Signifyin’: The Black cultural, business wasteland that is Milwaukee

Written by admin   // July 4, 2013   // 0 Comments

by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt

Several years ago a local law firm hired me to introduce visiting prospective Black employees to the ‘benefits of embracing the Milwaukee life.’

I was not very successful.

In case you haven’t noticed, in the last decade or so many major local corporations have finally brought into the benefits of diversity, which in many cases means they have had to look outside the city for Black talent.

(National recruitment sources have become necessary because most Black youth from our city who attend college outside of Milwaukee decide never to return. And you can’t blame them given the fact that several studies have shown Milwaukee to be among the worst cities in the country for African Americans.

That’s based on a dozen negative social indicators, including the poverty, low high school graduation and high Black incarceration rates.

Milwaukee is also considered one of the most segregated cities in the country; with a very low success rate for Black businesses and a thick glass ceiling that continues to block upward mobility in the private sector.)

Finding talented Black professionals to fill the void is not the hardest part of the recruitment process. Instead, convincing them that Milwaukee is a great place to live in spite of those negative indicators has grown into a major undertaking.

You can easily impress White recruits by introducing them to the lakefront, Riverwalk, art museum and our two professional sports franchises.

But that’s generally not enough for Black recruits, particularly if they come from any one of a hundred vibrant urban cities where Black culture is alive and thriving.

And that’s what most Black recruits want to see and experience when they visit here— our Black cultural amenities.

That means showing them our ‘exciting’ nightlife—clubs, restaurants and cultural centers. They want to know if any top name entertainers perform in Milwaukee on a regular basis. They want to visit a Black art gallery, or have the opportunity to attend a Black play more than once a year.

And it is in those areas that Milwaukee falls flatter than a glass of beer that’s been sitting out overnight.

Every time I would show a brother or sister around and they would ask me about a nice Black restaurant to take someone to dinner, I could only shrug my shoulders. Jazz or upscale Black clubs? A similar reaction. Black professional networks?

Mainstream entertainment? Diverse middle class neighborhoods where you can raise a family and feel safe? Potential for entrepreneurial growth?

By the time that sixth question rolled off their tongues I would be rolling my eyes or shuffling my feet.

In fact, often I was embarrassed. While Black folks make up the largest ethnic group in Milwaukee, the city offers little for Black professionals, other than churches that now require you to submit your W-2 form before you can claim membership, Black politicians that fill up the Black press with complaints but few solutions, and thousands of ‘beauty’ supply shops that are owned by Koreans who prosper selling sisters White women’s hair and facial whitening creams made by Chinese.

The best kept non-secret around the country is that while Milwaukee is a minority majority city, we host only four days of ethnic festivals (that includes African World Festival, Garfield Day and Juneteenth), spend most of our convention money at an Italian conference center and have to travel to a suburb to watch a movie (while the police hover around the corner wearing riot gear in case we laugh too loud).

Truth of the matter is we don’t have much of anything of cultural value to entice young Black professionals away from more progressive cities.

Remember Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul Jabaar) begged the Milwaukee Bucks to release him from his contract because he felt Milwaukee was a cultural wasteland for Black folks.

That was over 40 years ago, and we haven’t erased that perception. It’s still hard to entice professional athletes here, or in Green Bay, which had to arrange for a Milwaukee Black restaurant to deliver food several times a week to keep the Black players from starving (despite what they tell you, brats are not soul food).

The Packers also arranged for several Black barbers to travel to Green Bay to cut the brothers’ hair. By the way, many of those players bypassed Milwaukee during their free time and drove an additional 80 miles to Chicago for entertainment. But back to Milwaukee. Making the Black recruitment process even harder is the fact that Milwaukee has bad weather!

Let’s be honest. If you had your choice, would you rather deal with southern humidity or Milwaukee’s cold, often-unforgiving winters, complete with 12 inches of snow and icy streets? Put all of that into the gumbo pot and you realize why my part-time job turned out to be a headache and a hangover.

But the lessons I learned were invaluable, and thus I’ve been trying to convince the myopic powers-that-be for the last two decades they need to develop a short and long-term strategy to move Milwaukee into the 21st century (actually the 20th century would be an improvement).

