This story appeared in the February 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
I’m one semester away from graduating from the University of Wisconsin. My college experience has been equal parts stressful, harrowing, enlightening, and incredible.
One thing that I am constantly reminded of, though, is how wildly different my childhood and high school experiences have been from those of the vast majority of my peers.
When my friends and I have conversations about our times in high school, I listen to what they have to say, while inside my head I hear a running commentary in a de pressingly contrarian voice.
Every time someone comments about her school band’s trip to France or Mexico, I nod, while quietly lamenting the fact that my school never had a band. Or an orchestra. Or many after-school programs, for that matter.
Every time someone mentions taking French, Latin, and even Swahili foreign language classes in high school, it’s another reminder that we were offered only two years of Spanish at my school. At UW I scrambled through three semesters of German in order to meet graduation requirements.
I don’t mention this because I’m looking for sympathy. It deserves mention because unequal education is an important aspect of our country’s glaring racial disparities. Somehow, the situation is even worse in the state of Wisconsin than in the rest of the nation.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s data for 2013, the gap between black and white students in eighth-grade math was a giant 30.8 percentage points. When it comes time for high school graduation, black kids are almost one-third less likely to make it to the stage.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that children of color face immense barriers to success in key categories of well-being. Black people are less likely to be in school or working, have two-parent homes, delay childbearing, or gain at least an associates degree.
Thirty percent of Wisconsin’s white children live in households below 200 percent of the poverty level, compared with about two-thirds of Wisconsin’s Latino and American Indian kids. For African American kids, the rate is 80 percent.
This is the cold, honest truth we need to face. My senior class in high school started at around 500 people. That number dwindled to 250 by graduation. Whether it was through frustration, apathy, or needing to enter the workforce early to take care of relatives, inner city kids have so many more hoops to jump than their suburban counterparts.
I went to Casimir Pulaski High School on the south side of Milwaukee. One of the most prominent things about my hometown, aside from the breweries and Fonz statues, is the fact that Milwaukee is far and away the most segregated city in America. Business Insider compiled data that shows how Milwaukee is divided along color lines. Blacks live on the north and west side, whites live on the east side and far north, Hispanics live on the south side, and Asians live in a pocket on the north central side of town.
Milwaukee is not only segregated by ethnicity, but also through community investment and economic development.
In a 2013 door-to-door survey conducted by the Social Development Commission at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, many respondents said that lack of employment and education are major barriers to a better life, and keep people in their neighborhoods living in poverty. The people who took the survey lived in central Milwaukee and were predominantly black. That is what makes inequality a race issue, and that is why we need to focus on race.
People will tell you anyone can make it if you are just inspired and motivated. But the reality is that’s just not enough. You can get only so far with motivation. I got where I am today because I was a kid lucky enough to receive help—help that I know for a fact is not available to most students of color.
In ninth grade I was a directionless student. I didn’t know where I was going in my life. Then I got a brochure in the mail from the PEOPLE program—a summer program that brings low-income students of color together from all over Wisconsin. We arrived on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where we lived in the dorms, took classes, and prepared for higher education. College students served as counselors. I found my voice while at PEOPLE. I got to see that it was possible for someone who came from where I came from to make it to one of the best universities in the world.
When opportunity is there, people will take advantage of it. Take for instance the story of Andre Lee Ellis and the “We Got This” movement, started last summer in Milwaukee. Ellis paid Jermaine, an at-risk kid, $20 to work in the community garden and clean up the neighborhood on Saturdays.
“After the first week he brought five buddies with him,” Ellis said. “The following week ten, then fifteen, then nineteen, and last Saturday forty kids came to work.” Roshaun Collins, a sixth-grader at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and a member of Ellis’s “We Got This” group since last summer, summed up Ellis’s program by saying, “People where we come from don’t make it far and Mr. Andre is showing us that we can.”
A recent summer jobs program in Chicago called One Summer Plus opened to students in high-violence Chicago public high schools. By the end of the summer, violent-crime arrests fell by 3.95 arrests per 100 youth. Amazingly, the effects were strongest five to eleven months after the program ended, suggesting a lasting impact, at least in the medium-term.
Although inner-city kids respond well if given the opportunity, what little opportunity they have is constantly under attack. Look at the way Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has handled the issue of inner-city poverty. He has issued the largest cuts to education in the history of the state. These cuts included 30 percent to technical colleges, which are crucial for inner-city residents to develop the skills necessary to find great paying work. Walker also ended the Wisconsin covenant program, which offered inner-city youth college scholarships if they met specific requirements. And, Walker is using the inaugural events as he begins his second term as governor of Wisconsin not to fundraise for charities that help Wisconsin youth, like the Boys and Girls Club, but to pay for his own 2016 presidential campaign.
It’s clear that a certain ideology is being pushed and major legislation passed on the false assumption that we are all on a level playing field, and that racial inequality is a thing of the past. You don’t have to look too hard to see that the playing field is not level at all.
What can you do to help end racial inequalities? It’s really important to rally against policies that punish people for being poor, policies that hurt the upward mobility of inner-city blacks. Also, people need to know that kids like me, seeing our position in society, have been conditioned to think that most people who look like us will not succeed. Many young people of color don’t know how they are going to make it in life. If you can reach out personally to someone, you should.
So the next time you hear a group of students talking about foreign language classes, music lessons, and trips abroad, listen to that voice asking, what do kids of color need in order to be lucky enough to experience these things?
The first step to addressing racial inequality is recognizing that it exists.
Miles Brown is a student at the University of Wisconsin majoring in political science and history.
Image credit: Sarah Mittermeier