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Why Milwaukee Is the Worst Place to Live for African Americans

Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate in the country for African Americans. Sheriff David Clarke’s attitudes illustrate why.

REUTERS/Allen Frederickson

Earlier this month, the news site 24/7 Wall St. labeled Milwaukee as the worst place for African Americans to live. It echoed a piece Milwaukee native Kenya Downs wrote for NPR back in March, which asked “Why Is Milwaukee So Bad For Black People?”

Downs’ article pointed to a long history of racial segregation and discrimination in answering that question, but another answer might be found in the sheriff of Milwaukee County, David Clarke, who himself is an African American.

As seen in Tweets circulated recently by rapper Talib Kweli, Sheriff Clarke has lately had some choice words to say about Black Lives Matter, some of which he shared with Fox News earlier this week.

In the Fox interview, Clarke not only said that BLM activists should be “eradicated from American society,” but he basically called for Americans to use vigilante justice to execute this. Clarke’s own Twitter feed is basically one lengthy harangue against BLM protestors, whom he insists are one Evite away from becoming ISIS:

It seems his main beef with Black Lives Matter is its mission. Said Clarke to Fox & Friends:

“First of all, there is no police brutality in America. We ended that back in the ’60s. So I don’t know where they’re coming from. You look at the data and the research, and there’s a new Harvard study out that shows that there is no racism in the hearts of police officers. They go about their daily duty, if you will, to keep communities safe.”

If Clarke makes a fitting avatar for the worst place for African Americans to live, it’s not just because of his disparaging views about Black Lives Matter, but because his county happens to incarcerate more black lives than anywhere else in America. In fact, Wisconsin’s reputation as the top state for African American incarceration per capita is owed, in large part, to Milwaukee County and Clarke’s methods of policing it.

(Employment and Training Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Clarke was re-elected in 2014 to his fourth term as county sheriff with a huge push from suburban voters.  Which means county residents—65.3 percent of whom are white compared to 44.8 percent of Milwaukee the city—seem to favor Clarke’s tough-on-crime policing tactics. This might help explain why Milwaukee is so unlivable for many African Americans. Consider this 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute. It states that incarceration rates are “at epidemic levels for African American males in Milwaukee County,” where more than half of black men in their 30s and early 40s from this county have resided behind state prison bars. Reads the study:

By January 2012 the 26,222 African American men from Milwaukee County had been imprisoned for a total of 42,675,397 days (or almost 117,000 years). At the average 2012 corrections’ operating cost of $91 a day per capita cited by Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the cost of this incarceration would total $3.88 billion at 2012 prices. In early 2012 the state was spending over half a million dollars a day to incarcerated 5,631 African American men from Milwaukee County.

The following three graphs illustrate just how bad it is for African Americans caught up in Milwaukee County’s criminal justice system:

(University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute)
(University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute)
(University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute)

By contrast, the police chief for the city of Milwaukee, Ed Flynn, takes a much more nuanced position on Black Lives Matter, and even participated in a BLM rally last December. Flynn signed on with the coalition of prominent law enforcement leaders across the nation who last week pledged to address mass incarceration, along with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. (Clarke is, unsurprisingly, not among the members.) And last year, Flynn fired Milwaukee policeman Christopher Manney for shooting and killing Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African American who suffered from schizophrenia—the first time a cop had been fired for fatally shooting a civilian since 1968.

Flynn is not exactly Clarke’s polar opposite: A 2011 expose from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that police in his department pulled black people over in their cars at seven to 12 times the rate they pulled over white people, compared to Milwaukee County, which pulled over African Americans at twice the rate of whites.

But you probably won’t find Flynn on Fox referring to black activists as “slime.” That might be because Flynn is white and Clarke is exploiting language he likely would not use if he wasn’t black. Still, Clarke’s behavior is typical of the attitudes held by county officials looking to protect suburbs from what they consider the polluted evils of the city. Which, in a lot of ways, means the county officials are looking to protect racial segregation. As Downs wrote for NPR about the “unique history” of Milwaukee:

Milwaukee County is divided along racial and political lines, and the city is the most segregated in America. An old, racist joke among locals is that the city's 16th Street viaduct bridge is the longest structure in the world, linking "Africa to Europe." Basically, black people lived on the city's north side, and whites lived on the south side. The same holds true today, although Hispanics are now the majority in the south, and Asian-Americans make up the city's west side. Whites have mostly moved to the suburbs.

Sheriff Clarke’s antics seem to signify a devotion to upholding these color lines. They also indicate a concern that Black Lives Matter might be too effective in disrupting this status quo.

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