In the country’s long history of racial strife, a few cities have become flashpoints: Los Angeles. Chicago. Ferguson, Missouri. Baltimore.
But by many measures, there is no tougher place to be black in America than Milwaukee, where in recent days the shooting death of a black man by a black police officer has led to violent protests, riots that destroyed businesses and gunfire.
The city of 600,000 along Lake Michigan is also the country’s most segregated metropolitan area, surpassing larger, deeply divided Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, a 2012 Manhattan Institute analysis of census data found.
The overwhelming majority of the black residents who make up 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population are concentrated on its north side — where the rioting and Saturday’s shooting occurred — and away from the breweries and festivals that draw tourists to the waterfront.
People living on the north side are far more likely to live in poverty, to be incarcerated or to be out of work than those in the city overall or the metro area, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report. Wisconsin also has the highest rate of black unemployment of any state, and it leads the country in the number of black men behind bars, with 1 out of 8 in prison or jail as of the 2010 census, another study found.
It is a reality that most people don’t see or hear about, in part because Milwaukee’s size often excludes it from nationwide rankings or news accounts of big-city problems. Some community leaders also have preferred not to publicize the issues, said state Sen. Lena Taylor, who still lives on the same north side block where she grew up.
“We’ve always been known as a city with a small-town mentality,” Taylor said. “We’re a destination. We don’t want people to be afraid to come to Milwaukee.”
There’s also a misconception among outsiders about Wisconsin, she said.
“They don’t also think we have black people.”
The state is investigating the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith, whom Milwaukee police say was shot after he turned toward an officer with a gun in his hand. Police say the 23-year-old was fleeing after a traffic stop.
Police Chief Edward Flynn has blamed protesters from outside of Milwaukee for much of the unrest, saying protests and prayer vigils had been peaceful Sunday until a group from Chicago showed up.
But the protests of recent days follow decades of racial tension, particularly between the black community and police.
Cecil Brewer, 67, lives near the gas station rioters burned on Saturday night. He’s lived in Milwaukee for the last 14 or 15 years, and said black people have a target on them. He’s constantly afraid an officer will pull him over.
“It’s a form of racism that if you haven’t lived it, you can’t understand it,” he said. “People look at me because of the color of my skin. It’s messed up.”
Many of Milwaukee’s black families came to the area after World War II to work in the city’s factories, where good-paying jobs were plentiful.
Then came the fight for civil rights. After a 1967 riot turned deadly, a white priest, the Rev. James Groppi, led 200 nights of marches to push for fair housing laws. Joining him on some of those marches was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader who participated in similar marches across the country.
The story of struggle in Milwaukee’s black community is similar to what has happened in other cities across the U.S., Jackson said Monday. The factories closed or moved jobs to the suburbs or overseas. A lack of transportation made it tougher for people to find work, and poverty led to violence and other problems, Jackson said.
“This is another classic box car on the train of urban neglect,” he said of Milwaukee. “You have a jobs desert. People have no place to work.”
According to a 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Wisconsin’s black unemployment rate was nearly 20 percent in 2014.
The numbers are even bleaker in Milwaukee’s north side. A study of what’s considered the most disadvantaged zip code found that just over a third of men ages 20 to 64 living there were employed, compared with 78 percent in the greater metro area.
That 2014 study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Marc Levine also found nearly half of residents lived below the poverty line, compared with 28 percent in the city overall. More than one of every five unit of housing was vacant.
Taylor also pointed to high rates of teen pregnancy and a crack cocaine epidemic that led to generations of “kids who raised themselves.” There also have been incidents involving police, such as the shooting of a mentally ill black man by an officer in 2014.
She said what may be most surprising is that the anger didn’t simmer over sooner.
“What you have are individuals who have been devalued, who have a lack of opportunity … who don’t see any hope,” Taylor said. “When you put all that in one pot, it’s like a pressure cooker. At some point, you have to have a release.”