John M. Eason et al., The Conversation, December 4, 2020
Kenosha, Wisconsin, became a national byword for racial unrest when protests in August erupted in violence.
After local police shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed, furious residents took to the streets expressing years of pent-up anger. During nighttime hours, fires were set.
What went wrong in Kenosha?
Our research on Wisconsin’s changing demographics suggests racial integration and political polarization are a combustible combination in Kenosha.
Nationally, Wisconsin is generally perceived as white and working class. Historically that was largely true, and the state is still 81% white.
But it’s changing fast.
In 1980 Wisconsin had 25 small cities – those with populations of 20,000 to 100,000. Only three had populations that were more than 1% Black, and only two were more than 1% Asian American, according to census data. Latinos comprised 1% or more of the population in eight small Wisconsin cities in 1980.
By 2010, the number of small cities in Wisconsin had grown to 35, and few were all white anymore. Nine were more than 5% Black, 11 were more than 5% Asian and 19 of the 35 were more than 5% Latino.
These demographic shifts were greatest early this century. Between 2000 and 2010, Black people as a percentage of total population more than doubled in a dozen of Wisconsin’s small cities. In Milwaukee – the state’s largest, most diverse city – white people now comprise just 44% of the population.
Today Kenosha is one of Wisconsin’s most racially diverse small cities. Black people make up about 11.5% of its 100,000 people, and Latinos make up nearly 18%, according to 2018 population estimates. Only three similarly sized Wisconsin cities have more people of color.
‘You Protect and Serve Who?
‘Historically, white Americans have reacted with suspicion and hostility to the sudden arrival of Black people and immigrants to their neighborhoods.
Integration is an American ideal – a high-minded recipe for combating racism that dates back to the 1950s. But research shows that even in multicultural communities, social segregation among community members of different racial backgrounds persists.
Police and Politics
Racial tension may be exacerbated when a city is also marked by strong partisan divisions, our research suggests.
Kenosha has been solidly Democratic for several decades, but about a third of its residents vote Republican, according to state election records. Republicans and Democrats tend to live side by side, not segregated by partisan affiliation, community data shows.
That setup can pit neighbor against neighbor after events like police killings. Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to see racial bias in law enforcement as a problem, according to Pew Research.
Donald Trump has stoked such tensions throughout his presidency, vilifying Black Lives Matter and exalting law enforcement. The day before the 2020 election, he held a rally in Kenosha, declaring he had brought “law and order” to the city.
Trump narrowly lost Wisconsin, including Kenosha. Joe Biden’s presidency will change the national debate on police violence, but it won’t stop the seismic demographic shifts creating unease in Wisconsin’s small cities.