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By Reggie Jackson and Bo McMillan
The Redress Movement is an emerging racial justice organization that aims to organize racially and ethnically diverse local movements in communities throughout the U.S. We help residents to build and wield collective power needed to redress residential segregation of their own and neighboring communities.
The latest research from Professor Raj Chetty and a team of researchers at Opportunity Insights, elucidating the critical role of social capital in upward income mobility, fits into the work Redress is doing. It provides the type of data which helps us in our work to build a community well-informed of practices which can help reduce the damage caused by decades of segregation policies and practices.
One of the cities where Redress is working is Milwaukee, WI. Milwaukee has been rated as the most racially segregated metropolitan area for a number of decades (Shelbourne, 2020). This segregation has resulted in wide economic disparities among the Black and Latinx communities as compared to their White peers, in terms of income and wealth as well as in terms of economic mobility (Levine, 2020).
The study by Opportunity Insights states “…that about half of the social disconnection across socioeconomic lines—measured as the difference in the share of high-socioeconomic status (SES) friends between low- and high-SES people—is explained by differences in exposure to high-SES people in groups such as schools and religious organizations. The other half is explained by friending bias—the tendency for low-SES people to befriend high-SES people at lower rates even conditional on exposure.” We might think about exposure as the physical fact of segregation, and “friending-bias” as the cultural effects that grow from and sometimes lead to segregation.
In Milwaukee, the data shows very clearly a relationship between segregation and significant differences in economic connectedness across racial and ethnic lines. The lowest ratings are in the predominately Black areas within the city of Milwaukee. By contrast, the areas with higher economic connectedness tend to be found in the mostly White east side of the city and surrounding suburbs. As an example, in the 53206 zip code in Milwaukee, data suggests that only 20.2% of the friends of low income residents have high income (Opportunity Insights, 2022). In Milwaukee’s nearest eastern suburb of Wauwatosa, the data shows that 51.7% of the friends of low-income residents have high income friends. This is fairly consistent with other suburban communities within Milwaukee County.
Two things can explain this from the exposure side of the Opportunity Insights study: the pay gap between White and Black Milwaukeeans (the median Black household income in Milwaukee County in 2021 was $35,040, compared to $69,426 for White households) and the fact that low-income Black households are often more economically segregated than low-income White households, in addition to facing racial segregation.
At Redress we are interested in attacking every dimension of segregation. This means we are just as interested in the institutional ways to correct for the “friending bias” that causes social groups to segregate into different levels of opportunity as well as the residential segregation that conditions “friending bias” in the first place.
Schools are a great place to start from a standpoint of intergenerational mobility. According to a recent report by Marc Levine, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, Milwaukee has the highest rate of school segregation in the nation’s fifty largest cities (Levine, 2022). Per Levine’s research, Milwaukee has the highest percentage of Black students attending hyper segregated (90% or more non-white students) schools in the fifty largest metro areas in the country. Seven in ten Black students in Milwaukee attend these hyper segregated schools. A May 2022 report from the Century Foundation confirmed his findings, ranked the Milwaukee metro area as having the highest Black-White levels of school segregation in the nation and the third highest segregation between White students and all students of color.
The data from Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Index shows almost all of the hyper-segregated high schools Black students in Milwaukee attend have an economic connectedness rating below 30%. The lowest of these is North Division High School where 97.7% of students are Black and Latinx and not a single White student attends according to 2021-2022 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction School Report Card data (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2022). Among the students at North Division, only 16.5% of the friends of low-income students have high income friends. By contrast, at Shorewood High School, only a little more than three miles northeast of North Division, 76.9% of low-income students have high-income friends.
Milwaukee has long had racist housing policies which have led to segregated schools (Jackson, 2018). Civil rights leaders in the 1960s also understood that these policies of segregation extended to schools. Through marches and other actions, they protested this injustice.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s project “March on Milwaukee” documents how Lloyd Barbee formed a coalition of over a dozen civil rights, religious, labor, social, and political groups under an umbrella organization known as the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) in March 1964 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, March on Milwaukee Timeline). MUSIC’s primary goal was to eliminate segregation in Milwaukee’s public schools through coordinated direct action, such as sit-ins and boycotts.” Later attorney Barbee filed a federal lawsuit challenging the segregation of schools in Milwaukee, Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee. On January 19, 1976, Federal judge John Reynolds issued a ruling: “I have concluded that segregation exists in the Milwaukee public schools and that this segregation was intentionally created and maintained by the defendants.”
A year earlier, in 1975, Wisconsin lawmakers created the Chapter 220 program which provided busing for black city students to attend suburban schools, and suburban students to attend specialty “magnet schools” in the city. This was the first attempt by the state of Wisconsin to address the segregated schools in Milwaukee. Since the program was ended by the state legislature in 2015 the pathway to integrated schools has made a 180-degree shift back to where it was in the 1960s, when efforts were first made to fight segregated schooling in the city (Children in Urban America Project). The city’s schools now have the same percentage of Black students attending hyper segregated schools as it did in the mid-1960s (Levine, 2020). This is not just a city problem, but a metropolitan one. The state’s open enrollment program, which offers students the ability to attend outside of their neighborhood schools has largely taken the place of Chapter 220 (Quirk, 2014). The Open Enrollment program does not provide transportation assistance like Chapter 220, so many poorer students within the city cannot get out to the suburban schools.
