The Milwaukee metropolitan area is taking what seems to be its annual beating in the media because of its racially segregated housing patterns. According to a new report from the Brookings Institution based on 2005-09 census data, the City of Milwaukee and the surrounding area including Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha Counties is virtually tied for first (or last!) with Detroit and New York City for the highest degree of black-white residential segregation. A second study conducted by John Logan of Brown University ranked Milwaukee second in residential segregation by race to only the New York City metropolitan area. Newark, Detroit, and Chicago were next on Logan’s list.
To what extent are the troubling rankings and the patterns to which they point truly based on race? American racism is hardly dead and buried, but in our society race often obscures the equally pernicious workings of socioeconomic class inequality.
While blacks are concentrated in worn-out center-cities, their inability to move to the suburbs involves income and asset factors more than skin color. Surely a black physician or business executive can take up residence with his or her family in a $400,000 home on a countrified suburban cul-de-sac, but the disproportionately impoverished blacks of American center-cities cannot afford this kind of housing. Moderately priced rental housing is the only type of housing the urban poor can afford.
The realities regarding socioeconomic class stand behind the troubling statistics regarding residential segregation by race in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. The poor – black, white, or Hispanic – live almost completely within the City of Milwaukee, while Ozaukee and Washington Counties rank among only nineteen counties in the entire country with poverty rates below five percent. Second-ring suburbs and outlying towns like New Berlin and West Bend have been in the news lately because of efforts in those towns to prevent the construction of moderately priced rental housing. If this kind of housing was built, some fear, the urban poor might relocate and try to build lives and raise their kids among the middle and upper classes.
And here’s one more depressing fact from still another study. According to a report from the Eisenhower Foundation, the 10-15 percent of the contemporary population living below the poverty line is actually both growing in numbers and becoming more residentially concentrated. The nation is taking baby steps to overcome its racial inequality, but the existence of a concentrated, urban sub-working class might actually be endemic to advanced capitalism.