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Milwaukee Violence: Why Is it So Hard to Talk About Race in America?

Tensions High In Milwaukee Night After Police Shooting Of Armed Suspect Sparks Violence In CityTensions High In Milwaukee Night After Police Shooting Of Armed Suspect Sparks Violence In City
Crowds took to the streets for a second night to protest an officer-involved killing August 14, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Darren Hauck — Getty Images

Americans return to work after another weekend of violence, that brings, among other things, another unwelcome lesson in how difficult it is to talk about race in America. But this weekend also brings a small gift of understanding, involving Donald Trump supporters. (More about that in a moment.)

Let’s start with Milwaukee. “We had a horrible night last night,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a press conference on Saturday. From 6 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, the city had nine shootings, leading to five deaths. And then, things got worse.

Sometime after that press conference, a black man, apparently armed with a stolen handgun, was shot and killed by police after fleeing a traffic stop. Within hours, there were angry protests; a police car was smashed, another was set on fire and at least four businesses were burned. By Sunday afternoon, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called in the National Guard.

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The online chatter that accompanied the stories and tweets of the shooting and riots were brutal and predictably polarized, with little middle ground.

The police are killing us.”

“He had a gun and deserved what he got!”

“This is what happens when you deny us basic rights and services.”

“You’re looting your own businesses, nice work.”

“We need better jobs and schools!”

“Black on black crime.”

“Why should I care?”

Why is it so hard to have meaningful conversations about race? In this case, you don’t need to have an opinion about this particular weekend to understand there is something deeply disturbing about life in Milwaukee for black citizens. The infant mortality rate for black babies is three times that for white babies, with 15 deaths per 1,000 births versus five. Put another way, the white infant mortality rate is about the same as Canada’s. The black rate is that of the Gaza Strip.

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And an important 2015 story from NPR, Why is Milwaukee So Bad For Black People?, dug deep into the data: K-12 schools in Milwaukee suspend black kids at a higher rate than any other U.S. city. Wisconsin has the largest achievement gap between black and white students. The state allots more money to the prison system than to education. And as a result of very specific policies, Milwaukee County incarcerates the most black men in the country. (God help you if you live in the 53206 zip code.)

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Yet when something bad happens, like this weekend in Milwaukee, the discourse degenerates, people scream over each other, and the issues – at least in online conversation – fall to the wayside. There’s another way to think about why this dynamic happens, which has implications for everyone.

And we have Trump supporters to thank for the insight.

Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist with Gallup, has put out a draft white paper that seeks to explain what motivates Trump supporters. Rothwell’s findings indicate that contrary to current conjecture, Trump supporters are not struggling from rust belt neglect. “His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue-collar occupations, but they earn relative high household incomes,” the report says. Instead, Trump supporters tend to be worried about other markers of status like health, and how well their kids will fare in the future, a factor known as “intergenerational mobility.”

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But what really distinguishes most Trump supporters is how isolated they are:

“This analysis provides clear evidence that those who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors, constant support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that standout within the communting [sic] zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, [A]sians, and Hispanics.”

The findings are a nod to contact theory, which says that limited interactions with any type of “other” – in this case, immigrants and people of color, lead to stereotypes, prejudicial thinking, misunderstandings, and a deeply seated fear of being rejected or left behind.

Lack of contact helps explains why regular people (not only trolls) attack in online conversations. And why Uncle Ted, who is lovely in every other way, turns the Thanksgiving turkey into ashes in our mouths when table talk turns to race.

It also helps explain why corporate sponsorship programs work so well, particularly when high-ranking white executives are matched with younger people of color. Proximity helps us not only understand each other better, but helps us share each other’s fears, anger and frustrations without being surprised or enraged by them. That’s how culture change happens.

Maybe it really is who you know.


Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.