Police Shooting Spotlights Madison's Racial Disparities

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In the days following the police shooting of an unarmed African American teenager in Madison, Wisconsin, local residents have been wondering how such a tragedy could occur in a city with a national reputation for progressive and inclusive politics. But the death of Tony Robinson comes in the midst of growing community discussions of the stark racial disparities in this midwestern city.

Rev. Alex Gee, pastor of the Fountain of Life Covenant Church, has long been an outspoken critic of race relations in Wisconsin’s capital. He says Robinson’s death was difficult to believe, but admits that -- despite the city's reputation -- Madison’s racial disparities make it a prime spot for an event like this to occur. “[This is] something we thought would probably never happen. It was our worst fear,” Gee says, “and when it does happen, you almost feel badly that you let your guard down.”

According to the Race to Equity report, released by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF), black adults in the Madison area were eight times more likely to be arrested than white adults, a rate three times higher than the national average. In addition, African Americans in Dane County were five times as likely as Caucasians to be unemployed.

Figures courtesy of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families' Race to Equity Report

Even though Madison ranks among the top 10 places to live in the country, it’s quite a different story for the city's black population, says Erica Nelson, the study's lead author. She says African Americans in Dane County tend to do worse, on average, than anywhere else in the nation. Although “white well-being in terms of education and other indicators is better than the national average,” Nelson says, “the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats is not taking place here.”

Rev. Gee says the dispersion of small African American communities throughout Madison gives the city a "false sense of inclusion." Nelson's report suggests the geographic distribution of African Americans in Madison weakens their "overall social cohesion, cultural influence and political voice of the county’s black community as a whole." In addition, Madison's labor market -- which favors highly networked workers with advanced degrees -- leaves few opportunities for many African Americans seeking a job.

Since the Race to Equity report was released in 2013, followed soon after by Rev. Gee's much-discussed article about justified anger, community leaders and Madison residents have been talking about the stark inequalities between Madison's black and white residents. Although the killing of Tony Robinson now puts the community on the national stage, Rev. Gee believes positive change is still possible.

"Even though we're in pain and experiencing turmoil, we can't lose all trust in humanity and each other," Rev. Gee says. "I think we have to make sure that we don't lose sight, that we have to live and live together beyond this."



Interview Highlights

How did each of you first hear about the shooting of Tony Robinson?

Rev. Alex Gee: I was in Kansas City, Missouri last week for a conference. I was actually there giving a seminar about race relations. And we were actually talking about Ferguson because we were only about three hours away... One of my coworkers sent me a text message that said, "You must not know what's happening in Madison..." I went to Madison.com, took a look at it, and said, "Oh my gosh. No. Not Madison. I can't believe this."

Erica Nelson: I live in the Near East Side neighborhood, where the shooting took place, and happened to be at home with some friends. And they said there were many police cars and the street had been blocked off. Then I began to get messages from friends who had said there was a shooting of a young African American man... and similarly was shocked.

Now we should point out that this is an ongoing investigation; there’s only been limited information so far released to the public about the confrontation... What do people around the country need to know about this case at this time?

AG: I think they need to know that people are horrified. Madison’s a wonderful community. I spent the majority of my life here, and this is just something that many of us thought would never and could never happen here.

Right, this seems like the city that’s not like Ferguson, Missouri. It's a city with a national reputation that ends up on all these polls of places where you want to live... It has this history of social and political progressivism.

AG: Although I found this very difficult to believe, I've had several discussions with community leaders, the police chief, with other officers, and I said Madison is actually a breeding ground for great disparity. When you have that level of disparity, it only takes the fear in the heart of someone in leadership or a police officer [and] the cockiness of a young person, and things could just really escalate…

EN: I was surprised by the reality of it. We're operating from a place of community conversations about race, conversations about policing and institutional and structural racism. And then, in the midst of all these conversations and a lot of positive progress, we have this event. And I think that is part of the shocking part too, because the community as a whole over the last 18 months to 2 years was really building momentum [and] having open discussions about race.

And this was fairly new, right? I know, Rev. Gee, you've been talking about these issues for years, but in terms of bringing these discussions of racial disparities in Madison to a city-wide audience, that's really been just going on for a couple of years or so, right?

AG: Yes and no. In the work that we're doing with Justified Anger, we're finding reports that were written back in the '40s. So they've been there, but people, I think, have been able to push them to the side because they've said, "This is Madison and that data doesn't compute."

EN: It was this culmination of the release of the Race to Equity Report, which was quantitative accounts of the well-being of African Americans versus whites in our count, and then Rev. Gee's article said these aren't just numbers. This is really lived experience of African Americans in the community.

For people who haven’t read the article, could you talk about it a little bit, Rev. Gee?

