Saturday, April 18, 2020

Wisconsin as Worst Place to Be Black in US and Recent Voting Débacle: These Are Related, in a State Whose Citizens Are a Quarter Catholic

For those seeking to understand the strange goings on recently in Wisconsin, where the US Supreme Court — to be precise, the bloc of right-wing Catholic men on the Supreme bench — forced Wisconsin voters to go out and vote during a lethal pandemic, rather than permitting them to cast votes by mail, a 2018 essay by S. Ani Mukherji's in Boston Review is necessary reading. It's entitled "The Worst Place to Black in the U.S. Is Wisconsin: Racism and the Wisconsin Idea." The essay is a review of Dan Kaufman's book The Fall of Wisconsin, which offers a rose-tinted version of a progressive Wisconsin dismantled by the Koch brothers who — this is an open secret — bought themselves a governor in Scott Walker, who turned the state into something of a Koch bros' paradise for Republicans and a nightmarish dystopia for everyone else.

As Mukherji points out, Kaufman's rose-tinted analysis of Wisconsin's past ignores the glaring role racism has historically played in the state and continues to play today: he writes,

Kaufman’s string of isolated incidents of racism gives readers of The Fall of Wisconsin no sense of the history that has led the state to be one of the worst places to live for people of color, African Americans in particular. The toll that racism takes on Wisconsinites starts at birth. According to a 2014 report from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, black infants were three times more likely than white babies to die before reaching their first birthday (worse than the national average of twice as likely). Racist inequities continue through childhood. One in three of the state’s black families live in poverty. A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Wisconsin ranked last in the nation in preparing black children for educational and financial success. (In contrast, it ranked tenth for its preparation of white children.) UCLA researchers discovered that black high school students in Wisconsin are suspended at the highest rate in country. 
As adults, black and Latinx residents of Wisconsin face vastly higher rates of poverty, unemployment, eviction, homelessness, and incarceration. Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond found that the annual average eviction rate in predominantly African American neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most populous city, was 7.4 percent, more than 5 times the rate in predominantly white areas. During this same period, almost 4 percent of households in Hispanic neighborhoods faced eviction in any given year. For Desmond, eviction is one of two twinned processes that are destroying the city. The other process is incarceration. In Wisconsin, one in eight (12.8 percent) African American men were in state prisons and local jails during the 2010 census, the highest rate of black incarceration in the country, a full 3 percent higher than the rate in Oklahoma, the closest contender. According to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute, in 2012 about half of black male Wisconsinites in their thirties were or had been incarcerated in state correctional facilities. Wisconsin also leads the country in the incarceration of American Indians: the 2010 census found that 1 in 13 (7.6 percent) of Indigenous men in the state were serving time in state prisons and local jails.
Wisconsin also ranks next to last in the nation for its racial disparity in life expectancy. On average, black men in Wisconsin die 6.4 years before their white peers, black women 5.8 years earlier than white women. 
This grinding violence of poverty, policing, and incarceration is intermittently punctuated by spectacles of state-sanctioned racist brutality. 


The white suburbanite’s declaration that “you picked the wrong store” bespeaks the basic logic of racial segregation and racist violence that is an unforgettable fact of life for people of color in Wisconsin. These fundamental problems with Wisconsin—and with Wisconsin’s sense of itself as a bastion of enlightened liberalism—long predate Scott Walker, though. To understand this longer history, it is necessary to abandon the cherished liberal myth of the Wisconsin Idea.

Did I mention racism as a major factor in the recent glaring, internationally scorned attempt of Republican leaders of Wisconsin, backed by the bloc of right-wing Catholic men on the US Supreme bench, to try to suppress Democratic votes in Wisconsin? Right-wing Catholic men who profess to a man to be ardently "pro-life," sending voters out to risk their lives during a pandemic in the hope that lower voter turnout would favor the Republican candidate….

Right-wing Catholic men who have the staunch support of "pro-life" Catholic voters in Wisconsin….

Did I also mention that a quarter of Wisconsin's citizens are Catholics — the largest religious group in the state? "Pro-life," trot-to-Mass Catholics who played an important role in placing Donald Trump in the White House, claiming that he was the "pro-life" candidate….

Catholic racism tends to run under the radar, as Catholic voters in places like Wisconsin claim they are "only" voting "pro-life" and don't have a racist bone in their bodies. Racism is a problem in benighted places like Arkansas, not in "progressive" states like Wisconsin, they maintain. Though Wisconsin has been deemed in recent years the worst state in the nation to be African-American, and Milwaukee and Racine have recently been ranked the worst cities in the nation for African Americans….

Did I mention that Catholics — "pro-life" Catholic voters — play big role in all of this? Though many of them would not ever admit that their Republican votes have anything at all to do with racism or the need to suppress African-American votes….

In my 15 years of teaching in historically black colleges and universities, I was often told by my students that as ugly as the open racism of places like Arkansas is — and it is ugly, in the extreme — they'd far rather deal with that open racism than with the hidden smile-in-your-face-stab-you-in-the-back racism of places like Wisconsin. "Those folks like to hide their hands while they throw rocks," my students often said, as they noted that they'd rather see who's holding the rocks and throwing them, because out-in-the-open racism is much easier to combat than hidden racism that is not even acknowledged by those who harbor it in their hearts while professing to be somebody and something else.

Many Catholics are happy to see white evangelicals raked over the coals in the era of Donald Trump — and, Lord knows, white evangelicals deserve all the revulsion they have managed to elicit in the American public in this era — but many of those same Catholics smiling at the discomfiting of white evangelicals have rocks in their hands, too. The role white Catholics played in places like Wisconsin in the Trump election, and the role Catholic men on the Supreme Court continue playing in the Trump era, is hardly any credit to American Catholicism.

Not in the least.

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