I contributed to segregation in one of America’s most divided cities. Here’s why.
As is clear from this map, Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. And whereas I could have done otherwise, I’ve helped keep it that way.
I have been deliberate in my choice. But I did not intend its negative consequence. I am not the only well-intentioned, liberal-minded white person who helps bring on this plague of unintended consequences. I think that combination of “good intentions” and “bad consequences” is a massive problem that does not have a solution palatable to people committed to individual choice and the ability to pursue a better life for oneself and one’s family — i.e., the large majority of Americans.
A few years ago my wife and I decided we would move to Milwaukee, my wife’s home town, after ten years living in London, where I grew up. We have three kids — a 6th grader, a high school freshman, and a high school senior. The big decision was which neighborhood to move to. Over the course of a year we did our research and visited different areas. In early 2014 we had to decide.
The most important factor was a place that would be good for our kids. Not just a good school academically, but a place where they could make friends and have an active social life. Each of our children had different predictions about whether the move would be a net gain or loss for them, and one was dead-set against the move. So we decided to move in the summer, believing it would be easier for them to be new kids at the beginning, rather than in the middle, of a school year.
We wanted a school and neighborhood that were ethnically diverse, so we shied away from the very white suburbs. We believe exposure to a mix of ideas, norms, and cultures enriches our children’s lives while helping them get along in a multicultural world and strengthening the pull of social justice for them.
The secondary schools in England where our children went were ethnically mixed — with large Asian populations — but still majority-white. Our kids are sensitive to prejudice, having mildly suffered from the underlying tone of anti-American snobbery that pervades the UK.
With these factors in mind, our choice came down to this. We could move to the city of Milwaukee and do our bit by paying taxes, promoting residential integration, and helping nudge the city’s education statistics in the right direction by sending our smart, diligent children to the local school. We would also receive the benefits of living in a more diverse neighborhood and a bigger house than we would by moving just outside the city limits, where property prices are higher.
The other option was to move to Shorewood, an inner suburb of Milwaukee. This relatively affluent neighborhood borders the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee, is about a mile square, and has only one high school (one of the best in the state), one middle school, and two elementary schools. It is somewhat ethnically mixed, though less than the City of Milwaukee and less than the schools our children went to in England. But there are some efforts to promote racial integration. For example, the football team draws players from Shorewood High School and from a nearby, predominantly black school in Milwaukee.
From the opening paragraph you know how our story plays out. We chose Shorewood. Because we wanted to move in the summer, our school applications would be considered only a few weeks before term started and months after everyone else. If we had chosen Milwaukee, we would have had slim pickings.
There are a few excellent, ethnically diverse public schools in Milwaukee but these are over-subscribed. We were concerned our children might be bussed to a different part of the city. Any friends made there might live too far away to socialize with easily outside school, and it would be harder for them to make friends locally without the connection of school.
Our worst-case scenario would see our kids in an underperforming school located outside our neighborhood. And if that school was overwhelmingly black, how would our white kids fare in that environment? Of course, this is a question many African American parents ask themselves when considering predominantly white schools.
The trouble was, we did not know how likely this scenario — a poor school far from where we lived — would be. Administrators in the Milwaukee Public School system say that 90% of parents get their first-choice school. But because of the timing we figured we were likely to end up in the 10%. Despite my wife’s best efforts, we were not able to reach anyone in the Milwaukee Public School system to discuss our situation.
Ultimately choosing to move to Shorewood was convenient and less risky. There is one very good school and our children’s friends live close by.
Stories like ours play out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times every year across the country. Torn between choosing the best school for our kids, to the extent that we can predict that, and wanting to promote racial integration for our benefit as well as that of others, we prioritized the former.
Maybe we should have looked harder to find a good school option in Milwaukee. Maybe the city could have made that easier to do. If the best schools were in predominantly black neighborhoods, levels of racial segregation would drop. But these are not easy things to change. The road to racial integration is a long one.
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