October 29, 2015

With liberty and justice for all

By Sen. Lena Taylor

When we say the Pledge of Allegiance at the Capitol, I can be heard loud and clear at the end shouting “with liberty and justice for all” because I want to remind my colleagues that we aren’t just here to fight for the rich to get richer and for the “haves” to have more.

My efforts to speak out and be the voice for the voiceless is unrelenting, even in the face of difficult odds. I fight because for far too long, African Americans have faced circumstances that divide families and disenfranchise communities. This is not just a Milwaukee issue, but extends to African Americans across Wisconsin and the United States. I am proud to represent a substantial portion Milwaukee and I want to make sure each and every one of my neighbors has a chance to succeed regardless of the color of their skin.

Unfortunately, even in 2015, it seems that skin color does matter. Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America and we have the highest incarceration rate of black men in the nation. As a state, Wisconsin has the largest unemployment rate amongst African Americans than any other state in the nation. But it is not just adult African Americans who are affected by these racial disparities. In Wisconsin, we suspended a staggering 34% of African American students compared with 4% of white students. This is a gap of 30 percentage points and the largest black-white discipline gap of all 50 states. The truth is racial inequality does not discriminate by age or merit, it is a lifelong struggle for people of color and we can no longer afford to accept the status quo.

Many civic leaders at all levels of government recognize the harsh consequences of racial disparities and are taking steps to close the gap. On Wednesday, Milwaukee Common Council member Willie C. Wade, County Supervisor Khalif Rainey and State Representative Leon Young held a press conference calling for the creation of the Office of African American Affairs in Milwaukee. The office would identify and recommend policy changes that would promote equal opportunities for African Americans.

While racial disparities exist beyond Milwaukee, this is a real and substantive step to attack the problem where the greatest threat to equality exists. It will take officials at every level of government acting together to change the reality that Wisconsin is ranked the worst state in the nation to raise a black child. The Office of African American Affairs signals to our underserved communities that we do care about their rights and needs and will work to advocate for everyone. This office will be vital in communicating issues and policy results from ground zero to the capitol.

The communities most affected by racial disparities recognize the need for change, but unfortunately, that message has not yet sunk in at the Capitol. On the same day civic leaders called for the Office of African American Affairs, legislators in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee voted on bills that will increase strip searches, increase prison sentences for certain crimes, and redefine “adequate parenting”, all of which would disproportionately impact black Wisconsinites.

More jail time and punishment is just more of the same and the same is just not working. We need to explore options that prevent African Americans from disproportionately entering the corrections system in the first place. We must identify these issues at their roots and solve these racial disparities that exist throughout all facets of our society.

Have you read this column all the way through and have hit this point and thought to yourself, well what about other people facing disparities? Don’t worry, I’m fighting for equality for everyone. That’s why I support equal pay for equal work, the right to marry whomever you love and breaking down educational barriers no matter what they look like. Calling for a clearinghouse entity to identify our largest disparities won’t magically make life better overnight. It also won’t solve every disparity, regardless of if we are talking about age, race, gender, perceived disability, sexual orientation or any other factor. But it is an important first step.

That’s why I congratulate the leaders who called for greater cooperation at all levels of government to address these very real issues. I look forward to joining this effort in my role as a state senator and call on my colleagues to join as well to fulfill the promise that our government believes in liberty and justice for all.