Community Forum on Race Relations in Racine County, Wisconsin

Chapter 4

Committee Observations

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan agency of the federal government charged with studying discrimination or denials of equal protection on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin. In each of the 50 states, an Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has been established made up of responsible persons who serve without compensation to advise the Commission of relevant information concerning its respective state on matters within the jurisdiction of the Commission.

To ensure its independence and bipartisanship, the Wisconsin Advisory Committee is constituted to include individuals representing both major political parties, a broad spectrum of political philosophies, and different geographic regions of the state. Furthermore, the Committee is independent of any national, state, or local administration, political organization, philosophy, or advocacy group.

In the past eight years the Wisconsin Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has undertaken a number of studies on race-related issues. These have included studies on affirmative action, police protection, civil rights of the Hmong, American Indian treaty rights, and equal educational opportunity.

The Wisconsin Advisory Committee comes to Racine, a diverse and relatively large metropolitan area, to examine race relations issues. In the experience of the Advisory Committee, race relations in Racine are unlikely to be much better or worse than most other cities of its size and diversity in the state. The particular degree and manifestation of racial and ethnic inequity in Racine might vary from that of other Wisconsin communities, but the essential issues concerning race in the city of Racine and the surrounding community are probably typical of other such communities in many respects.

Thirty years ago by accounts received at the public hearing, manifestations of racism and racial and ethnic discrimination in Racine and the surrounding community were overt and flagrant. Discriminatory practices and policies in employment and housing against African Americans and other minority groups generally received widespread toleration and acceptance from the white community. Hostility and oppressive acts along racial and ethnic lines were commonplace, and the deliberate alienation of minority communities was acceptable social policy.

Since that time there has been an improvement in race relations within and around the Racine community. Egregious racist language and behavior are no longer tolerated by the vast majority of people, white or people of color, living and working in the metropolitan Racine area. 

In addition, efforts and programs have been implemented to effect positive change and provide equal opportunity. Legislation prohibiting discrimination has become public policy. Affirmative action programs in education and employment have been initiated. A climate of racial and ethnic tolerance has been fostered, and civic and community leaders unanimously disclaim bigotry and racial and ethnic intolerance. 

These are positive developments and the Advisory Committee lauds these efforts. But such initiatives should not be interpreted to mean that racial and ethnic bigotry has dissipated or that acts of discrimination in employment, housing, and education are things of the past. After 30 years of efforts to ensure equal opportunity, significant disparities in employment, housing, income, and education along racial and ethnic lines persist in the Racine metropolitan area. 

Minorities remain concentrated in the lowest paying and least desirable clerical and service sector jobs, while whites dominate the managerial and professional jobs (see table 3). African Americans remain significantly underrepresented in the city’s work force (see table 4). Minorities are disproportionately expelled from schools in the Racine Unified School District (see table 5).

In listening to the community testify on race relations and racial tensions, the Wisconsin Advisory Committee heard frustration and desperation among many people of color in the Racine community, particularly among those in the working class. Their message was clear: though most flagrant displays of egregious racist language and behavior and attitudes are no longer tolerated by the vast majority of people in the community, underlying barriers to real equal opportunity in employment, housing, and education appear to persist. 

The evidence of such barriers comes from the observation of existing social conditions. If such barriers were not in place, clearly a more proportionate distribution of income, quality housing, and educational achievements would be observed across racial and ethnic lines. That such is not observed and that overt discrimination is no longer legal or an accepted social norm implies that barriers to equal opportunity must remain lodged in some place other than in the external policies and operations of government, businesses, employers, and schools.

The Wisconsin Advisory Committee offers that barriers to equal opportunity continue to exist in the Racine community, but are often invisible to direct observation and difficult to discern because these remaining underlying barriers to equal opportunity are for the most part internal. Specifically, sentiment seems to persist among many in the white community that people of racial and ethnic minorities, i.e., people of color, are inherently less valuable and less desirable as neighbors, workers, customers, and students. So even though external changes regarding race relations have occurred, they have not been accompanied by similar changes in deep-seated attitudes.

Moreover, the removal of the visible external and legal forms of discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodation may even serve to perpetuate and reinforce these attitudinal barriers. For both the removal of external barriers to equal opportunity and the development of societal intolerance for overt expressions of bigotry served as evidence to many in the white community that racial and ethnic discrimination had ended and that equal opportunity was now a reality for everyone. Essentially, with the overt barriers to equal opportunity dismantled the white community could now believe itself exonerated from further responsibility in resolving racial and ethnic inequalities.

Now 30 years after the struggle to dismantle legalized forms of discrimination received public support, dialogue on race and ethnic relations has all but ended. The little discussion that is held occurs with minimal participation or attention from members of the white community. Without an honest and forthright discussion on race relations and civil rights issues, which includes all groups, lingering attitudes subconsciously affecting decisions on many levels persist. The result becomes noticeable in Racine, as well as in many other communities in Wisconsin. Minority and white communities exist as virtually separate communities, and people of color are relegated to the less desirable jobs, housing, and social status.

Though conscious of the disparities between the different racial and ethnic groups, many in the white community blithely continue in this separate existence reluctant to engage in an open, honest, and meaningful dialogue on the subject of race relations that would challenge the status quo. That is the real obstacle to ultimately resolving the race problem in Racine.

Healing racial divisions and confronting and addressing deep-seated racial and ethnic prejudice are difficult and discomforting. As long as there is little introspection on these issues at a personal level, individuals are free to deny any culpability for the racial and ethnic disparities that exist. Political, corporate, educational, and religious institutions then follow suit, relegating these issues to the bottom of the social agenda. 

In Racine, barriers to equal opportunity remain. Though hidden from view, unacknowledged prejudicial attitudes operate as very real barriers negatively affecting people of color. Citizens in the Racine metropolitan area, like the rest of Wisconsin and the rest of the United States, are not “color” blind and do not live in a “color” blind society. The people in the Racine metropolitan area, as those in the rest of Wisconsin and in the country, see color, and the color of a person’s skin colors their perception of that person as a neighbor, a worker, a customer, a student.

As long as individuals are unwilling to acknowledge their role in racial and ethnic injustice and institutions are unwilling to make racial and ethnic justice a priority, there is little chance that the racial and ethnic problems will be resolved. Only when the white community and those in power start to acknowledge what they see, will equal opportunity have a chance to become a reality for people of color.