Image by Andy Mangold
Over the weekend, tensions between police and African Americans in Milwaukee exploded following the shooting death of a 23-year-old black man by a Milwaukee police officer.
As a lifelong resident of Milwaukee and as a Wisconsin state representative, I have been in every corner of this community talking to residents and hearing their concerns. I am sorry to say that I’ve seen the tensions leading up to this incident building for a long time. You would be hard pressed to find another U.S. city with fewer opportunities and options for black people than Milwaukee.
Consider the following gross inequities: Milwaukee leads the nation in black incarceration and the black unemployment rate is about three times the rate for whites, the biggest gap in the nation. Poverty is endemic, and the median household income for blacks is $25,600, compared with $62,600 for whites. There is a glaring black-white achievement gap in Milwaukee schools.
The distrust between communities of color and the police is rooted in a long history. Ultimately, we must admit that racism is alive in our community and address how this creates barriers in the housing market, labor market, education system, and criminal justice system, all of which grind black Americans down on a daily basis.
Police officers are on the front lines, absorbing the consequences of socioeconomic inequality and centuries of oppression and subjugation. In order to break the cyclical patterns of poverty and lack of opportunity that drive the epidemic of black male incarceration, we need to rethink policing.
Milwaukee police officers and community leaders should choose restorative justice over an endless cycle of punishment. We must address the issue of distrust between the police and communities of color in a timely and deliberate manner.
We urgently need to increase investments in education so we can help students succeed in our public schools. And we need programs that create a pipeline to skilled jobs that pay a living wage. These measures will begin to remove the chains of poverty that have held Milwaukee down for so long.
Of course, we must also address the terrible epidemic of violence taking place in our community. All of the guns on our streets are not making us safer. We need lawmakers who will take a bold stand against guns, legally concealed and carried or otherwise.
As a leader, I hate to see our city burn, literally. I want to see people come together. But I also understand the frustrations of so many people who are dealing with the inequality that has held our community back for generations.
Just as the causes of the current uprising in Milwaukee did not develop overnight, the solutions will not come without concerted and collaborative efforts from all parties in our community. As a leader who calls Milwaukee home, I will continue working to improve conditions for black lives.
Wisconsin state Representative Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) is serving his second term as state representative for Wisconsin’s 11th Assembly District, which includes the city of Milwaukee's north side and parts of the city of Glendale.