AG: It was an article I wrote for the Cap Times in 2013, and I just talked about my experience being pulled over by the police in my church parking lot. I talked about mass incarceration at Downtown Rotary [Club], and someone congratulated me afterwards for not being an angry black man and I said "I am." They continued to insist that I wasn’t. I left that meeting pondering, "Why it was so important for her to feel that I wasn’t angry? I just talked about Wisconsin leading the nation in the incarceration of black men." And then I just started talking about the fact that many African Americans are not at the decision tables. When there are discussions about diversity, we’re nowhere around. I just really gave my perspective on it, and I think I came out of hiding a bit, because I felt that no one wanted to hear a middle class black male bemoan public life in Madison.

So what do we do with the reputation of Madison as being this progressive city? Obviously it’s got all kinds of problems. How do we put these two things together?

EN: The Race to Equity report -- which was released in Oct. 2013 -- was built on the shoulders of other reports. Coupled with Rev. Gee’s column and editorial, that re-catalyzed the conversation. It put some numbers on the problem.

We should mention some of those numbers….You found, for instance, a quarter of the African American community was unemployed compared to five percent of Caucasians in [Madison's] Dane County. In 2012, black adults in Dane County were eight times more likely to be arrested than white adults. That’s stark.

EN: It’s extraordinary because when you look at Madison, Dane County, and the state of Wisconsin in the aggregate, we look great. We make the top ten lists of best places to live. But when you disaggregate things by race, African Americans here in Dane County were on average doing worse than African Americans anywhere else in the nation. And I think that, because Madison and Dane County have such a good reputation, many of these issues that people were trying to bring up in the past three decades got brushed under the rug because it was in many ways easier to rely on the status quo of Madison’s reputation, than it was to address these stark disparities. The other challenge here is that white well-being -- in terms of education and all these other indicators -- is better than the national average. And so the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats is not taking place here in our community.

AG: So what do we do with our reputation? I think we should take a hard look at ourselves to find out who we are really, because I think trying to protect an ideal or reputation that really wasn't accurate has hindered us from really becoming a really caring, inclusive and progressive community.

What do we need to talk about?

AG: We need to talk about the systemic issues. If you look at systems or structures in our community that have tried to keep up with the changing demographics, [you see] the medical professions have not done that, professors haven’t done it, media hasn’t done it. [But the] police have. That’s one department -- one workforce -- that you could look at and [see is] trying to keep up with changing demographics... So why aren’t we attracting people? Why aren’t we keeping people? What’s really happening in the trenches?

Why don’t we attract a more diverse workforce in all these different professions you’ve just named?

AG: We often talk about diversity, [but] we don’t want diversity in Madison. We want a Jackie Robinson, and that’s not diversity. That’s having the wherewithal to hit the ball out the park, but the stamina to deal with the name calling, and to take your wife on the road with you... For a person to come to Madison, [the struggle isn’t] just moving geographically -- it’s breaking the color barrier. You’re the only one in your class, department, office, division. And you’re the spokesperson...You have to deal with all of that and be able to handle it if you really want to be here. Whereas in other settings, you don’t.

So Rev. Gee, you’ve lived in Madison for years. Have you ever thought about moving away?

AG: All the time.

So why do you stay?

AG: I want to be a role model to children and families who are trying to acclimate themselves to Madison. Madison's given a lot to me. So when I think of leaving, I realize it takes some resolve to make it better for the next family or generation.

EN: It's not cut and dry. It's actually complicated because Madison provides a myriad of opportunities and that's why people come...The question for us now is “regardless of who you are, do you have equity of opportunity when you arrive?”

AG: Sometimes my friends have looked at me with disbelief, “You’re the Huxtable. You’re the family on Blackish. You don’t understand disparity.” But I see what’s happening to people around me. I see people who are sharp and smart who are struggling. I think they’d be shocked to know that if my 18-year-old daughter were a son, I probably would have taken other job offers.

I want to come back to the question of policing. Rev. Gee, you said earlier that Madison’s Police force was one case where there really has been diversity in the hiring. There are a lot of black police officers, and yet, we’ve just had this tragedy... And we’ve also heard that the police force here has taken steps to have racial sensitivity training. It would seem like this is a police force that has done things right.

AG: I personally think that racial sensitivity needs to go a step further… People are forced to take those things. When you hear it’s Diversity Day, eyes roll because people feel they’re going to be called racists and given information they feel they don’t need. Many people think if you don’t get in trouble, you don’t have to worry about your race. And so the training is offered, but how do you measure its efficacy and know it’s taking root. Isn’t this [shooting] evidence that perhaps some of the training does not help with unconscious bias as much as it should really should?

Let me end with practical solutions...What’s the one thing that you’d want our community to focus on right now, if there is one thing?

AG: We have to focus on still having unity as a goal... even though we’re having pain or experiencing turmoil, we can’t lose all trust in humanity and each other. We can’t revert back to 40 or 50 years ago and draw strong dividing lines... We have to remind ourselves that this is one officer and not all police... This is one kid, not all kids. So I think we have to make sure that we don’t lose sight that we have to live together beyond this.

Justice for Tony

Race and Justice in Madison

Reverend Alex Gee, head of the Fountain of Life Covenant Church, and Erica Nelson, author of a recent report on Madison's racial divide, talk about race relations in the wake of the death of Tony Robinson.

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