UN Human Rights Report on Race Speaks to Issues in Milwaukee

A new United Nations report on racism as a human rights issue speaks to challenges people are facing right here in Milwaukee.

An important development occurred in January 2016.

As part of its charge to assess, “forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance” faced by people of African descent across the globe, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) visited the United States.

The Working Group visited five cities — Washington D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Jackson, Mississippi. As part of their visit, they “studied the official measures and mechanisms taken to prevent structural racial discrimination and protect victims of racism and hate crimes as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination.”

What should have been a development covered broadly by the national media received the kind of neglect that has driven various voices within the history of the Long Black Freedom Struggle to seek UN intervention for the nation’s racial problems.

Although Milwaukee was not one of the cities visited, the Working Group’s findings strum our city’s pain. While the UN group applauded recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system, address racial disparities, abolish the death penalty, and expand health care protections through to the Affordable Care Act, “the Working Group is extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.”

The Working Group’s list of human rights concerns so directly address our city’s woes with structural racism that maybe they didn’t need to come here at all. The list of concerns so aptly point to Milwaukee that I need not couch them in any verbose contextual analysis. The Working Group’s comments speak on their own accord.

Simply put, based on the Working Group’s summary, our city and state are deep in the throes of a human rights crisis. The UN Working Group’s statements are italicized.

Milwaukee, as we know, is the most segregated city in the country.

The UN visitors took note of the vast realities of residential segregation found in many cities across the nation and their consequences, most notably the “stark levels of concentration of African-American families in low income neighbourhoods and districts, but also the correlation between racial segregation and disparities in access to health, education and even access to adequate food among them.”

As research has shown about Milwaukee, the UN experts also concluded that, “The zip code can determine to some extent the future development of young African Americans.”

Wisconsin has extreme health disparities across racial groups.

These health disparities are also directly linked to residential segregation. The Working Group found that, “African Americans have limited access to food variety including healthy food as they are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods with food outlets selling unhealthy and even expired food.” Additionally, “the highest polluting industrial facilities…are more likely to be situated in poor and minority neighbourhoods.”

Wisconsin has the highest rates of black male incarceration in the country, fueled by Milwaukee residents.

It took the UN experts just 10 days to determine what many in the country have declared now for decades: “Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans.” The Working Group found that, “Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.”

The impact of racial segregation also led the Working Group to be, “concerned about the criminalization of poverty which disproportionately affects African Americans. There has been an increase in imprisonment of people for minor offences and those who are unable to pay debts due to an increase in fines and fees. They are detained in debtor prisons and made to work off their debt.” The UN team also recognized the stigmatization that comes with a criminal record and its negative impact on life chances.

Wisconsin has had its troubles with juvenile justice, most recently accentuated by the Lincoln Hills scandal. The UN Working Group expressed its concern, “about the underage prosecution of children as adults in the USA. Children are detained in adult jails and prisons putting them at risk of sexual assault and abuse. These practices are a violation of children’s human rights and should be eliminated…” The experts noted the problems associated with “the school to prison pipeline” through which “police have authority to detain, frisk and arrest children in school…and heavy-handed efforts to increase security in schools have led to excessive penalization and harassment of African American children through racial profiling.”

In fact, on police violence and brutality, “The Working Group is concerned about the alarming levels of police brutality and excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement officials committed with impunity. In addition to the most recent and well-known cases of killings of unarmed African Americans, such as the cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald, the Working Group also received information about many other similar cases.”

To the casual observer, Voter ID laws may indeed appear to carry no racial bias. Yet, in their application and design, it is clear that these laws disproportionately impact black voters. The Working Group recognized that these “increased identification requirements in several states served to discriminate minorities such as African Americans contrary to the spirit of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”

Wisconsin has experienced vicious cuts to public education.

Milwaukee is home to a long history of battles over school reform, and no matter the plan, African American children continue to lag behind white children in achievement and state funding. From their travels across the nation, “The Working Group was concerned by the under-funding and closure of schools that are particularly in poor neighbourhoods with significant African American population.” And because of the UN’s longstanding awareness of racial colonialism in all its forms, the Working Group determined that, “In school curricula, the historical facts concerning the period of colonization and enslavement are not sufficiently covered in all schools. This history, crucial in the organization of the current American society is taught differently by states, and fails to adequately address the root causes of racial inequality and injustice.”

The racial problems, and their progeny, that plague our city and state are much worse than we realized. Even without a UN Working Group visit to Milwaukee, the human rights violations found elsewhere in the United States ring even louder here.

It’s time we call them what they are.



Dr. Robert S. Smith is an Associate Professor of History at UWM, Director of the Cultures & Communities Program, and was recently appointed Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Inclusion & Engagement. He is the author of "Race, Labor and Civil Rights: Griggs v. Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity. "