Wicked Liberalism

Why we can’t untangle race, class, and geography in our most liberal cities

Update: on November 16, 2016, the police officer who shot Philando Castile was charged with manslaughter. Officer Jeronimo Yanez was not justified in his use of deadly force, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said. “The Castile decision is the bow of the boat of justice that we’re fighting for,” said Pastor Danny Givens Jr., a clergy liaison with Black Lives Matter.

I started this Medium post on March 9, 2015. I wrote it after an unarmed 19 year-old biracial man, Tony Robinson, was shot on Williamson Street in Madison, two blocks from my house.

On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot a mile from my grade school in St. Paul, near the State Fairgrounds during a traffic stop. Philando worked as a cafeteria manager at a school that many kids I knew attended, JJ Hill. He had also worked in my grade school cafeteria, Chelsea Heights, though many, many years after I was a student in the early 80s. The protests at the Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul are taking place right near where my dad and brother work.

These events are happening very close to home and they are making me question the narratives that we tell of our cities.


This is St. Paul. I grew up in the Macalaster-Groveland neighborhood, a mile from the Rondo neighborhood (destroyed by I-94 in 1956). You’ll see that this map includes Falcon Heights in the northwest, near the Minnesota State Fair.

St. Paul is my hometown. I grew up in the city just off Grand Avenue, on Pascal and Goodrich, and I rode bikes up and down the alleys of the city. Madison is where I went to college and where I returned 18 years later to be a professor from 2013–15. Both places were major forces in forming my identity. They wrote themselves onto who I am as a person.

I think of St. Paul and Madison as liberal cities, and it would seem they are. A 2014 Economist piece puts the Twin Cities among the most very liberal in the country (Madison wasn’t counted because it was too small for the survey, although people joke that it’s the People’s Republic of Madison). But I have to question how true that is when I look at how geography, race, class, and poverty inscribe each other. It’s a relationship that goes back to the earliest migrations of African-Americans to these cities, one that was reinforced by the introduction of highways. And while we are accustomed to hearing about similar moves on the East Coast thanks to the likes of Robert Moses, our liberal cities in the Midwest are as complicit, if not more so.

Horst Rittel called issues such as poverty “wicked problems” because they don’t have any single solution, and any intervention can cause problems elsewhere in the system. The wickedness is inherent in the geography of our cities. Just as these cities wrote upon my identity, they write upon the identity of their African-American citizens. And sometimes, those results are deadly.


Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin

On March 9, 2015, the topic of my Media Fluency for the Digital Age class was about podcasting, but I wanted to talk about Tony Robinson’s shooting first. Two weeks prior, we talked about race and digital media, with Prof. Brigitte Fielder as our guest speaker. I’d been struck by Madison’s Race to Equity report about the gross inequities in Dane County: 25% of African-Americans are unemployed compared to about 5% of whites. 54% of African-Americans under the poverty line, compared to almost 9% of whites—and a stunning 74% of African-American children in the county grow up in poverty, compared to 5.5% white—a 13 to 1 disparity, one of the biggest poverty gaps in the United States.

“There is not a single indicator that we analyzed in which African American well-being is on par with that of whites.” —Race to Equity report
This map of Madison shows the locations of low-income housing. These areas coincide with those of greatest poverty and the greatest concentration of African-American residents. The areas are disconnected and disparate from one another. Via Race to Equity.

Part of the problem in Madison is that the African-American communities are scattered, coinciding with high-poverty areas, and lack the things that make a community a community: full-service grocery stores, churches, public schools, aldermanic representation, even a census tract. There’s no significant employer, and many jobs go to Madison’s 45,000 college students. There aren’t bars and restaurants or developed open places. The typical cultural and social anchors of African-American community in other cities simply are not present in Madison.

How do you even get to have a voice to change things when structurally and geographically, everything is against you? When there’s nothing written into the city to hold you in place?

It gets even worse just 80 miles east in Milwaukee, where 50% of African-American men are incarcerated. It makes me think of Laura Kurgan’s Million Dollar Blocks project that shows how people from just a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn are disproportionately sent to prison. She calls them “million dollar blocks” because that’s what the mass migration costs in these areas dense with men who go to prison. Milwaukee is worse. Wisconsin incarcerates more African-American men than any other state. (You can find more shocking statistics in “Why is Milwaukee so bad for black people?” on PBS News Hour.)

St. Paul, Minnesota

From Arundel Street looking south on Rondo, now I-94. From the Minnesota Historical Society.

There used to be a thriving African-American community in St. Paul called Rondo, until 1956, when the construction of I-94 tore through the community. Six hundred fifty families were displaced and the community never truly reunited. Building on two 1935 maps that outline areas such as “Residential Middle Class,” “Slum, Italians, Jews” and “Largest Negro Section in the City,” cartographer Geoff Maas designed a map to demonstrate the impact of I-94 on the neighborhood.

“They rammed the highway right through the Rondo neighborhood that was prominently African-American, and the repercussions of that are still being felt today.’” —Geoff Maas, interviewed in City Pages

When I look at the inscription of a city on its residents, when I consider how it reinforces race and racism, class and poverty, I can’t help but think that Geoff Maas is right.

