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Comfort Zones
Pushing the boundaries of diversity, more racial and ethnic minorities are moving to the suburbs.

Illustration by Johanna Goodman
When West Allis Mayor Dan Devine campaigned door-to-door in 2008, he learned to say “My name is Dan Devine. I’m running for mayor.” In Spanish.

Learning a foreign language is becoming a requirement for any politician with a constituency turning “browner,” a demographic term often used to describe the blending of racial, ethnic and cultural identities. As the makeup of West Allis grows more diverse – moving from a minority population of just 274 in 1970 to nearly 11,000 in 2010 – Devine sees an acceptance of the change. 

“Some residents say they noticed that their neighborhoods have changed,” he says. “I don’t think that there’s been a big backlash, but they have noticed the increased diversity.”

At a public hearing years ago, Devine recalls, an older white woman was waiting in line to speak to the Common Council when she noticed her neighbor, an African-American man, standing behind her.

“She said ‘Hi’ to the aldermen, turned and told them, ‘This is my neighbor,’” Devine says. “Then, she put her arms around him.” 

A quiet revolution in minority migration has occurred in a number of inner-ring suburbs surrounding Milwaukee. Milwaukee County is not nearly as hypersegregated as it once was, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission used in a March 2013 housing study. 

According to the U.S. Census and SEWRPC, in 1970, a total of 114,076 minorities lived in Milwaukee County – 111,727 in the city of Milwaukee, with only 2,349 in the suburbs. Minorities made up less than 2 percent of each of the 18 suburbs’ populations. 

By 2010, the number of minorities in Milwaukee County had jumped to 432,781, out of 947,824 total county residents. Of those, 374,614 resided in Milwaukee, and another 58,167 in the suburbs – nearly 25 times as many as in 1970. In the 2010 census, minority populations comprised at least 11 percent of all but one suburban community, up from that less than 2 percent number of 1970.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Minority populations, however, are not evenly distributed throughout the suburbs. According to the 2010 data, minorities made up 41.2 percent of the population in West Milwaukee and 40.2 percent in Brown Deer. But in Hales Corners, minorities totaled 8.4 percent.

Outer-ring suburbs apparently are still off-limits for some minorities. The 2010 census showed that minorities accounted for 5.7 percent of the Washington County population (7,543 people), 6.6 percent of the Ozaukee County population (5,698), and 9.4 percent of the Waukesha County population (36,781). 

Influenced by job opportunities, housing stock and the quality of schools, the migration is an extension of the movement of minority communities within city limits, particularly in the past 20 years, says Marc Levine, history professor and director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Hispanics and Asians from Milwaukee’s near-South Side neighborhoods, for example, have continued to migrate west to contiguous suburbs such as West Milwaukee, West Allis (18 percent minorities), and Greenfield (16.7 percent), and south to St. Francis (16.4 percent) and Cudahy (15.9 percent). 

The city’s African-American population, meanwhile, has slowly expanded from the city’s near-North Side to northwest Milwaukee, to Brown Deer and Glendale (23 percent). 

“It’s a harbinger of change, a natural evolution in a society that’s beginning to get more comfortable on issues of race and ethnicity,” says Levine, who completed a study of minority suburbanization this summer. “But it’s within the context of a very rigid form of segregation. Overall, metro Milwaukee still remains the most segregated metro area of anywhere in the country.”

In 2010, racial and ethnic minorities made up 16.5 percent of Milwaukee County’s suburban population. Yet the movement of African-Americans, by far the largest minority group, has been limited. “The black middle-class has followed whites to the suburbs but not in great numbers,” says Levine. “The level of black suburbanization is much lower in Milwaukee than other metro areas.” 

According to Levine’s research, African-Americans make up only 8.6 percent of the population in metro Milwaukee’s suburbs, which includes Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties. By comparison, 49.1 percent of metropolitan Cleveland’s suburbs is African-American. In Baltimore, it’s 49 percent; Detroit, 39.7 percent. 

That disparity is reflected by this: 67 percent of Milwaukee’s black households with annual income over $200,000 is in the central city, a far higher percentage for affluent blacks than any big U.S. metro area.

“Residential choice for African-American households in Milwaukee seems to be more restrained,” Levine says, possibly a reflection of discrimination or expectations that suburbs may not welcome them.

Minority progression is a sensitive subject. Moving to the suburbs can be a challenge for minorities who seek safer neighborhoods or better job fortunes. Although some fear they won’t be accepted, those interviewed for this article are proud of their achievements and willing to push boundaries. 

“Opportunities, in general, for African-Americans are tight,” says Christopher Hinton, an African-American transplant to Mequon, where the minority population increased from 0.9 percent to 9.6 percent in the 40-year period. “But I think that if you desire to progress and you put in the planning and hard work, it is attainable. We didn’t do this on the spur of the moment. It was a plan.” 

He and wife Yolanda, also African-American, moved from Milwaukee’s Sherman Park Neighborhood last September with their two sons, 6 and 8. “People give us second looks all the time,” says Yolanda, 41, a registered nurse and case manager in the Emergency Department at Aurora’s St. Luke’s Hospital. “That’s part of the culture, being an African-American in white America.” 

“There’s more opportunity in environments that are diverse,” adds Christopher, also 41. “You’re networking with people who are exposed to things that you haven’t been aware of. The types of individuals who make up Mequon provide for my kids the opportunities to connect with families and leaders that are savvy and progressive.”

Their white next-door neighbors are very welcoming, says the couple. “We share a well with a white family, and I don’t think that you can be more intimate than that,” Yolanda says.

