What we do next: The key to ending racial disparities

Madison Magazine's editorial director Neil...

This is about what we do next, about what Madison does next. It’s about who will do it. Of course, it is about Tony Robinson and officer Matt Kenny. It’s also about our institutions, our schools, our jails, our systems, our values and our deepest biases, prejudices, hopes and dreams. But most important it is about what we do next. Because in doing so, we will make a statement to the world, and to ourselves, about who we are and what we stand for. So what we do now is change and expand our expectations of our criminal justice system and hence our police forces, our mental health service system, and our children, all of our children.

Over the course of several weeks, I talked to a number of people whom I respect and trust and who I believe care deeply about the racial disparities, which we are struggling to come to grips with right now. I talked to, among others, a UW-Madison sociologist, a psychiatrist, a cop and a person who works in the Dane County jail. All were forthcoming and honest, and their views will be reflected in the following paragraphs. But while all are doing work that will profoundly influence the future of this community in all of its glorious diversity, work that must continue, I was affected most deeply by my conversation with Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent Jen Cheatham. Believe it or not, folks, the most important response to the death of Tony Robinson, the key to ending the racial disparities that hang over our city and our county like an unmoving, depressing, threatening storm cloud, is to be found in our public schools.

Cheatham said something to me that resonated deeply: “We should be confident in the work and the strides we’re making, continue to make them–and be vulnerable.” She was talking about the school district and her work leading the district, the need to stay focused on the strategic blueprint for change in which she believes and that has started to show results, and at the same time accept the criticism, the uncertainty and the different levels of trust as necessary tension in dealing with the moment and keeping the momentum for change alive. The same is true for everything that must come next.

The city of Madison recently passed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office and Dane County Department of Human Services in support of the Community Restorative Court, or CRC. Madison Police captain Joe Balles is a champion of this initiative, an offshoot of the restorative justice movement of some twenty years ago, and there are some really smart and experienced professionals involved. In a nutshell, young adults between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five suspected of one of five misdemeanor offenses could be diverted into the CRC. If they then successfully complete the CRC requirements, their record would be expunged of that offense.

Here’s what that would prevent: A kid feels extraordinary pressure and lies to a cop about a buddy’s involvement in a crime. Kid is charged with obstructing an officer, charged and convicted. Now he’s got a record, no job possibilities and no future. Here’s what CRC will help create: trust. Police officers in the neighborhood will be seen as not just there to arrest people and put them in jail, but rather to intervene, with the opportunity (expectation?) to get a kid on the edge back on track with another chance, and to avoid a destructive engagement with law enforcement.

This is terribly important. In the name of ending racial disparities, we need to continue to explore the styles of policing we have developed in this country. We have to revisit laws passed in the name of “get tough on crime.” We have to reform policies like our use of solitary confinement. We have to change our unjust criminal justice system. But most importantly we have to build trust. Yes, help more kids get driver’s licenses. Yes, make fines for pot possession consistently low. Do it all. But by all means create a law enforcement presence within Black neighborhoods that is based on trust and expectations of equal treatment and justice. I believe the CRC will help with that.

Dane County sheriff Dave Mahoney is so right to agitate for change in how we look at the jail. The current jail is, at times, inhumane. Conditions for people with mental illnesses in our jails–and that’s a minimum of four out of ten inmates–are abysmal. Treatment options are limited. It’s unacceptable. Madison police chief Mike Koval is equally right in establishing mental health policing teams. We have to keep doing these things, undeterred by politics or ignorance. But living in poverty, in fear, under different rules, is traumatic. Trauma is unhealthy. It can very much be a mental illness, or a cause of mental illness. Too many African American families are living with trauma and we have to address it. As citizens, as a community, we have to act by expecting that adequate mental health diagnosis and culturally relevant care are critical parts of ending racial disparities in Madison and Dane County and must be reflected in our investment in the mental health care we provide.

We must also maintain our commitment to job readiness, strategic employment initiatives, advocacy for re-entering offenders, housing opportunities, family support and more. We are doing a lot–government, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the United Way of Dane County, the YWCA, African American faith communities and dozens of nonprofits. Sixty Madison-area residents just received their graduation certificates from the Construction Apprenticeship Readiness Training Program sponsored by the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin and its partners in the Construction Employment Initiative. It’s one of mayor Paul Soglin’s priorities and a superb example of a broad community partnership that is reducing disparities. Madison College’s Middle College program focuses on improving graduation rates for at-risk students. The Urban League’s concentration on drop-out recovery called Foundations Central, Kaleem Caire’s One City Early Learning Centers, Michael Johnson’s tireless work at the Boys & Girls Club–all efforts that will produce real change.

So, “be confident in the work and strides we’re making,” as superintendent Cheatham advises. But it is to the superintendent’s micro-community–the Madison school district–that we go for the most transformative change in expectations that must come next. “The major underlying cause to so many of the challenges we face,” Cheatham tells me, “is this deeply rooted deficit view and mentality about African America children in Madison. It’s pervasive.” She hears about it from parents and kids “on a regular basis.” Of course she sees it in the schools. “It’s all rooted in the assumptions we make about families based on their complexion,” she says.

Cheatham addresses this deficit in two ways. I suggest we do as well. First, embrace the emerging youth movements. “I actually think that’s the most exciting thing happening right now,” says Cheatham. “Youth taking ownership, demanding the best from us and really trying to change these narratives about young Black boys in particular.” She says it’s exciting to think about youth demanding what they need from the community and also taking responsibility for their own actions and each other. She sees children “demanding that we view them for who they really are and what they’re really capable of.” If the rest of us fail to see that, says Cheatham, if it gets lost in the immediate aftermath of the legal rulings in the Robinson death, we will have missed the point. The point is the consistent theme Cheatham hears from students “about the low expectations we hold for them.” That, she says, “fundamentally has to change.”

And therein lays the biggest challenge of all for many of us. Over the past few months, Cheatham has engaged district staff and community advisors in considering next steps in implementing her Strategic Framework, including envisioning the graduating MMSD high school student of 2030. Who is this student and how do we give him or her what he or she needs to become who we envision he or she will become? That vision obviously starts with our expectations of the child entering school this year. There is where we can make the single most important, fundamental change, and that’s looking at a young African American child as having hope and promise, and expecting that child to be successful and happy. Not hoping, not questioning, not wishing for success. Expecting success.

There are commitments implicit in that perspective, not the least of which is heeding the research that shows students in poverty who have been successful all have at least one meaningful adult relationship in their life. Not someone who pats them on the head, but someone who pushes them, guides them and holds high expectations for them. That’s us, us who have lived with the Race to Equity report, with the inescapable reality of two Madisons, with the death of Tony Robinson, and asked ourselves what’s next and said it can’t be more talk. We can join Cheatham in being unapologetic about the strides we are making, acknowledge the need to make more strides, be vulnerable enough and agile enough to share leadership and ownership of ideas and fundamentally change our expectations for every child–and most critically every Black child–in our schools, and thus in our community. I recommend we do.

Click here for all stories that appeared in the May 2015 cover story covering the days after the Tony Robinson shooting.