My friend James Garrett, Jr., an African-American architect who I’ve known since first grade, was warned to avoid the area where Philando Castile was pulled over. He commented on Facebook:

when i was a teenager, my father and grandfather advised me to avoid driving down that stretch of larpenteur avenue between snelling and hwy 280 at night as the falcon heights police (and roseville to a lesser extent) were racist and aggressive towards people of color…i have been followed, profiled, stopped there over the years…this has been known amongst black folks for 30+years. many other such examples around town.

(It’s worth mentioning that James’s maternal grandfather was the first Black police captain and Deputy Chief of Police of St. Paul, James S. Griffin—a resident of Rondo.)

JJ Hill, the school where Philando Castile worked, is just south of Rondo. Just 3 1/2 miles from the outer edge of Rondo, Philando Castile was shot.

1935 map of St. Paul by Dr. Calvin Schmid that Geoff Maas used as the source for his map. Rondo is the neighborhood marked by “Largest Negro Section in the City.” These maps were originally published by the Minneapolis Council of Social Agencies. Via City Pages.
Geoff Maas’s map that shows where the highways cut through neighborhood. He also shows the light rail Green Line. Via City Pages.

The map’s terrain is uneven

When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, and the inequities there came to light (including white policing of a Black public, white leadership of the Black community, unfair court fees, patterns of undue incarceration), I worried about Madison and Dane County. In fact, I concluded my lecture to my 330 students in Intro to Mass Communication in October 2014 about Ferguson with these very statistics from Race to Equity. I’m not trying to conflate these statistics to Tony Robinson’s background, but it sure seems that layer upon structural layer of inequity makes it only more likely that an unarmed young black man can be shot in Madison. Consider the statistics that the Young Gifted & Black coalition presented. It seemed all but inevitable. Race to Equity issued a statement:

“We must understand that Tony’s death is not disconnected from our community’s inability to assure a level playing field for ALL our children and families. In light of this, the Race to Equity team intends to redouble our efforts to honestly present our community’s failure to ensure equitable opportunity, access, resources, and justice to Dane County’s communities of color.”

We are all biased against African-American men

The shootings this week underscore statistics we already knew. A 2004 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Review article reported that African-Americans were six times more likely to be shot by police and three times more likely to be killed than whites. A 2015 Guardian analysis found that “Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” Of those killed, one in three African-Americans were unarmed.

Where does the perceived threat come from? I don’t know, but it’s self-reinforcing. African-American men are perceived as a threat by all people. Josh Correll, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado studies the “Police Officer’s Dilemma” by having people play a first-person shooter game in which they must decide whether or not to shoot, as Robin Semien reported in a This American Life Episode called “Cops See It Differently,” (Part 1 and Part 2). All people tend to perceive black men as a threat, citing a study that shows that not only cops but ordinary people of all races would be quicker to shoot an unarmed African-American man than a white man.

By everybody he means everybody — black and white, including police. Josh’s findings show that police officers are more likely to see the images of black men as threatening, even though police officers usually make the correct decision to shoot or not shoot. In fact, the rest of us — untrained people like you and me — do far worse than cops. We’re more likely to shoot a black man with a wallet, and we’re less likely to shoot a white man with a gun.“ —Robin Semien, “Cops See It Differently, Part Two,” This American Life”

What does your city look like?

Think of your city. What does it look like? If you live in a city that you consider liberal, how liberal is it really? What do you see take place on the ground and in the maps? What disconnects do you see?

Pittsburgh, where I now live, is deeply segregated. While one in eight Pittsburgh residents live in poverty, one in three African-American residents do—the greatest poverty level of any group, according to an Urban Institute report. Nine out of ten children living in poverty are African-American. 90%. But at least the Pittsburgh Public School District is making gains in high school graduation rates: the male rate increased from 56% to 71% and the female rate from 69% to 78% between 2011–13 alone (the overall 2015 graduation rate for African-American students is 74.6%, and the district average is 77.4%, due in part to a program called the Promise Readiness Corps, which supports cohorts of ninth and tenth graders as they enter high school). High school graduates tend to find better jobs and earn more money. Perhaps these gains will help to break the cycle of poverty and begin redrawing the map more fairly.

What differences are there between the narrative of your city and its reality? I’m looking at you, Madison. And St. Paul. And Pittsburgh. And San Francisco. I don’t know what changes I can affect, but what I can do is read the map. I’m reading and witnessing what you write onto your residents and citizens.

Note: No charges were brought against the officers in Madison, though Officer Matt Kenny, who shot and killed Tony Robinson, is not on patrol duty. It was determined to be a lawful use of force. The Guardian states: “According to Kenny’s account of the incident, he opened fire after being punched once by Robinson near the top of the stairs and falling into a wall… The officer described hearing ‘incoherent yelling and screaming’ inside the apartment, after 911 calls were made claiming Robinson had assaulted people on the street and was running in and out of traffic. Robinson had retreated to the apartment and was there alone when Kenny arrived. The officer had been informed the teenager was probably unarmed and intoxicated.”