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Derrick Z. Jackson: Milwaukee’s invisible racial cage

Protests in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. REUTERS PHOTO

I’ve had a bad feeling for a quarter century about my hometown of Milwaukee. As a frequent writer on transportation, I took particular note as the city’s white suburbs built an invisible but impregnable cage around a majority African-American and Latino city.

The bars of that cage: the lack of public transportation.

When I was in kindergarten in 1960, Milwaukee boasted 741,000 people, including my parents and many relatives who came to escape Mississippi segregation and to work in factories and hospitals. At the time, 60 percent of the region’s manufacturing jobs were right in the city.

But by the time I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1976, jobs were disappearing, and the population was on its way to plummeting to 597,000 by 2000.

According to UWM’s Center for Economic Development, Milwaukee went from nearly 120,000 manufacturing jobs in 1963 to 27,000 in 2009. Some of the job loss was due to off-shoring, but thousands of others jobs followed white flight to the far suburbs. While Milwaukee lost 28,000 jobs from 1994 to 2009, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington Counties (known locally as the “WOW” counties) gained 56,000 jobs in office parks, light manufacturing, and retail.

Other rustbelt cities also struggled for years with job losses, of course. Milwaukee, however, became particularly tragic as poverty rates and levels of hyper-segregation soared to among the worst in America. Milwaukee’s woes are now in the national spotlight after the unrest that followed the fatal police shooting of a black man. But one cannot understand the roots of the joblessness, frustration, and anger until you understand how suburban politicians made it impossible for urban residents to find employment in the suburbs.


As many US cities fought congestion and downtown malaise with light-rail, commuter rail, and subway improvements, time stood still in Milwaukee. Efforts in the 1990s to connect Milwaukee to the new economy in the suburbs by light rail were derailed by WOW politicians and business opponents, often using racially coded language. One warned that rail would have a “dramatic effect on our neighborhoods and area residents.” Another spoke ominously of “strangers who are not only a threat to your property but to your children.” Conservative talk radio kept up a drumbeat of opposition. Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson said he wouldn’t spend a nickel of state money on light rail. In the face of all that, there was no chance that public transit could be viewed as an economic bridge-builder. To the contrary, the bridge was burned before it could be built.


Then, of course, there’s Scott Walker. As a state representative representing a Milwaukee suburb, he opposed light rail, calling it “the beast that never seems to die.” As the Milwaukee County executive, he oversaw cuts in local bus service. As governor, he famously rejected $810 million in high-speed rail money from the Obama administration and cut state aid to public transit.

The result, according to UWM data, was a 22 percent decline in transit services in Milwaukee County and 30,000 fewer transit-accessible jobs today than in 2001.

“Denver, Portland, many different kinds of cities have found that transit creates investments, creates jobs, and begins knitting the region together,” said Marc Levine, director of UWM’s Economic Development Center. “It’s central to revitalization, yet Milwaukee is one of the last cities left that does not have regional rail or planning for it.”

The economic isolation of minorities is exacerbated because fewer than half of African-American and Latino adults have driver’s licenses in Milwaukee County, compared to 73 percent of white adults in the county and 85 percent in the rest of the state.


“Public transportation is everything, everything, everything,” said Clayborn Benson, a longtime friend of mine who is the director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. “People can’t get jobs in the suburbs because they can’t drive. Even if they can drive, they lose jobs because they can’t afford good cars, and they break down. We really need light rail to connect communities and jobs. Milwaukee is simply in barricades.”

The unrest in Milwaukee might have boiled over because of a police shooting. But unrest is only a symptom of what happens when a city is caged because of racist transportation politics.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe contributing columnist and a climate and energy fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He can be reached at