In a nation that clings to the notion that we live in a shining city upon a hill, the shooting death of Sylville Smith on a Milwaukee street, the fiery response by the black community, the scorching rhetoric from the press and the sheriff, the heated replies by everybody with a computer are all unsettling our basic sense of ourselves.
Milwaukee is Baltimore is Ferguson is Los Angeles is Detroit.
Smith was twenty-three and somebody’s child. Smith was twenty-three and shot dead in a city that I love. He was twenty-three and shot by a twenty-four-year-old black police officer. Smith was twenty-three, with a rap sheet that appears to have sealed his fate.
It’s hard to admit, but let’s say it: Smith does not arouse sympathy, or the outrage people generally feel when they hear about police shootings. The word “victim” doesn’t fit, because Smith had a gun, he was on the run, he had priors, and he didn’t drop the gun. It pains me to say it, to type it, to see it on screen.
I have always hated the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I,” but I look at Smith and I look at my nephew, eighteen and Yale bound, and I shake my head. My nephew worked hard, sure, but is that the difference between him and Smith? One was nurtured on the street; the other was expected to do well by family and teachers. While my nephew is getting ready to mingle with some of the best minds in the world, Smith is dead and Milwaukee is on fire. Why are there more Sylvilles than Johns?
At twenty-three, Smith is one of a multitude of young black males whose lives are described by a set of utterly depressing statistics.
According to the Center for Wisconsin Strategies, the unemployment rate for Wisconsin African Americans was 20 percent in 2014—more than four times as high as the white unemployment rate. Milwaukee has the largest achievement gap between blacks and whites in the country.
Wisconsin also incarcerates the most black men in the country, and “in Milwaukee County, more than half of all black men in their thirties and forties have served time,” according to a recent report on National Public Radio. “In the 53206 Zip Code alone, 62 percent of all men have spent time in an adult correctional facility by age thirty-four.”
Milwaukee public schools are a mess, and losing money to an appalling private school voucher system that stuffs the pockets of a few hucksters who run low-rent academies and take money that out to be spent giving poor kids a decent start in life.
Despite all this, I loved living in Milwaukee in the early 2000s. I spent a few days there last September showing a friend around as we watched the Cardinals and Brewers series. When going to visit my wife’s relatives in Appleton, my little family always finds time to stop in Milwaukee to eat at Soup Brothers, grab some fresh coffee beans from Colectivo, walk the city market, take in a view of Lake Michigan.
But here’s the thing: I spent my time on the east side and the Third Ward, trendy areas near the lake—a long walk from Milwaukee’s core.
I can write about poverty and crime, I can quote statistics, but I didn’t live that life. Milwaukee’s racial tension, segregated schools, housing discrimination, and police brutality against black males were going on when I lived there. That history goes back long before the halcyon days of the 1960s. The Great Northern Migration stretched the national motto to include its black self in places like Milwaukee. It continues to be a struggle.
In the end, I share some of the blame for the death of Sylville White. I didn’t make an effort to do much more than write about a community that I was bound to by race and fellow citizenship.
I’m no better than any white suburban male who shakes his head at another ferocious Milwaukee riot.
None of us offer much of anything but stats, conjecture, and frustration. And for that, we have failed to keep even the most basic principles of the Sermon on the Mount, which gave us the metaphor of America as a shining city on a hill. In Milwaukee, in Ferguson and Baltimore, this country finds it too easy to reject its brothers and sisters, too easy to talk the problem to death rather than fight for a life-affirming solution.
As Milwaukee burns, we see the shining city for what it is. It isn’t good.