Chapter 220 led to a large increase in integrated schools in Milwaukee. This created a higher threshold for economic connectedness in metro Milwaukee while the Chapter 220 program lasted. Though the program never had the number of students participating that the state expected, it did increase the number of Black students attending suburban schools. A look at the usage of Open Enrollment versus Chapter 220, shows a large loss of Black students in most suburban school districts since the Chapter 220 program ended. The social capital gained by those students will not be available for that smaller number of Black students in suburban schools today.
Dynasty Caesar, a field organizer for the Redress Movement and a former Chapter 220 student, offers perspective on the potential reasons for this low participation. She felt the program was lacking in two very important ways. First, in the schools she attended, there was not a specific support mechanism to help the Black students who were placed into formerly nearly all-white schools. She said the students had to depend on each other as they navigated the constant racism they faced in the suburbs. The other main issue she found was that the program, by placing Black students in an environment with students of much higher socioeconomic status, left them paying for breakfast and lunch in the new schools, whereas in Milwaukee these meals were provided for free because of families’ low incomes. Dynasty felt the biggest benefit for her personally was the ability to see firsthand the racism in the suburban school environment, and learning how to recognize it and deal with it proactively by advocating for the Chapter 220 students. Learning and growing from that recognition was not necessarily an easy path.
Chapter 220-style programs are also not the only or necessarily best path that local governments can have to take in order to foster economic connectedness. Another city where Redress works, Charlotte, North Carolina, formerly provided a great example of one such alternative. Following the Swann desegregation case of 1971, Charlotte organized its public school system so that each school in the system had a student population that matched the overall demographics of the Charlotte area. Both Black and White students had to participate in desegregating schools, rather than a minority of Black students being forced to move to fix their own segregation (Grundy, 2020). For decades, Charlotte had the most integrated public school system in the U.S. and students—Black and White—thrived in this setting (Smith, 2016). It was such a point of local pride that Charlotteans legendarily greeted Ronald Reagan with an icy quiet in the 1980s when he talked negatively of forced busing (Nazaryan, 2018). Though a lawsuit from a white suburban parent then ended the desegregation program in Charlotte by the early 2000s, its impact on fostering economic connectedness by providing an institutional environment in which all children had a fair chance to make friends while also disincentivizing segregation is clear. One study following up on the results of the end of the Swann desegregation program found that a return to neighborhood schools led to an uptick of residential segregation in the city (Liebowitz and Page, 2014).
The data from the Social Capital Report will certainly be a valuable tool for the Redress Movement. We can take a closer look at segregation’s impacts on students while developing tools to redress the damage caused by segregated schools in places like Milwaukee and Charlotte.
The impact of programs like Wisconsin’s Chapter 220 program are necessarily limited by the fact that the cross-class exposure children experience occurs only at school. The questions that we therefore have as researchers and as advocates based on our studies of Milwaukee and Charlotte are as follows: How can we extend these social networks to spaces outside of school, and how can we make the schools where children interact more inclusive for low-income children of color? And how does the continuing “friending bias” caused by segregated lives outside of school affect children’s experience of integration in a program like Chapter 220? These are crucial questions we will need to understand as Professor Chetty’s optimistic research moves into practice.
Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, 408 F. Supp. 765 (1976)
Children in Urban America Project, “Race and Education: The Integration of Milwaukee Public Schools, 1960s-1980s
Grundy, Pamela. “Black History of Charlotte Part 5: The Battle Over Desegregation in Charlotte.” Queen City Nerve, 25 September 2020.
Jackson, Reggie. “Redlining, Racism, and Reflection with Reggie Jackson,” Jewish Museum Milwaukee on YouTube, March 1, 2018
Liebowitz, David J. and Lindsay C. Page. “Does School Policy Affect Housing Choices?” Evidence from the End of Desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.” American Education Research Journal 51, no. 4 (2014): 671-703.
Levine, Marc V. “The State of Black Milwaukee in National Perspective: Racial Inequality in the Nation’s 50 Largest Metropolitan Areas In 65 Charts and Tables,” College of Letters and Science Center for Economic Development, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, July 20, 2020
Nazaryan, Alexander. “School Segregation in America is as Bad Today as it Was in the 1960s.” Newsweek, 22 March 2018.
Opportunity Insights, Social Capital Atlas (data for Valley Forge, Milwaukee, WI), 2022
Quirk, Kathy. “Open Enrollment eroding Chapter 220, case study contends,” UWM Report, March 16, 2014
Shelbourne, Talis. “UWM study on the state of Black Milwaukee describes the city as ‘the epitome of a 21st century racial regime,’” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 24, 2020
Smith, Clint. “The Desegregation and Resegregation of Charlotte’s Schools.” New Yorker, 3 October 2016.
The Redress Movement, Website, 2022, https://redressmovement.org/.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, “March on Milwaukee Timeline.”
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, School & District Report Cards, 2022.
Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, “School Integration (Chapter 220) Aid,” January 2003
Reggie Jackson (email@example.com) is an award-winning journalist and a co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners. He is a researcher for The Redress Movement. Bo McMillan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Columbia University Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on narratives of neighborhood change in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is a researcher for The Redress Movement.