolitan Milwaukee?

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Category: Milwaukee, Public, Race & Law

As a person who has always considered the City of Milwaukee to be home, I find Craig Gilbert’s ongoing study of political polarization in the metropolitan area to be both thorough and illuminating. His research indicates that when it comes to Republican and Democratic voting patterns, the area has become more polarized than any area outside of the American South. What’s more, the political polarization very strikingly correlates with race, ethnicity, education, and population density. Republican voters reside largely in middle and upper-class suburbs in Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties, while the impoverished and working poor reside and vote in the City of Milwaukee’s Democratic inner-city.

When we reflect on what has come to be, it is important that we not take the polarization to be simply a naturally occurring phenomenon and thereby overlook the political agency involved, that is, the way some socio-economic groups attempt to contain and control other socio-economic groups. Polarization has taken place in part because local and state governments have used law and legal arrangements to push socio-economic groups apart, to assign poorer citizens to certain areas, and to reduce the clout of these citizens at the polls.

This effort dates back to the decades following World War II when local suburbs tolerated and sometimes encouraged the use of racially restrictive covenants. Researchers have found racially restrictive covenants in sixteen out of eighteen suburbs in Milwaukee County. In Wauwatosa, a suburb immediately to the west of the City of Milwaukee, 51 subdivisions comprising one-third of the suburb’s land prohibited African Americans from renting and buying property. The covenants in Milwaukee County remained important through the 1970s, and, as a result, the African American population moved and expanded primarily along a vector running northwest from the original inner-city to the County line, always within the City limits.

In the present, the enforcement of such racially restrictive covenants is unconstitutional, but suburbs can keep out people they take to be undesirable through exclusionary zoning. Such zoning cannot explicitly invoke race, but it can make it difficult for the urban poor to locate affordable housing in the suburbs. Exclusionary zoning is not common in older, fully developed suburbs such as West Milwaukee or Shorewood, but newer “second-ring” suburbs can and do use zoning designations related to lot size, number of bedrooms, and so forth to prevent the construction of inexpensive rental housing of the sort the poor might be able to afford. As a result, they have no choice but to remain in the inner-city.

Not to be outdone, the state government in recent years has taken steps to allow more affluent potential Republican voters to move to certain areas while in the process leaving poorer Democrats even more concentrated in other areas. One recent legal change, for example, eliminated the requirement that City of Milwaukee employees live within the municipality. This sprung middle-class employees from the City that issues their paychecks. Republican Governor Walker was the greatest champion of the change. He hails from the suburbs to the west of the City and of course relies on the huge turn-outs of white Republican suburbanites in Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee Counties at election time.

My general point is that what at first glance looks like polarization starts to look with further reflection like social control. For decades, white middle and upper-class suburbanites have been sealing off their communities and consigning the poor and working poor to the inner-city. To quote the Italian leftist and highly regarding political theorist Antonio Gramsci, “Bourgeois hegemony is not automatic but rather achieved through conscious political action and organization.”

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8 Responses to “Polarization or Social Control in Metropolitan Milwaukee?”

  1. Terrence Berres Says:

    How would you explain that racial disparities are worse in Madison and vicinity? There the black population is apparently sufficiently dispersed that there isn’t even a African-American majority census tract. And there’s not political polarization in the sense you’re talking about in your post.

  2. Kenneth Habeck Says:

    One minor–or perhaps not so minor–clarification I would add regarding the statement that “[i]n the present, the enforcement of such racially restrictive covenants is unconstitutional…”: The enforcement of such covenants was also deemed unconstitutional in the past, under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Shelly v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).

  3. Mr. Berres,

    Craig Gilbert’s study focuses on metropolitan Milwaukee and says nothing about the Madison area. For my own part, I take the Milwaukee and Madison areas to be quite different in socio-economic terms. Developments in Milwaukee set the stage for the pronounced phenomena of polarizations and bourgeois dominance, but Madison has not seen comparable developments.

    Allow me to mention a couple things in the Milwaukee area that seem of particular importance: (1) The City of Milwaukee has undergone severe deindustrialization. No longer the “machine shop of the world,” the City has seen its factories close or move elsewhere, leaving over half of the City’s African American males without work and, specifically, without access to the blue-collar, unionized jobs that many white ethnics rode into the middle class. (2) As of the 1960s, the City of Milwaukee was tightly surrounded by suburbs. There are eighteen within Milwaukee County, and a second gruoup just outside the County to the west and north. These suburbs accommodated the large-scale “white flight” from the City of Milwaukee and then closed the doors afer the whites got there.

    It sounds like you know more about Madision than I do. Your thoughts on Madison’s systems of dominance (or lack thereof) are welcome.

    David Papke

  4. Terrence Berres Says:

    Again, you’re claiming to show cause and effect relationships. My point is that if we look at the Madison area, the causes you cite are absent, yet we see the same problems, or worse.

    For example, I understand the 2010 black (non-Hispanic) infant mortality rate was 14.4 per 1000 live births in Milwaukee, and 16.9 in Dane County.

  5. Mr. Habeck,
    Shelley v. Kraemer had an intriguing “afterlife.” After the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive covenants were not enforceable, some state courts decided that the decision did not preclude whites from suing fellow whites for breach of a covenant. The Supreme Court did not rule this unconstitutional until 1953. See Barrows V. Jackson, 346 U.S. 249.
    More generally, racially restrictive clauses in sale and lease documents continued to appear at least through the 1970s. They couldn’t be enforced, but they could still be used to deter African Amerians from moving into certain neighborhoods. This appears to be what happened in suburbs to the west of Milwaukee.
    Indeed, as late as 1986 it was revealed that none other than soon-to-be Chief Justice still had a racially restrictive covenant for a property he owned in Vermont. This came to light during his confirmation hearings and was quite embarrasssing for him.
    The point in all this is that law is never determined by the date of a particular opinion. As the legal realists used to say, law exists not “on paper” but rather “in action.”
    David Papke

  6. Mr. Berres,

    I’m not surprised that racial disparities continue to play out in the Madison area. However, I think Craig Gilbert’s study and my modest response to it concern a narrower topic. The issue is what I would call “geo-politics,” i.e., the way certain socio-economic groups of a particular political persuasion are concentrated in certain areas. How and why does that come to be in metropolitcan Milwaukee?

    In my own work, by the way, I have come to the conclusion that in the present socio-economic factors are more important than race. An African American doctor or CEO, for example, is able to move to one of the suburbs and fit into the community. The urban poor,meanwhile, are for the most part unwelcome. African Americans are disproportionately over-represented among the poor, but their poverty more than race per se is the key.
    David Papke

  7. The Madison area is 83% white and 5% African American. Milwaukee is 50% white and 37% African American. So they cannot be compared. I agree with the point of this article. Political and business forces have joined together to keep poor people in concentrated areas away from wealthy people. Many politicians believe that poor people are some kind of evil to be contained and eliminated from view. Ironically, it is the policies of the rich that keep these people poor. Anyone who doubts this can visit Mequon, WI and look for African-American people. Considering Mequon is 90% white and 4% African-American, you won’t find many.

  8. The City of Milwaukee attracts the poor by offering various welfare programs, especially in housing.

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