Saturday, June 07, 2014

Penzey's and prejudice

So here's a little story about public discourse in Milwaukee.

There's a fellow named Bill Penzey. He owns a spice business and is apparently given to putting his political opinions in cloying newsletters that he calls a "Note from Bill.  A recent "Note" got a bit of attention because it seemed to attack most of the people in Waukesha County.

Penzey thinks that Waukesha's growth was fueled on racism - on "white flight" from "diversity" -  and that this its current political preferences are a product of this. He suggests that the dominant view in Waukesha somehow represents a "different attitude" that is divorced from its historic commitment to abolitionism -  as if there was some continuity between abolitionists and modern day liberals (who often have no problem with treating people based on the color of their skin).

Alex Runner - who hates him some Waukesha - wants to go to bat for this guy.   He can't stand the fact that Purple Wisconsin blogger Ashley Schultz let Penzey have it.*

That surprises me. I would think that anyone who wants to start a thoughtful and unencumbered dialogue about the relationship with between the city and the suburbs would see Penzey's "Note" as a  sophomoric equivalent of "go east of 124th Street and you'll die" view that I think is too prevalent on the other side of the debate.

But apparently I'm wrong, so let's review what's wrong with the Note from Bill.

Penzey begins by invoking a Milwaukee that never existed. He says that Milwaukee's government was "progressive" in the '50s and decided to" let diversity in." While it is true that there was a large influx of African Americans in the immediate post war period, it is hardly the case that Milwaukee's then-socialist government "embraced" them.

The new arrivals were restricted to the near North side. Now I think that there are lots of reasons to expect new arrivals to cluster - and over time -  to stay together, but my friends on the left don't agree. For them, it is worth noting that this "progressive" city government never enacted a fair housing ordinance. That did not happen until 1968 - eight years after they left power. If someone "let diversity in," it wasn't Milwaukee's "progressive" socialists. (Nor did the socialists lay the groundwork for the "rediscovery" of Milwaukee sixty years later, but that's another topic.)

Penzey then goes on to suggest that people left Milwaukee because they did not like this "change" to greater diversity.  Surely they would have stayed in their aging bungalows and duplexes and resisted the temptation of green space and newer homes if not for the presence of black people miles away from where most of them lived.  No, these people who headed for Waukesha were "not ready" for Milwaukee's enlightenment and, sadly, most (but not all) of their children and grandchildren still aren't.

In response, Ms. Schultz suggested that maybe some of them really did want larger yards and a bit more quiet. Perhaps they wanted good schools and less crime.

Alex Runner is having none of that. He writes:
Schultz admits that her parents partook in the flight from Milwaukee, saying that they simply wanted some "quiet" and "more land." In other words, it was just a coincidence that all the white people realized their yards were too small at the exact same time minorities started moving in. Amazing!

It's not amazing at all. We shouldn't be surprised that the post war period saw folks moving out of the city without regard to race. Your average American family couldn't have dreamed of a three to four bedroom house on a half to one acre plot of land in an area with good schools and little crime in 1945. Since then, there has been a substantial increase in household wealth with more families owning cars and larger houses. Expressways made it easier to move around the country than it was before. (I know, I know. Mobility is bad.)

In fact, the city had to use residency requirements to prohibit its own employees from decamping.  Oh, this desire is ticky tacky, I know, but given a choice, many people - even many minorities - prefer a home of their own with lots of green around it.  They want these things, moreover,  without regard to the color of the person living next door. Indeed, when I was growing up at 70th and Forest Home, the saying was that Franklin was where you moved when your Dad made foreman.

Nor can the express desire to escape the "problems" of the city be reduced to concerns about race. I know lots of people who wanted to live in the city.  They were on board with diversity and wanted to be urban pioneers. But, in the end, they simply couldn't abide crime and poor schools. They weren't willing to sacrifice their families for their politics. They each became the fabled liberal who has been mugged.

This is not to say that no right thinking person would ever want to stay in Milwaukee. It has many charms. But you don't have to be a racist to prefer the suburbs. (Indeed, it'd be interesting to know where Penzey lives. Is it in an area from which the middle class has fled ?)

Penzey then equates this rejection of diversity with a failure to embrace the platform of the Democratic party. In his view, "continued defunding of inner city schools, the congressman's talk of bell curves and lack of effort on the part of those who live in the city, and the legislature's talk of secession" is nothing more than a message that America is only for some and not for others. This, he said, could only be a way to get votes in Waukesha.

Maybe it would be if any of it had ever happened. Inner city schools have not been defunded. In fact, spending has steadily increased over the years.  No "congressman" (he means Paul Ryan) spoke of bell curves or even, strictly speaking, lack of effort.  Ryan spoke about disconnection from the world of work and the cultural disarray that frustrates policy. So do many black leaders.

Ryan did cite the work of Charles Murray (and liberals like Bill Putnam) in support of his views. Murray did write a misunderstood and misrepresented, albeit flawed, book called The Bell Curve. But Ryan was referring to his more recent work, Coming Apart, that tracks the relationship between cultural decline and poverty in white communities. The Wisconsin legislature hasn't "talked" of secession - other than to belittle the idea.

But even if Penzey had accurately described the world, failure to want to spend even more money on schools that have not improved as they have received more and more money is not be racist. Recognition that things like inner city crime and fatherless kids make it all but impossible for any intervention on the part of the government to succeed is not, as Penzey says, a claim that America exists only for some. It is a difference of opinion on what it will take to make its promise a reality for everyone.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Bill Penzey's philosophy.

Indeed, Penzey seems to be ripe for the same unthinking criticism he levies at others. I note that his company's stores are all in  ... the suburbs !

Has he drawn an iron ring around Milwaukee and refused to bring his coriander across it?

Mr. Penzey, bring your spices to the masses on the other side of the digital divide who cannot order them online. Mr. Penzey, tear down that wall!  (I know that Penzey's wants to build a plant in Northridge. But that's a pretty good location for an industrial use given its relative proximity to the same evil expressway that facilitated white flight. Freeways also help fill those online sales of oregano.)

The point is not that Penzey is a closet racist. It is to remind him that perhaps he should extend to others the presumption of good faith that I am sure he expects for himself.

I wouldn't endorse a boycott of Penzey's and its owner has a right to his opinion. But here's the thing.

Bill Penzey chose to insult almost an entire county. That seems uninformed and ungenerous. In its own way, it is a failure to embrace diversity and reflects fear of  "the other" - defined here as people that don't share his junior high liberalism. If people don't want to buy his spices, he shouldn't be surprised.

Cooks can change the world in more ways than one.

* Full disclosure: I was recently elected to the board of Ms. Schultz' employer, St. Anthony's School. I believe that I recently met her, but I don't know her.


Anonymous said...

Finally same sex marriage has come to Wisconsin and gay Wisconsinites will have the same rights as all. Appling and Esenberg are a historical footnote

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I apologize for my two links. They were in absolutely poor taste and are littered with factual inaccuracies and race-baiting statements.

John Mitchell said...

Nothing race baiting about One of the finest sites discussing current issues affecting America today.

John Mitchell said...

It would appear that the deranged anony that derailed Dad29's site is up to his old tricks again.

George Mitchell said...

You would know all about that, "John."

George Mitchell said...

I would like to apologize for my actions, past and future.

John Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
George Mitchell said...

That was me, not John Mitchell. I have a problem, and I am seeking counseling.

George Mitchell said...

It was an actual poem by Maya Angelou, but whatever.