My Backstory colleague Jim Rowen (who also wasn't on Backstory yesterday) has written an interesting post on racial residential segregation in Milwaukee. He cites statistics that show our area has a large degree of racial concentration and wonders why SEWRPC hasn't "done something" about it.
I have an amateur's interest in the topic. In the mid to late 8os, as a young lawyer at Foley & Lardner, I was part of a team of ten lawyers from five firms who represented 24 suburban school districts in a metropolitan desegregation case brought by MPS which, even then, was rapidly running out of white students with which to integrate. The case settled after three months of trial on terms that represented pretty much of a rout for the suburbs. The suburbs essentially agreed to expand the number of seats allocated to the 220 program as long as they had them and the state would pay them to do it.
But revisiting the case is not the point here. The Eastern District of Wisconsin Bar Association did a retrospective on the case last year that made me feel ancient. (At least I was a child when I did this.) Our topic here is residential segregation.
I was assigned by my senior colleague Tom Shriner to work on that aspect of the case in which MPS alleged that residential racial segregation was caused by
government action. (Tom worked on big thoughts at which he was - and still is - incomparable.) My partner in that task was now- Magistrate Judge Bill Callahan who was then at Davis & Kuelthau. We worked with a team of experts at UCLA and the Rand Corporation. While I haven't kept up with all of the social science, some of what we learned then is pertinent to the issue that Jim raises.
Preference is a huge element in racial residential segregation. Two things are at work. First, people tend not to want to make dramatic moves away from their friends and families. Thus, when a group of people who have originally moved to the central city ( fairly typical for lots of ethnic groups) move out, they tend to fan out in the same direction. For the black population in Milwaukee, this has resulted in a movement to the north and west. If you look at census tract maps of racial concentration over time, this looks like an expanding slice of pie starting near the downtown and extending toward the northwest.
This would not, in and of itself, result in the racial concentration that we see today. It hasn't for other ethnic groups that have engaged in similar patterns of movement. But there are things about race that are different. Not only is their less intermarriage (which would expand a couple's web of connections), but there is what demographers called the 80:20/50:50 dilemma. Both whites and blacks report that they are willing to live in an integrated neighborhood, but blacks do not want to live in a white neighborhood and whites don't want to live in a black one.
The problem is that blacks and whites define these terms differently. For whites, a neighborhood that is more than 20% black is black. For blacks, a neighborhood that is less than 50% black is white. It's a tad more complicated than this (and perhaps now made more so by the multi-polar racial environment that we increasingly live in), but the point was that the preferences for integration are not compatible.
Milwaukee is not as unique as it is claimed to be. One of the things that you heard then and hear now is that the Milwaukee metropolitan area has fewer blacks living in the suburbs than other metro areas. That was largely true then and I suspect it still is.
But if you ignored municipal boundaries and just plotted racial concentration on metro area maps, Milwaukee looked a lot like other rust belt cities (Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit) with similar racial histories and economic profiles.
The reason that Milwaukee had fewer blacks in suburbs was the city's huge geographical size, largely a result of former Mayor Ziedler's annexation program in the late 50s bringing a lot of open space to the north and west of the city within its borders. (In fact, city officials marketed that part of town as "a suburb in the city.")
The most significant government contribution to segregation had nothing to do with race. One of the things that we did was a computer simulation that "reassigned" black households to the suburbs based on their ability to afford suburban housing. The simulation showed that economics was a huge factor in explaining the dearth of blacks in the suburbs but it could not explain all of it. Lots of black families could afford to move to the suburbs but did not.
Then we did the simulation again "holding back" municipal employees who were not free to move to the suburbs because of the residency rules of the city government and MPS. It turned out that an extremely large proportion of the black middle class in Milwaukee worked for these entities and that the residency rule was probably the most significant government policy contributing to residential segregation.
There was a lot more to the case than that. We talked about zoning, the placement of public housing, racially restrictive covenants, etc. (I remember conducting a particularly delicious cross examination of the plaintiff's expert on public housing.) The point was - and I think still is - that residential racial segregation is largely the result of factors that government did - and can do - little about.