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Wisconsin faces more painful reminders of fractured race relations

Over the past year, the public's attention has been largely focused on issues of race and racism within the U.S. criminal justice system. The killing of unarmed, African-American men by white police officers in Missouri and New York caused other states to examine their own consciences regarding treatment of the African-American community.

Two more officer-involved deaths have occurred here in Wisconsin since then, the most recent happening earlier this month in Madison. It is too soon to speculate what role race may have played in the death of an unarmed, 19-year-old man named Tony Robinson, but one thing is clear: Wisconsin has serious race problems that need to be addressed.

The recent shooting in Madison is still under investigation. And although there are certainly some similar details, this may not be "the next Ferguson," and Madison's police chief has asked residents not to rush to judgment.

But even if Robinson's death did not have racial ties, Wisconsin in general - and Madison in particular - have a poor track record when it comes to fair treatment of African Americans. Wisconsin incarcerates black men at higher rates than anywhere else in the country.

Madison's Dane County is even worse than the state as a whole. Statistics reveal that:

  • In 2013, African-American youths accounted for 80 percent of the inmate population in Madison juvenile detention facilities
  • African Americans are arrested by Madison police at rates more than nine times higher than for other racial groups
  • As of 2007, black people in Dane County were more than 97 times more likely to be put in jail for drug crimes than white people were
  • Greater than 54 percent of African Americans living in Dane County are living below the poverty line (compared to 8.7 percent among white residents)

We don't yet know what the investigation into Tony Robinson's killing will reveal. But we do know that race relations in Wisconsin (and especially Madison) are shameful, and they need to be fixed if we have any hope of avoiding tragedies like this in the future.

Source: Justice Policy Institute, "Tony Robinson Killing Highlights Wisconsin's Racial Inequities," Brendan Fischer, March 10, 2015

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