By TONY PALMER
In mid-August the town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in protest after a police officer killed an unarmed African-American teen. A troubling legacy of the so-called “War on Terror” is the militarization of local police forces, so law enforcement officials responded to the protest by treating Ferguson like Fallujah. Even journalists on the scene from establishment sources like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Al Jazeera America found themselves being assaulted, tear gassed, and arrested for having the audacity to report on the events.
Trying to avoid accusations of a hurricane Katrina style of management by indifference and incompetence, Barack Obama and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon did their best to avoid allusions to George Bush and Kathleen Blanco. The President was forced to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to make a banal statement about police transparency and protecting press freedom. Nixon came out of his own slumber sounding about as un-Nixonian as an American politician can get. He said that Ferguson “looked like a war zone and that’s not acceptable…Literally, the eyes of the nation are upon us.”
Nixon’s comments beg some important questions. Why does it take a tragic murder or a natural disaster to get the “eyes of the nation” on cities and towns already struggling under the weight of economic depression and neglect? Why do national, state, and even local media consistently minimize, ignore, sweep under the rug or (worse) sensationalize race issues? How can we defuse time bombs if we tune out the ticking?
Sadly, the state of Wisconsin is one of the worst offenders when it comes to refusing to deal with race issues. Not just our media, but our politicians, educators, business leaders, and even the clergy cannot or will not bring themselves to say we have a problem here. Some do speak out, but their voices always sound like the glaring exceptions to the rule. From incarceration rates to health care outcomes, the racial disparities in Wisconsin are wide enough to drive a Country USA camper through. Yet somehow we managed to complete the recent primary campaign to choose nominees for state offices and, to my knowledge, not one candidate was asked any serious questions about race issues.
Wisconsin’s dreadful record on race reached a shameful low point last month when the journal Health Affairs circulated a major study on the “life expectancy gap” in the United States. According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on the study: “The discrepancy in life expectancy between black and white Americans is improving ¬ but not in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the only state in which the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites has grown significantly, particularly for women…”
Think about that: Wisconsin is the only state in which the gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites grew significantly from 1990-2010. For men, the gap increased only slightly, from 7.7 to 7.9 years. But for women, the increase was dramatic: from 4.9 years to 6.4 years. The story also pointed out that Wisconsin is now the worst state in the country for childhood opportunities for black children, a fact that correlates strongly with the life expectancy figures.
Dr. Marshall Chin is a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Finding Answers: Disparities Research initiative. He says that, “our country has been good at documenting disparities in care but poor at delivering solutions.” I think Chin is correct in terms of national trends, but in Wisconsin we do a horrendous job of documenting disparities in a way that creates the sense of urgency necessary to begin the hard work of delivering solutions.
The Journal Sentinel report of the life expectancy gap findings resulted in no sustained follow up reporting or persistent editorializing, no calls for action from think tanks or interest groups, and no attempt by the press or politicians to make the issue a part of this year’s political campaigns.
Go to the websites of the major candidates for governor and attorney general (the two offices that could probably have the greatest impact on race issues in the state) and you’ll find little evidence that the candidates have any interest in talking about race in any meaningful way.
Earlier this year the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team Donald Sterling was forced to give up ownership after tapes of him making racist comments were released. Sterling lives in California, the most diverse state in the nation. If he had been the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, one wonders if the Wisconsin press and politicians would have even summoned up the energy to condemn his remarks.
For many years we’ve needed a domestic Marshall Plan to deal with the root causes of the kind of turmoil ignited in Ferguson and the racial disparities existing in Wisconsin and other states. Instead, politicians in a bipartisan manner have spent the last 30 years giving us a “martial” plan; they’ve built more and bigger jails, turned what used to be minor infractions or misdemeanors into felonies, and militarized the police. Throw in the excessive state surveillance bureaucracy and we’re left looking like a kind of East Germany 2.0.
As for us Badgers, we need to begin the work of changing our “Sterling” reputation.
Tony Palmeri (email@example.com) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh