African Americans lag behind white Americans in employment and educational outcomes nationally, but University of Iowa Professor Colin Gordon’s Race in the Heartland report argues that the gap between white and black Midwesterners is among the worst in the country.
Furthermore, a related paper entitled “Wisconsin’s Extreme Racial Disparity” uses data from Gordon’s report to demonstrate that the state has the highest disparity between white and black residents in employment, bachelor’s degrees, and 8th grade math scores.
The state also ranks among the worst in the country for racial gaps in voter participation, home ownership, and incarceration.
Laura Dresser is the Associate Director of COWS, a nonprofit, nonpartisan “think-and-do tank” based at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, which partnered with the Iowa Policy Project, Policy Matters Ohio, and the Economic Policy Institute to produce the report. She says that segregationist policies hampered black communities’ ability to rebound from economic downturns.
“This inequality has gotten baked in, in very aggressive ways in the Midwest through segregation and redlining, through school citation policies [or] where people put new schools as communities grew, and where they shut schools,” Dresser argues.
“In so many ways, [those policies] helped make this incredibly segregated fabric in the urban centers of the Midwest, and then when economic crisis came to those areas, the black community was physically isolated from opportunity.”
Dresser also says that many Midwestern cities are great for white residents, but not much for their black counterparts.
“Many of the cities that rank regularly at the top of most livable cities lists — Madison, Des Moines, Minneapolis — also rank at the top of racial inequality lists, and thinking about what is it that has made these centers such good cities on that broad view while they are cities of such disparities is another theme of the report,” Dresser says.
Although Wisconsin’s disparities between its black and white residents have increased since the ‘80s, Dresser says this hasn’t always been the case.
“This wasn’t always true in Wisconsin. In the late 1970s, black folks in Wisconsin did better than the national counterpart. This was a relatively good state at that point, and so I think seeing that it changes over time also helps people consider the way that this isn’t natural or the product of something that’s inevitable and can’t be changed,” notes Dresser.
“This is the product of the structure of the economy, and that’s what the ‘Race in the Heartland’ [report], the broader picture, really emphasizes. The industrial Midwest provided a pathway to the middle-class through union manufacturing jobs in urban centers across the Midwest, and as that infrastructure was decimated in the 1980s, the disparities emerged,” Dresser adds.
The Race in the Heartland report offers a number of universal and targeted policy recommendations aimed at closing these gaps.
In addition to focused approaches, such as increasing diversity in the teaching workforce, the report recommends raising the minimum wage for all workers and changing current tax laws which disproportionately benefit wealthy white families.