Whether they want to admit it or not, Black professionals will shape the cornerstone of this city’s future. People of color will make or break this community, determine its success or its continued demise.

Milwaukee has already lost 200,000 residents in the last 20 years, and when the residency requirement for city employees is rescinded this week, thousands of White folks will pack their bags for the suburbs, further diminishing our tax base and reputation. And what frightens me most is the fact that a seeming majority of our civic, political and cultural leaders have been, and are continuing to hide their heads in the sand about this dilemma.

Which explains why this city continues to hover around the bottom of the must visit list and why we rank among the top Midwestern cities suffering from a Black brain drain.

As noted, Milwaukee is minority majority city. But it’s not a population of movers and shakers. It is not home to many thriving Black businesses and millionaires.

Just the opposite.

More than 40% of the Black population is poor; 56.8% of the Black men here are unemployed, and Black women, who are themselves poor, head 70% of the households. That’s not a demographic conducive to building a strong, vibrant community, or to entice educated Black professionals to relocate here.

Ironically, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Charlotte were each in the same predicament 20 years ago, but with vision and commitment to change, they turned those cities around.

Each now has vibrant Black communities, strong Black middle classes and thriving Black businesses. Black arts, museums, clubs, restaurants and Africentric cultural events are in abundance in those and a hundred other cities.

Not to mention that each of those communities hosts growing Black suburbs to compliment and offer an alternative lifestyle to urban residency.

Hell, even New York is back on the map. You wouldn’t know Harlem today if you visited, and they say if you can’t enjoy yourself in New York, you just don’t want to party. And believe it or not, it’s safer in New York than it is in Milwaukee.

That’s what happens when you have visionaries, who not only prize diversity, but community growth.

Sadly, many—if not most—of Milwaukee civic and political leaders either don’t want to admit it or continue to hide their heads in the sand about our sociocultural phenomenon. Obviously, this city, and its leaders—White and Black—remain locked in a 1967 mindset.

I haven’t figured it out yet. I don’t know if city leaders, including the “Negrocracy,” is content thinking Black professionals are satisfied dodging bullets or going to white clubs that plays hard rock or folk music on Saturday night, and then taking their girlfriends to a Black-owned McDonald’s en route to home.

Or maybe they think we should be happy with the anything but Grand Avenue Mall and a 10-year-old promise of a Bronzeville anchored by a Dollar Store.

It’s bad enough that Black businesses are always in survival mode in Milwaukee, and you need a jackhammer to break the glass ceiling. Don’t take my word for it, I can give you the names of 1,000 Black businessmen who left this city and found success elsewhere.

They would be quick to tell you Milwaukee’s business and cultural atmosphere is as cold as the winter (and spring and summer months of late).

Making matters worse is the fact that only a few Black folks are allowed to navigate through the maze to achieve any level of success, and you can count on your hands the number of brothers and sisters who make it to corporate boards.

Is it any wonder why 75% of all Black students who attend colleges outside the city never return here? They don’t see a future here nor do they hear members of my age group making promises anymore that things will get better.

They also realize that just by watching television or visiting the Internet that Milwaukee is always behind the times. (A Black college student home for summer break jokingly told me recently that the latest dance he learned before leaving here for his eye opening educational experience in a progressive city was the Twist. And it was played on an eight-track tape!)

For the record, I’m not lambasting the city merely for the sake of shooting a dead horse…again. I would run out of bullets before I could stop complaining about Milwaukee.

As I said a few weeks ago, I’ve finally admitted to myself that I don’t expect to see much improvement–civilly, culturally or politically–in my twilight years.

But I am holding out hope that maybe my grandson will live to see a more progressive Milwaukee before his time is up.

There is some hope that the handful of Black professionals who have lived in more progressive cities and returned here for one reason or another can spark a renaissance, spearhead a cultural awakening, and Milwaukee can be turned around.

Of course, those in power who are content with the status-quo have to be awakened to the truth, or moved aside. And those who see poverty as big business, and infrastructure deterioration as an opportunity to strip the bones clean must be confronted.

I know there are those who will try to assassinate me for hanging our dirty laundry out in public, viewing it as an attack on this city’s leadership.

But in this case, the truth will set us free to think of an alternative Milwaukee, a progressive, culturally vibrant city where Black people will want to live, and native borns will want to stay.









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