The Hintons’ move to the suburbs was a just a natural progression of people wanting to get ahead. They were aware of Milwaukee’s segregated reputation, they say, but they would not be stopped by it. “Even if I didn’t have friends here in Mequon, I wouldn’t be worried about coming out here,” Yolanda says. “There are so many blacks who have been here for a long time.” 

“It’s not just Mequon,” adds Christopher, a management consultant. “We know of African-American families that have moved to Cedarburg, Menomonee Falls, Grafton, Thiensville and Franklin.”

Milwaukee County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb Sr., whose district includes Glendale, Brown Deer, Bayside, Fox Point and northwest Milwaukee, is not quite as optimistic about the suburbs opening up to people of color. Lipscomb, 38, is Caucasian and married to Nicole, an African-American. The Glendale-River Hills School District had an African-American enrollment rate of about 35 percent in 2013-14. 

Nevertheless, he says, “As much as I want to believe we’ve turned the corner on being able to live where you want, there’s still a lot of evidence that we’re not there yet.” Even as the metro area has grown, he says, if you map where minorities have settled, “you’ll still see more of a minority concentration in the suburbs closer to Milwaukee.”

Zongsae and Der Vang, a Hmong couple with five children ages 11 to 22, moved to Barnard Avenue in Greenfield about six years ago. They had lived near 28th Street and Greenfield Avenue in Milwaukee.

“I tried to bring my kids to a place for a last opportunity to get away from the gang activity,” Zongsae says. “I also wanted them to go to better schools.”

Zongsae is 47 and works for the Hmong American Friendship Association as a community organizer, elderly specialist and bilingual translator. He came here in 1988 as a political refugee from Laos. 

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I didn’t know how the neighborhood functioned. They were older families, no kids, and most were retired.”

He says most of his new neighbors in Greenfield were friendly. “The neighbor across the street and the neighbor next door both said, ‘Welcome, to our block.’ Sometimes, I had to work late at Beatrice Foods, and the neighbor across the street shoveled our snow.”

A majority of the Hmong refugees that he counsels face a culture shock, Zongsae says. Some of his Hmong clients get angry when co-workers call them “Bruce Lee” or “little man,” he says. “A lot of times, joking can cause problems [for the Hmong] if they don’t know the meaning of the joke. And the person who makes the joke doesn’t know that they can offend somebody.” 

Carmela Rios, a former member of the Wauwatosa School Board, has black hair and light-blue eyes. She was born in Uruguay and is a U.S. citizen. “There has never been an event that has happened to me while living in Wisconsin that I was a victim of racism,” she says. 

Rios’ husband, John Klaus, is of German descent. When they married, Rios chose to keep her Hispanic maiden name. During her 2013 election campaign, “I said jokingly that maybe ‘Klaus’ would have served me better,” she says. But her ethnicity was not a stated issue during the election, “and I obviously wasn’t hiding it.”
Rios and Klaus have two kids, Carlos, 8, and Marcela, 5. Rios insisted that their first child be named Carlos “because I am Hispanic, and that’s a part of me.” His name normally hasn’t troubled Carlos, she says: “But one time, he said: ‘I don’t like my name because it’s different.’ I hope that was a one-time thing, and it never comes up again.” 

She says she’s glad her two children will be going to schools with children of many nationalities. “That’s the reality of the country. So you can’t hide from that. I hope that’s a shared feeling among young families.” 

The 2010 U.S. Census found that Wauwatosa, with a total population in excess of 46,000, had 2,090 African-Americans, 1,440 Hispanics and 1,300 Asian residents. Its minority population increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 12.5 percent in 2010. “I do see more diversity in the faces that come to work here, shop here, and enjoy our restaurants and businesses,” says Wauwatosa Mayor Kathleen Ehley. “That’s in addition to our [diverse] residents.”

The browning of Milwaukee’s suburbs is not atypical in the U.S. For the 50 largest metro areas, a 2012 study found that the number of diverse suburbs (where non-white residents made up 20 to 60 percent of the population) had increased by 37 percent from 2000 to 2010. These diverse suburbs are increasing in numbers faster than predominantly white suburbs, with Caucasian populations of 80 percent or more.

The study, released by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, warned that diverse suburbs have had a tough time keeping their racial stability. But if diversity could be maintained, “integrated suburbs are much more likely to be politically balanced and functional places that provide high-quality government services at affordable tax rates than high-poverty, segregated areas,” the study concludes.

In metro Milwaukee, it would appear that Brown Deer could be a test case for whether a community can maintain its racial balance. The 2010 census found that the 12,000 Brown Deer residents included about 60 percent whites, 29 percent African-Americans, 5 percent Asians and 4 percent Hispanics with some 3 percent of the residents describing themselves as being of two or more races. Forty years ago, the minority population totaled just 1.2 percent.

“The neighbors are very friendly and easy to get along with,” says Andrea Weddle-Henning. She was the sole African-American on the Brown Deer Village Board before deciding to not seek re-election in April. No African-American now sits on the board. 

A civil engineer for Milwaukee County, Weddle-Henning grew up in Brown Deer and stayed at home while she earned a degree at UWM. She moved out of Brown Deer and bought a duplex in Milwaukee, but wanted to get back to Brown Deer and eventually did.

Brown Deer has become a destination for many African-American families because “it’s close to Milwaukee, and it’s affordable,” she says. In school newsletters, she enjoys seeing faces of Hmong, African-American and Hispanic kids in the Brown Deer School District. 

“I would like to see more diversity on the Village Board and the village staff because we are increasing in numbers,” she says. “The more we mirror the community, the better we will understand the needs of the community.” ■

Write to freelancer Larry Sussman at letters@milwaukeemag.com.




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