Some call our current era The Reckoning. In Greater Milwaukee, thousands have participated in Black Lives Matter protests drawing people of all backgrounds, ages and identities. Nonetheless, transforming our segregated metro area will require sustained antiracist efforts on many fronts.
“Although recent media coverage on the longstanding issue of police brutality against people of color has sparked a national discussion and calls for legislative action, a more significant impact can only come from a fundamental change in the way our society views race by acknowledging the history of racial disparities… ingrained in our culture,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Sequanna Taylor.
“History will judge us by our actions, not our words,” award-winning columnist Reggie Jackson recently wrote. “Writing checks will not defeat systemic racism if the walls of the system of racism, which has benefitted white people for generations while disadvantaging people of color, are not dismantled,” Jackson is the Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Bronzeville.
The following perspectives by Milwaukee-area people of color were gathered from my interviews and from published and broadcast statements.
1. Seize This Moment
As Jackson wrote in his Milwaukee Independent column: “Use your influence to get as many white people to the table to talk as you can now. Understand the tremendous peer pressure many white people feel from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to not talk about racism. It’s about human decency and respect. It’s time to learn and unlearn… Let’s follow the example of the post-Apartheid South Africa.”
2. Venture Beyond Familiar Spaces
Brandon Culpepper founded PeppNation Sports Leadership Camps, a nonprofit organization mentoring young people through athletics and workforce development. The Amani resident values interactions with a common purpose in racially integrated spaces. “That’s one reason we conduct statewide, co-ed rugby, basketball and lacrosse tournaments for young athletes. Families experience our shared humanity together,” Culpepper said. He cited the lakefront and “pockets of Riverwest” among Milwaukee’s most diverse environments. “Despite the pandemic, we still can be intentional about our activities, spaces and socializing. We need to ask, ‘What can I do to get to know people outside my isolated bubble?’”
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3. Support Businesses Owned by People of Color
This was among suggestions by David Crowley, Milwaukee County’s newly elected executive. MKE Black, a nonprofit website and app, publishes a directory of local black-owned businesses. Paul Wellington and Rick Banks launched MKE Black last year, “to encourage people of all races to try new businesses and create more opportunities for black businesses,” said Wellington.
4. Read Black Fiction
Cree Myles reviews books on Instagram’s “Bookstagram” platform at @YouBetterFnRead. “One reason I push literature so hard is because it’s one of the most accessible ways to grow empathy, to strengthen that muscle,” Myles said. “You have to have courage [to become actively antiracist], but where does that courage come from?” The digital organizer for the nonprofit Leaders Igniting Transformation recommends fiction with “substantive black characters created out of black minds, so that the breadth of our experiences can be humanized.” Myles said that empathy can help people build trust with someone from a different background, “so that you are more able to believe what they say has happened to them, to be in solidarity with them… That’s where the revolution starts.”
5. Follow Black Voices on Social Media
Myles said this lets people learn from others at the center of their own narratives. “You can be in their space and watch the conversation without engaging.” She said that quiet listening and humility are crucial to resisting reflexive self-centering and falling back on internalized privilege. She took this approach to better understand LGBTQ perspectives. Other options: Watch films made by people of color and webinars about racial justice.
6. Stand Against all Forms of Bigotry and Hate
In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order widely called a “Muslim ban,” because it stopped travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries. Janan Najeeb was heartened that “thousands of [Americans], including many who don’t even know Muslims, went out to the airports to say, ‘No, this will not happen on our watch.’” (A court soon struck down the ban.) Najeeb, a founder and president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, said in an interview for the “This Is Milwaukee” project that we need to find “ways to bring the community together and to give a voice to all members of the community.”
7. Study Milwaukee’s History of Segregation
For years, local policies and practices legally sanctioned racial segregation and kept black and brown people from equal access to housing, jobs and building wealth. They includes restrictive covenants mandating that only people defined as “white” could buy homes in nearly all Milwaukee suburbs. Federally sanctioned “redlining” of city neighborhoods also controlled where people of color could get mortgages. Reggie Jackson said that ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities—ones that white people have taken for granted—is crucial. “We cannot continue to allow the hoarding of resources and barriers to access” that systemic racism has relied upon.
8. Resist Denying Any Role in Systemic Racism
Community organizer Camille Mays said that it’s important to understand and acknowledge how racism has benefitted white people. “It’s easy to dismiss all that history and claim, ‘I don’t have anything to do with that.’ But we can’t just keep denying that racism has operated for generations and is still happening.” Reading books such Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy can help white people understand and dismantle their biases.
9. Initiate Conversations, Including Uncomfortable Ones
Frank Nitty, who has led Black Lives Matter marches in Milwaukee since May, encourages participants to speak with family, friends and others about racism and its impacts. Khalil Coleman, another BLM leader and longtime organizer, said in a recent Milwaukee Press Club interview: “It’s very important for allies to help protect black lives…It’s critical for white people to… talk with other white people about racism, about how when black lives are affected, all lives are affected.” He hopes the marches will “agitate, educate and organize for better outcomes” in terms of democracy and justice for all.
10. Support Change Agents
Markasa Tucker directs the African-American Roundtable, “a coalition led by and serving the African American community in Milwaukee” and part of Wisconsin Voices. Tucker spoke about “fighting the injustice of systematic racism” when interviewed for the “This Is Milwaukee” project, and she urged supporting alternatives to policing and mass incarceration, as well as for violence prevention that addresses root causes, including poverty and mental health challenges.
Individuals can voice support for antiracist policies to legislators, other decision makers and advocates. For example, a coalition of local black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) theater professionals recently wrote an open letter on shepherdexpress.com to theater leaders, executives and partners to acknowledge racism within Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s theater communities. Seventy-some individuals called for implementing specific antiracist policies. Voicing solidarity with that coalition could help amplify their efforts.
11. Challenge the Status Quo
Tucker deeply studied the City of Milwaukee’s budget in 2018, met with legislators and dissected allocations. She sought to grasp how and why half of the city’s spending funds policing, leaving other needs underfunded. In 2019, Tucker co-led the “Liberate MKE” campaign in which 1,100 people were interviewed about what they wanted to see in the city’s budget to address targeted needs. She said, “True democracy requires providing accessible spaces and tools” for people to participate in processes in which they often are left out and changing policy “to positively affect people’s lives… It’s about being listened to and respected.”
We can all assess policies and practices wherever we work, live, study, shop and gather—to evaluate whether they support antiracism or racism—and then commit to taking some action. As James Baldwin wrote in 1962, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
12. Respect Knowledge and Wisdom
People who identify as white need to remember that efforts countering centuries of racism have been ongoing for generations by people facing its impacts. Antiracist work must be informed by relevant study, listening to people of color and inclusive representation within all levels of organizations.
John W. Daniels Jr., a longtime Milwaukee civic leader and chairman emeritus of Quarles & Brady (where he was hired in 1974 as the firm’s first African American attorney), told the Profiles in Diversity Journal: “Inclusion isn’t just a virtue, it’s the face of reality, business and otherwise. Daniels pointed to “data in just about every business sector demonstrating the benefit of inclusion. For those who are able to see, understand and act on this, it offers yet another competitive advantage… It does, however, require an absolute commitment from the very top of the organization as well as a commitment to accountability.”
Virginia Small is a veteran journalist and communications professional. The Milwaukee Press Club recently awarded her a silver medal for a story published in the Shepherd Express.
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