A new Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assessment of urban violence bodes ill for many Black residents in Milwaukee.

If reporter Ashley Luthern is correct — an assessment worth examining — merely living in a segregated neighborhood exposes one to significantly higher rates of violence.

Luthern cites studies showing that “segregation is connected with poverty and crime [and] leads to unequal victimization.”  She reports that “researchers [at Boston University…found one variable [segregation] that seems to explain” higher rates of violence in Black neighborhoods.

“More segregation tends to mean more violent crime,” summarized David Haynes, a Journal Sentinel editor, on his Facebook page.

(In an email exchange with me, Luthern tempered the inference readers might draw from her stories that segregation causes violence. She said: “[i]t’s clear segregation is a key variable behind the wide disparities in who is likely to be victimized by violence…Correlation does not equal causation but it usually is in an indicator that a particular variable should be examined more closely.”)

With segregation entrenched in much of Milwaukee’s north and northwest sides, this conclusion means the outlook is slim for improvement. As Luthern reports, “In Milwaukee, at least three in four black residents would need to relocate in order to live in fully integrated neighborhoods, wrote William H. Frey, author of a Brookings Institution study released late last year.”

An unstated but significant implication is that prospects for many Milwaukee Blacks are subject largely to factors beyond their control. That is, with little chance for meaningful reduction in segregation, higher levels of violence are a given.

The alternative view — that Blacks have a primary role in shaping their lives — is fraught with potential for controversy. Any suggestion to that effect by a white person is guaranteed to spur charges of racial bias. This effectively silences voices — Black and white. It results in a narrow, constricted public discussion about how to address seemingly intractable problems.

The upshot is a disproportionate emphasis on actions that assume government has the primary role. The main losers in that dialogue are citizens who have accepted the view that their future primarily is tied to actions of elected officials in Madison and Washington.

After living for nearly two decades in the then-pristine world of Madison, I moved to suburban Shorewood in 1982. (My boss at the time — David Carley — asked if I was “ready to live in a real city.”)  

Shortly after arriving, former Governor Tony Earl and Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Bert Grover asked me to chair a commission to study public schools in metro Milwaukee.  

In preparing for that assignment, I reviewed data for census tracts in Milwaukee’s (segregated) near north side. I assumed the numbers were wrong when I read that more than seventy percent of children were born to and lived in single parent households. When told those in fact were correct numbers, my reaction was immediate: “That can’t work. No way.”

The research, of course, is voluminous and not in dispute as to the divergent prospects for children raised in one- and two-parent families.  While segregation admittedly is a factor over which Milwaukee Blacks have little or no control, that’s decidedly not the case when it comes to birthrates and family formation.  

Luthern’s reporting earlier this year included a vivid and relevant anecdote about a young victim of a drive-by, drug-related shooting. Based on a discussion with the victim’s mother, Luthern wrote:

He loved picking out his school clothes and, as a tween, he sprayed his jeans with Argo starch before his mom ironed them flat.

That’s when he first caught the attention of girls — and he liked the spotlight. He flirted, knowing just what to say to bring a smile to a girl’s face. Girls became his weakness, his mom said.

He had his first child at age 16, then a second child with the same young woman. He later fathered four other children with three other women. [He] was involved with his children’s lives, his mother said. 

As a young father, DeAndre went to school and worked the odd retail job. He didn’t think it was enough money. He started selling drugs. 

Where to begin? Five children by four different girls(!)  And then there is the idea that he “was involved” in their lives, a preposterous notion about which Luthern offers no challenge.

The prospects for the children of this deceased young man are grim and I would argue have little to do with living in a segregated neighborhood.  Their outlook recalls for me an exhaustive review I conducted in the 1990s of a representative sample of state prison inmates from Milwaukee County.  Common to their intake information sheets was the fact that many had fathered more than one child by more than one woman.

Those children are now in their 20s. Many (most?) will have grown up in unstable “homes” that cheat them out of a promising future.

The magnitude of this problem is underscored by stunning data in the most recent National Vital Statistics Report from the federal government.  Wisconsin had the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the percent of births — 82 — to unmarried Black women.

I have not read the full scope of Luthern’s reporting on urban crime during the last two-three years. Perhaps she has addressed the staggering implications of a statistic such as that. If not, she has fallen short of her objective to explore fully the causes and impact of urban crime.

In the end, it is insufficient to identify segregation as a primary driver of urban violence without discussing the myriad array of other factors — especially factors over which citizens have direct control. Doing so effectively discounts the prospect of positive change arising from within segregated neighborhoods.

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