Rethinking Segregation in a 21st Century Multi-ethnic Urban Environment

Throughout this blog I have built an inquiry unit around segregation in Milwaukee, but have primarily focused on African-American segregation, which historically has been the dominant narrative, and is a problem which unfortunately continues to persist today. But, in an increasingly diverse Milwaukee landscape it is important to discuss other groups which face discrimination and segregation. In this blog post I would like to focus on one group in particular: Milwaukee’s Hmong American community.

Milwaukee’s large Hmong American population sets it apart from most other American cities. In fact, growing up outside Chicago, a city double Milwaukee’s size, I had never encountered or even heard of the Hmong community. This is because Hmong-Americans are the largest Asian ethnic group in Wisconsin, making it the state with the third largest Hmong-American population and the Milwaukee metro area is home to the fourth largest Hmong-American population with around 13,000 Hmong-Americans.

It was not until my Contemporary Issues in Education course this semester when we read Stacey Lee’s article, “Learning ‘America’ Hmong American High School Students” that I learned of the large Hmong-American presence in Milwaukee and many of the hardships they face, as the poverty rate among the Hmong in 2010 was 25%, much higher than the 11% for the general population.

Lee’s article discusses the struggles that Hmong high schools students face in Wisconsin public schools, most prominent among them the navigating of the “culture of whiteness” at their school. In the article, Lee finds that many teachers believed that Hmong students could either assimilate to “good” American culture, i.e. white America, or to what was deemed “bad” American culture, which was largely associated with black culture. Teachers feared Hmong students were falling into a “new underclass,” as Lee noted that many Hmong-American students wore baggy pants and baseball caps and spoke in a dialect often associated with African American students, leading educators to claim that Hmong students had been “ideologically blackened” (Lee 240–241). Because of this view of Hmong students, they have often been neglected at school and labeled as “deviant.”

Moreover, she notes that Hmong students were often excluded from or segregated in extracurricular activities and that Hmong parents held little power within the school as compared with the white parents.

By the conscious and unconscious linking of Hmong students to black culture, educators have created a school environment in which Hmong students are “othered” and are not meeting their needs.

As my students will be going into great depth studying African-American discrimination and segregation in Milwaukee, I would like them to learn about the Hmong community and some of the challenges they face, and use their extensive knowledge from their inquiry on African-American segregation to explore and compare the challenges both African-Americans and Hmong-Americans face. As we have seen, because Hmong students are increasingly grouped with African American students, it is important to see where the similarities and differences arise between these groups.

To get a background about the Hmong community in Wisconsin and Milwaukee I would like students to look at the following two sources: one from the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee which gives a brief overview on the history of Milwaukee’s Hmong community. Then a documentary created by a Wisconsin teenager on the acculturation of the Hmong in Wausau, which details the struggles they faced with the Wausau school system and greater community.

To further learn some of the struggles the Hmong people face, I would like students to listen to the Hmong song “Hmoob lub kua muag” with English subtitles on Youtube and take notes on some of the issues brought up by the video.

To further zero in on the issues encountered by the Hmong community, I would like my students to read the Atlantic article “To Be Both Midwestern and Hmong,” which details much of the discrimination, racism, and even violence the Hmong community have met in the midwest. After students finish browsing these sources, I would like them to complete a venn diagram comparing and contrasting the problems faced by Milwaukee’s African American and Hmong-American communities. It is my hope that students can broaden their view of what it means for a complex multicultural city like Milwaukee to be the country’s most segregated city, realizing it is not just a black-white divide, but much more intricate, involving many ethnic groups.

Finally I would like students to read the following Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article titled “Report Shows Growth in Hmong Community” to get a closer look at the current situation for Hmong-Americans in Milwaukee and also begin learning about the Hmong American Peace Academy Charter school here in Milwaukee.

Ideally I would like to build off of this and have students analyze some of the actions taken to help improve the lives of Hmong-Americans in Milwaukee, by focusing in on Milwaukee’s Hmong-American Peace Academy charter school, one of the only Hmong-American schools in the country and the only one in Wisconsin. I would like students to read the article “Hmong-American Charter School Delivers on an ‘Impossible Dream’” and then have them harken back to an earlier article from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel titled “60 Years After the Brown V. Board of Education, Intense Segregation Returns,” which they would have read when we began the segregation unit. The article discusses the success of certain ethnically segregated schools such as the Hmong American Peace Academy, which raises the essential question I would like my students to answer: are ethnic-centered schools helping or hindering inequality, discrimination, and segregation in Milwaukee? As Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country, where do schools tailored to one ethnic group like the Hmong American Peace Academy, which is the only intensely segregated Asian school in the Milwaukee area with 97% Asian enrollment, fall in regards to this struggle for integration? HAPA boasts what Erin Richards and Lydia Mulvaney of the Journal-Sentinel claim to be “better-than-average academic growth and better-than-average achievement gap closure for students compared with K-8 schools statewide.” Should there be an increasing move towards these kind of ethnic-based schools if they are showing success for these students or should Milwaukee make more moves towards full integration?

What could mainstream schools be doing to better meet the needs of these students?

It is my hope that in answering these questions students will not only gain a better understanding of the people and communities around them, but better understand some of the current issues in politics and education, as well.


“Acculturation of the Hmong: Wausau Partner Schools Conflict.” YouTube, uploaded by Yefang Lee, 15 June 2018,

Guillermo, Emil. “Hmong-American Charter School Delivers on an ‘Impossible Dream.’” NBC News, 10 June 2016.

Hmong.” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, 2016.

“Hmong of Oklahoma — Hmoob lub kua muag (Lyrics/Engsub/Frsub).” YouTube, uploaded by MKLSQ1, 3 September 2016,

Lee, Stacey. “Learning ‘America’ Hmong American High School Students.” Education and Urban Society, 2002.

Pabst, Georgia. “Report Shows Growth in Hmong Community.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6 January 2013.

Richards, Erin and Mulvany, Lydia. “60 years after Brown v. Board of education, Intense Segregation Returns.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 17 May 2014.

Xaykaothao, Doualy. “To Be Both Midwestern and Hmong.” The Atlantic, 3 June 2016.

Investigating Inquiry in the Social Sciences

A future teacher currently taking my social studies methods course. Join me as I document my experience creating a Social Studies inquiry unit at the high school level!

Angela Scavone

Written by

Investigating Inquiry in the Social Sciences

A future teacher currently taking my social studies methods course. Join me as I document my experience creating a Social Studies inquiry unit at the high school level!

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