Leaders see progress, setbacks in race relations

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This is the last in a series of five articles looking at social justice issues facing Milwaukee.

When Rashad Younger started at Marquette, he found he had to adjust to the city of Milwaukee.

"I come from a diverse city (Denver), and coming to one of the most segregated cities was difficult," said Younger, a senior in the College of Communication and president of Black Student Council.

In part because of the existing ethnic segregation in Milwaukee, fostering diversity is difficult, and racism still has a grip on the city. For the two largest groups of minorities in Milwaukee, blacks and Latinos, the struggle against racism has been challenging, and there is a long way to go.

For John Fitzgerald, a policy analyst for the Milwaukee Interfaith Conference, "the issue of racism is as important, difficult and entrenched," as it was when he started in Milwaukee 25 years ago.

With blacks comprising 37.3 percent of Milwaukee's population and the rapidly-growing Hispanic population making up 12 percent of the city's population, according to 2000 Census data, the city is much more diverse than the state as a whole, in which 88.9 percent of residents are Caucasian.

Greg Wesley, chair of the Milwaukee Urban League, has only been in the city seven years, but he has seen a lot of changes in race relations.

"There have been many advancements and many setbacks," he said.

He points to the business community's improved diversity, and the visitor's bureau's efforts to attract more diverse people to visit and perhaps live in the city.

But the city has suffered setbacks.

The October 2004 alleged beating of Frank Jude Jr., a black man, by several off-duty police officers has stirred up tensions between city police and the black community.

"From a person outside looking in, it widens an already huge gap between minorities and the police department," Wesley said.

Younger agreed.

"It's a reflection of the city," he said. The fact that the Jude story was picked up nationwide, he said, made the problems worse.

But Milwaukee Police Chief Nan Hegerty has been trying to improve relations between the police and the black community, Wesley said.

Hegerty has also been working with the Latino community, according to Maria Monreal-Cameron, the president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin.

"She embraces the philosophy of community-oriented policing," which encourages local communities to work with police to help prevent and solve crime, she said.

Monreal-Cameron, who was born and raised in Milwaukee, remembers when police chiefs were not as willing or able to work with the minority communities. She said changes came with the appointment of Philip Arreola as chief in 1989. Arreola, who is Hispanic, implemented the community-oriented policing program.

Monreal-Cameron, who has relatives in the Milwaukee police force, cautioned that the Jude story "shouldn't be a reflection of Milwaukee police as a whole."

But another setback occured in 2004, when Mark Belling, a radio host at WISN-AM, used a derogatory term to describe illegal Mexican immigrants.

Belling's comments brought to the forefront many questions regarding how Latinos are treated in the community, according to Enrique Figueroa, the director of the Roberto Hernandez Center, which works to increase the presence of Latinos at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"But the Latino community organized well" and challenged Belling, Figueroa said.

A pressing issue is the lack of interaction between Caucasians and minorities, Younger said.

"Without any interaction, people make their own perceptions and don't give minorities a chance to show who they truly are," Younger said. Thus many people developed biases against minorities, he said.

But bringing people together to discuss issues is a challenge.

"There are certain individuals who have good intentions, but we need more than good intentions," Wesley said.

Some see improvements in the future, but caution that much work is needed.

"Racism exists and will always exist," Monreal-Cameron said. "And we are certainly targets of biases, of prejudices. But with the proper people in positions of authority, I think things will continue to improve."

Wesley is also optimistic.

"The best thing people can do to improve (race relations) is look at it honestly," he said.

But Younger disagrees. He plans to leave Milwaukee and go back to Denver or to the East Coast when he graduates.

Milwaukee's "not a place where I want to live," Younger said. "I don't see (improvement) happening any time soon. You can't make people just change their ways."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 17 2005.