35th and Shitbag

Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin found himself in hot water this week for telling the truth at a Madison Rotary event about his team’s city as well as his experiences there. Somewhere between trying to jack up excitement for a team that went 33-49 last year and trying to explain how the state’s $250 million investment in an arena that looks like Elvis’ haircut, Feigin made a comment about race and the city:

“Very bluntly, Milwaukee is the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life. It just is a place that is antiquated. It is in desperate need of repair and has happened for a long, long time. One of our messages and one of our goals is to lead by example.”

The shit hit the fan so hard and so fast that Feigin had to walk his comments back in an interview with the Journal-Sentinel that same day.

“Milwaukee is a terrific community with wonderful people and I am proud to be a part of it,” Feigin said in a statement. “I was addressing a question about the social, economic and geographic divides that exist and how we can help address them. It wasn’t my intention to characterize the general community as overtly racist.”

Notice the “very bluntly” part came at a speech while the fine-tuned horseshit came in a statement? In other words, “I’m sorry I told the truth because I know I could get fired if the team isn’t drawing people and I made the mistake of being honest about my experiences here.” Also notice that Feigin is making a personal statement here: He says that it’s his experience that the city is segregated and that race is a big divider in the city. He wasn’t trying to use charts and diagrams to outline the math behind his experiences. He just noted how he felt about it. Y’know, kind of like how Newt Gingrich feels the country isn’t safer, even though crime is down? Or how some people just “feel” that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim infiltrator who will lead the next wave of a New World Order into Texas to take the guns away and pilfer the freedom of people in Amarillo? Yeah, just like that.

Except Feigin is actually more accurate in his perceptions than the Tin Foil Hat Militia down south.

I lived in and around Milwaukee during my formative years and have family dotted all throughout that area. I still visit on a monthly basis, if not more, and Feigin has a pretty good handle on what’s going on in that area.

Sherman Park.
Laylah Petersen.
Frank Jude.
Ernest Lacy.
The Dahmer situation.

These are just a few of touchstones for anyone who wants to look up and notice that, hey, we seem to be having a lot of problems when it comes to how the black folk and the white folk experience life, safety, justice and so forth in Cream City.

The comments after these articles are the exact kind you would expect to see here: the “presumably white” commenters are looking for “the smoking gun” of racism and the “presumably black” commenters are saying, “The whole fucking building is on fire and you’re asking us to point to the match that started it before we have a right to comment.” In both cases, people can see what they want: No, we don’t call the “bad part of town” something politically incorrect like “the ghetto” or “the inner city,” but that doesn’t absolve the city of sin. Not to generalize, but “The North Side” is just as clear of a code for Milwaukee whites as either of those things.

When I was younger, my friends and I would cruise around on Friday nights in our shitty cars. We knew that if you went toward Whitefish Bay (A.K.A. “White Folks Bay), we could gun our cars hard enough to set off the alarms on the street-parked BMWs and Lexuses. However, if we made a few wrong turns, the streets of brick homes suddenly became boarded up row house and corner markets with bars on their windows.

From Lincoln through Good Hope and from about 6th street up to about 68th, we knew we didn’t belong. It was the place one friend’s father told us that “Somebody oughtta build a fence around that area, throw in a shit ton of guns and let them go at it.” On the personal level, there were more than a few times we ended up in some place in that area to get gas and referred to it as being on the corner of “35th and Shitbag.” I’m not exactly proud of that, but I wasn’t alone in knowing where the lines were drawn in my hometown.

Telling people like Feigin to dial it back only continues to shove the issue under the table, only allowing it emerge when something becomes explosive. At that point, the “good white folk” can point to that flashpoint and either “tut tut” about it or stare on in amazement because “I had no idea things were so bad for those people.” Instead, let’s take that moment of blunt honestly and celebrate the fact that people who get here from elsewhere can see what we really are, even if we can’t. Then, let’s take advantage of this so that maybe we can have discussions on this when something can be done and not just after something was done.

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