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Community Leaders Push for Action on Chronic Problems Facing African Americans in Milwaukee

LaToya Dennis

Chronic problems confront thousands of Milwaukee’s black residents every day. High rates of crime and poverty, just to mention two. A broad coalition of leaders came together on Tuesday to demand a community response. We attended the discussion at NAACP headquarters. While not many concrete solutions emerged, a common theme was investment.

Reverend Willie Brisco says people are hopeless, especially in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code. But not a whole lot of outsiders understand.

“You don’t know what it is to be 53206 and not have a reason to get out of that neighborhood. Most of those individuals do not leave a 10 block radius in their whole entire life, but we don’t see that because it’s not prevalent to us in our faith. We have got to come together and demand that this city does better, because when we all did better the city did better,” Brisco says.

Brisco says while economic development is happening in numerous places around Milwaukee, it often leaves out the inner city. 

What people there desperately need is access to jobs, according to R.J. McNeely. He serves on the board of the Felmers Chaney Correctional Center. McNeely says the breakdown of the black family is no coincidence. He says black men lost were victimized right after slavery, when they could be arrested for leaving jobs without permission. Then in the 1970s, McNeely says corporations were advised not to hire black men because they were likely to join a union.

“If you think about a family situation when the wife says to the husband well I can get a job why can’t you? Well what does that do to a family,” McNeely says.

McNeely says studies show that the absence of fathers is a stronger predictor of criminal activity than poverty. 

“Those from single parent households are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, one and a half times more likely to be out of school and out of work in their late teens and early 20s, two to three times more likely than children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems and at a dramatically greater risk to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse,” McNeely says.

“We can have a five county tax to build a stadium, but we can’t spend any money on the inner city.”

That’s Stan Stojkovic, dean of UWM’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. He urges politicians to create a regional approach to economic development, such as it does with freeways.

We can spend $6 billion fixing the roads around Milwaukee, to whom or for whom does that benefit? What could you do in the city of Milwaukee with just $2 billion, $1 billion?” Stojkovic says.

Stojkovic and the others also urged elected leaders to examine policies that disproportionately harm minorities, and to find ways to create more jobs and job-training.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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