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MLK Day and Wisconsin’s Racial Disparities

It’s Martin Luther King Day so it feels like a good time to ask: How’s that task force on racial disparities in Wisconsin doing?

Even before a 2020 summer of racial reckoning, Wisconsin was still ranked as one of the worst states for people of color.


It’s #mlkday – so how’s that task force on racial disparities going? #blm #wisconsin #legislature #newsroom

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Widespread Disparities

That ranking comes from a lot of factors, including,

  • Unemployment. While in 2015 white workers only made up 4% of Wisconsin’s unemployed, black workers made up 12%. That’s a massive difference. Remember that the national U.S. unemployment rate in 2015 was 5.3%.
  • Income. The state’s median household income is $55,000. The white median household income is slightly above that at $58,000. The black median household income is $29,000, almost half of the white average. That’s huge.
  • Homeownership. Wisconsin has the nation’s 3rd worst black homeownership rate in the country at 23%. That’s a lot lower than the 47% national rate.
  • Incarceration. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that the state incarcerated 13% of black people, nearly double the national average.
  • Educational achievement. Wisconsin has the worst achievement gap between black and white students in the country. Standardized testing data shows large differences in scores at all educational levels.
  • Infant mortality. Wisconsin’s infant mortality rate for black infants is three times that of white ones. That’s also the worst in the country.

State Response?

Across the board, Wisconsin has shown concerning differences along racial lines in most economic and societal categories. So how did one of the largest racial movements since the civil rights era create change for Wisconsin? Widespread reform bills? Sweeping changes to police tactics? More education funding?

Not exactly. Instead, we got a 32-member task force that took two months to actually meet and has yet to make any proposals. At least it’s a step in the right direction. But even when the task force does make recommendations, it has no legislative mandate. That means the state Legislature can just reject its proposals.

Don’t worry though. Assembly Member Jim Steineke, one of the people leading the task force, said they will follow “a fairly aggressive schedule of meeting every two to three weeks.” “Aggressive” seems a bit generous for basically meeting once per month. I wouldn’t call my once-per-month workout “aggressive.”


On this MLK Day, it’s safe to say Wisconsin is behind speed on some of the dreams Martin Luther King Jr. laid out in his famous Washington D.C. speech almost half a century ago. Our racial disparities are some of the worst in the nation, and have only become worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the widespread protests in response to the killing of George Floyd last summer did lead Wisconsin legislators to at least create a task force, nothing will happen until tangible laws are passed.


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