Friday, March 23, 2012

Not knowing Jack and running for the U.S. Senate

Jeff Fitzgerald
Wisconsin's education system has failed 45-year-old Jeff Fitzgerald. Neither at Hustisford High School nor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh did he learn an elemental fact of American life: The world is slanted against black people.

If you don't grasp that basic reality, documented as it is by a mountain of studies, you don't grasp America. Yet Fitzgerald holds a powerful post: speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, where, alarmingly, his ignorance helps shape state policies.

Now the Republican is seeking a new office: the U.S. Senate seat that Democrat Herb Kohl is vacating. His mis-education casts doubt on his fitness to represent a racially diverse state in an even more racially diverse America.

I brought up the taboo topic of race when Fitzgerald visited the Milwaukee Press Club this week. I noted these three facts:
  • The federal unemployment figures for February continued to show that young black high school grads had a harder time finding jobs than did young white high school dropouts. The unemployment rate was 35% for the black grads and 33% for the white dropouts. (Notes: 1. "Dropouts" is my term. The feds describe them as people who are not enrolled in school and have not graduated. 2. The disparity was actually less last month than usual.)
  • When sending resumes to an employer, Mary is more likely to get a response than Tameka even when they have identical backgrounds and qualifications.
  • When applying in person for entry-level jobs, young whites get further in the hiring process than do young blacks with equal credentials (and similar grooming, I could have added.)
Then I asked whether government had a role to play in addressing such racial disparity in the labor market.

Fitzgerald's responses were two:
  • "There are laws in place against discrimination."
  • The Democrats killed a bill earlier this month that would have boosted mining in Wisconsin and thereby boosted jobs at Milwaukee companies that make mining equipment.
FYI, the bill would have also loosened environmental regulations and reduced the opportunities for the public to weigh in on mining decisions.

My follow-up questions:
  • Even if the bill was passed, the trend suggests that whites would be preferred for any new jobs over equally qualified blacks. What can be done about the preferential treatment that the data suggest whites get?
  • Are laws against discrimination sufficient? After all, young white dropouts still fare better in the job market than do young black high school grads despite the laws.
Fitzgerald's retort:
  • Yes, the anti-discrimination laws are sufficient.
  • Referring to my data, "I don't know what those stats are based on."
His air was like: Why are you bothering me with this trivia?
Mark Neumann

In truth, to say that the world is slanted against black people opens you up to scorn. You are just trying to appeal to white guilt or just trying to evade responsibility for problems that African Americans themselves created. The trouble is, though, the world is slanted against black people. To ignore that slant is to ignore reality.

Besides jobs, for instance, white people have dibs on bank loans and choice housing, in comparison with black people with equal characteristics. White people have stay-out-of-jail-free cards that black people lack.

The last thing I want, however, is for white people to feel guilty about that slant. After all, it's not really their fault. It's just how society is. But I do expect believers in the American creed of equal opportunity to work to neutralize this inbred racism and not to work in the opposite direction, as Fitzgerald has done, by making it impossible for cities to consider race or residency for awarding contracts and by repealing a law that would have had law officers collect data on the race of drivers involved in traffic stops. To counteract a racial bias built into society, you have to take race into account.

Tommy Thompson
At the same time, I expect African Americans not to use that bias as a crutch, as an excuse for not fully applying themselves. Rather, the forces arrayed against us are all the more reason to hang tough. The wisdom of our foreparents still holds: You have to work twice as hard as a white person to get ahead.

Mark Neumann, the Republican ex-congressman who's also running for the Senate seat, showed some inkling of the racial disparity that hampers black people when I questioned him at his appearance at the Press Club earlier in the week. He suggested that the solution was putting jobs in the black community.

A third Republican candidate, Tommy Thompson, demonstrated some sensitivity to that racial disparity when he was governor.

Fitzgerald, in contrast, wallows in blissful ignorance of a crucial feature of American life. 

Note: There is breaking news as I post this commentary:  Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson announced Gov. Scott Walker was creating a task force to develop "action steps that address minority unemployment in metro Milwaukee, particularly the unacceptably high unemployment rate among black males." Co-chairs will be Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and state Rep. Elizabeth Coggs. The task force represents a departure from the pattern of hostility the Walker administration has shown toward black Milwaukee. The "action steps" should include ways to counter the preferential treatment whites receive over better qualified African Americans in the labor market, as demonstrated by a comparison of the jobless rates for black high school grads and white high school dropouts. 

More samples of studies pointing to a slant in American society against black people:
"Opportunities Denied, Opportunities Diminished: Racial Discrimination in Hiring," Urban Institute.
"The Federal Reserve  Bank of Boston Study on Mortgage Lending Revisted," Journal of Housing Research.
"Blacks pay more for Honda car loans," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Report: Study suggests racial bias in calls by NBA referees," The New York Times.
Marked: race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration, Devah Pager.
"Racial disparities found throughout organ transplant process," Madison Capitol Times.
"Blacks Face Bias in Bankruptcy, Study Suggests," The New York Times.
"Illinois minorities more likely to do time for drugs," Associated Press.
"Study: Minorities more likely to get tickets, have vehicles searched," Chicago Sun Times.


  1. Jeff's education or lack thereof is irrelevant here. If it isn't orders from WMC, Walker, the Koch brothers, road builders or the NRA, he pays no attention to it.

  2. Jeff Fitzgerald, like many Republicans, is entrapped in his own narrow-mindedness. To counteract this denseness, pressure must be applied by the whole community, especially blacks, until the needs of everyone in the community are addressed. Constant, consistent and intelligent pressure.