Last weekend, tensions between police and African Americans in Milwaukee exploded following the shooting death of a 23-year-old black man by a Milwaukee police officer.
As a lifelong resident of Milwaukee and a Wisconsin state representative, I have been in every corner of this community talking to residents and hearing their concerns. I am sorry to say I’ve seen the tensions leading up to this incident building for a long time. You would be hard-pressed to find another U.S. city with fewer opportunities and options for black people than Milwaukee.
Consider the following gross inequities: Milwaukee leads the nation in black incarceration and the black unemployment rate is about three times the rate for whites, the biggest gap in the nation. Poverty is endemic, and the median household income for blacks is $25,600, compared with $62,600 for whites. There is a glaring black-white achievement gap in Milwaukee schools.
The distrust between communities of color and the police is rooted in history. Ultimately, we must admit racism is alive in our community and address how this creates barriers in the housing market, labor market, education system and criminal justice system.
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Police officers are on the front lines, absorbing the consequences of socioeconomic inequality and centuries of oppression and subjugation. To break the cyclical patterns of poverty and lack of opportunity that drive the black male incarceration epidimic, we need to rethink policing.
Milwaukee police officers and community leaders should choose restorative justice over an endless cycle of punishment. We must address the issue of distrust between police and communities of color in a timely, deliberate manner.
We must increase investments in public education so we can help students succeed. And we need programs that create a pipeline to skilled jobs paying a living wage. These measures will begin to remove the chains of poverty that have held Milwaukee down for so long.
Of course, we must also address the terrible epidemic of violence occuring in our community. All of the guns on our streets are not making us safer. We need lawmakers who will take a bold stand against guns, legally concealed and carried or otherwise.
As a leader, I hate to see our city burn, literally. I want to see people come together. But I also understand the frustrations of so many people who are dealing with the inequality that has held our community back for generations.
Just as the causes of the current uprising in Milwaukee did not develop overnight, the solutions will not come without concerted, collaborative efforts from all parties in our community. As a leader who calls Milwaukee home, I will continue working to improve conditions for black lives.
Wisconsin state Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) wrote this for Progressive Media Project.