Dire statistics for the well-being of Wisconsin’s people of color demand action to help improve their economic and educational prospects, state lawmakers and community leaders said Monday.
The remarks came at the first “State of Black and Brown Wisconsin Address” at the Capitol, convened by the Legislature’s Black and Latino caucus.
Wisconsin has, by many measures, among the widest racial disparities of any state — particularly between its black and white residents. The gap in well-being between black and white children in Wisconsin is the largest of any state, according to one recent report. Another recent study from a UW-Madison think tank found racial disparities in Wisconsin extend to areas including poverty, unemployment, education and incarceration.
State Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, said those disparities come to mind when he hears colleagues tout the state’s unemployment rate, which hit a record low of 3 percent in December.
“That’s great,” Crowley said. “But we don’t have 3 percent unemployment in black and brown communities.”
Crowley and others who spoke called for policymakers to improve access to job and technical skills training, lower the cost of post-secondary education and overhaul the state’s criminal-justice system — particularly its handling of youth offenders.
Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, faulted Republican lawmakers at the state and federal levels for blocking legislation she said could help Latinos and proposing legislation that could hurt them. That includes the absence of a long-term federal fix for “Dreamers,” or undocumented residents brought to the United States illegally as children, and a state bill to penalize so-called sanctuary cities that requires local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Other speakers at the event included Reps. David Bowen and Leon Young and Sens. LaTonya Johnson and Lena Taylor, all Milwaukee Democrats; Eve Hall, CEO of the Milwaukee Urban League; and Madison pastor Alexander Gee.
In other remarks:
- Johnson said it’s depressing to review many of the statistics relating to people of color in Wisconsin. But she said there are bright spots, including what she described as bipartisan legislative efforts to improve the state’s foster care system. Johnson also cited a recent announcement by UW-Madison that it will cover the cost of tuition and certain fees for children from families making less than the state’s median income.
- Crowley said transportation issues are an underappreciated contributor to racial disparities. Crowley said public transit options in the state’s metro areas are limited, and that some Wisconsinites don’t have driver’s licenses due to past criminal convictions. “When these individuals come back into our communities, how do we expect them to have a good footing and a stepping stone to success if we don’t give them access to employment opportunities?” he said.
- Gee said “a sense of hopelessness” in communities of color is fueling many of their challenges. Gee added that elected officials and community leaders must do a better job engaging with people in those communities and “allowing people to be part of the solution. ... We have made it a career to think for people who can speak for themselves, and we exacerbate a sense of hopelessness when we further denigrate individuals by not asking them: ‘What can I do for you?’ ”