Race relations in Wisconsin capital are a tale of 2 cities

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Wisconsin State Journal

FILE - In this June 23, 2020 file photo, Wisconsin's "Forward" statue lies in the street on Capitol Square in Madison, Wis. Demonstrators who toppled statues this week honoring Hans Christian Heg, a Civil War abolitionist, and the state's "Forward" motto say they went after the sculptures because they wanted to shatter a false narrative that the state and the city support Black people and have achieved racial equity. (Emily Hamer/Wisconsin State Journal via AP File)

MADISON, Wis. – In this college town that considers itself a bastion of progressive politics and inclusion, race relations are really a tale of two cities.

Demonstrators who toppled statues of figures with no racist history this week say they went after the sculptures because they wanted to shatter a false narrative that the state and the city support Black people and racial equity.

“The crowd at large was absolutely conscious of the political motivations,” protester Micah Le told The Associated Press in a text, referring to the statue of the Civil War abolitionist Hans Christian Heg and another sculpture of a woman with her arm outstretched that honors the state’s “Forward” motto.

“People who didn't already know about the racist pro-Columbus, anti-indigenous history of the ‘Forward’ statue are learning about it now. Since the Heg statue came down, folks are learning that slavery continued after the Civil War in the form of the (prison) system, hence why the statue was meaningless,” Le said.

It is also possible that demonstrators were simply looking to join with others across the nation in erasing Confederate figures and did not understand the statues' symbolism. But despite Wisconsin's progressive history — the state fought for the Union during the Civil War and was one of the first to ratify women's suffrage — data suggests racism is as prevalent here as anywhere in America.

Blacks make up only about 6.7% of Wisconsin's population but comprise 42% of prison inmates. The state has the widest achievement gap between Black and white students based on results of a 2019 test known as the nation's report card. A 2014 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of 12 key quality-of-life indicators, including education, income and home situation, concluded that Wisconsin was the worst state in the nation for Black children.

The disparities in Madison are stark. The capital city is one of the wealthiest in the state and home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the country's premier research institutions. The city is a liberal bastion with a history of political activism dating back to the Vietnam War era. The district attorney, Ismael Ozanne, is Black. So are some city council members.

But much of the Black community struggles here.

Nearly three-quarters of Black children in Dane County lived in poverty in 2011, according to a 2013 report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Only about half graduated from high school on time in 2011 and were half as likely as whites to take the ACT college-entrance exam. Standardized tests in 2017-18 showed only 9.8% of Blacks in Madison were proficient or advanced in reading and math compared with 59% of whites.

In 2010, police in Dane County were six times more likely to arrest a young Black person than a white counterpart. Black adults were arrested eight times more often than whites in 2012, twice as often as the statewide Black-to-white arrest ratio.

“Madison is a wonderful place, but it is a tale of two cities,” said former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, who is Black. “There is frustration. Sometimes as a city official, we believe that if no one is complaining or if there is no tension, things are OK. The systems won't allow them to have their redress heard.”

Tensions came to a head in 2015, when white officer Matt Kenny shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson. Kenny was responding to reports that Robinson was jumping in and out of traffic. According to Kenny's account, he fired after Robinson attacked him. The district attorney cleared Kenny, leading to protests that blocked streets and the Black Lives Matter movement rising to prominence here.

The anger resurfaced after George Floyd died last month at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Protesters have been demonstrating off and on around the state Capitol, mirroring nationwide protests calling for police reform in the wake of Floyd's death. Most of the protests have been peaceful, although demonstrators clashed with police, and some stores were looted.

Alderman Samba Baldeh, who is Black and running for the state Assembly, called police earlier this month alleging his white opponent, Walter Stewart, drove by his house with two other white men shooting pictures. Baldeh said he confronted Stewart, who said he was taking photos for a campaign ad.

“I said, ‘Walter, what is wrong with you? Do you know what is happening in Black America right now?’ In this environment it is just scary."

Stewart has said Baldeh has “misstated" the incident, and he didn't mean to disturb him.

On Tuesday, Madison police arrested a Black man who entered a bar armed with a baseball bat and started shouting at patrons through a bullhorn. That night, crowds tore down the two statues and assaulted state Sen. Tim Carpenter. They left him lying injured on the Capitol lawn and tried to break into the Capitol. Someone threw a firebomb into a city-county building.

Questions about why the protesters toppled the two statues still hang over the city.

Heg was a Norwegian immigrant who became an anti-slavery activist and a colonel in the 15th Wisconsin Regiment. He died at the Battle of Chickamauga. The “Forward” statue represented Wisconsin at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Protester Ebony Anderson-Carter told the Wisconsin State Journal that the statues stood for good causes but create a “false representation of what this city is.”

Michael Johnson, executive director of the Dane County Boys and Girls Club, is one of the city's leading Black activists. He called toppling the statues a “setback” for the Black rights movement but said there's no denying racial inequities in Madison.

“I love Madison. I think it is a great city," Johnson said. "But people who look like me aren't necessarily thriving in this city. There's just huge disparities across the board.”


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1.