Madison’s Race to Inequity

October 20th, 2020. Filed under: Uncategorized.

NOTE: This piece was originally written in 2015 for the digital magazine, Edge Effects, following the shooting of teenager Tony Robinson by a Madison police officer. Concerned about our explicit critiques of the police department and mayor, some of the editors attempted to introduce changes to the text that toned down and whitewashed the discussion of Madison’s complex history of anti-Black racism. Feeling that our original statement should appear as originally written, we declined to make the changes. The piece never appeared in Edge Effects. The Abolition Geographies Collective have kindly invited us to include this piece on their website. While it responds to events from over five years ago and while many of the key figures – such as the mayor – have changed, it sadly feels just as timely today. This summer saw widespread mobilizations in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And the struggle for justice for Tony Robinson continues. We humbly offer this document in solidarity with current police and prison abolition organizing in Madison, UW–Madison, and elsewhere.

Civil Rights Rally at Wisconsin State Capitol (1961), Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-84375

Madison’s Race to Inequity

by Nick Lally1, Elsa Noterman2, and Keith Woodward3

“What they said couldn’t happen in Madison has happened in Madison.”
Rev Everett Mitchell; Young, Gifted and Black elder.

On March 6th, 2015, Tony Robinson, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot to death by a white police officer, Matthew Kenny, on “Willy Street” in Madison, Wisconsin’s Marquette neighborhood. Robinson’s killing and the protests that followed have focused public attention on the city’s long-standing racial disparities. According to independent reports, Madison Police Department (MPD) data, and accounts of everyday experiences by city residents, Madison is home to some of the country’s worst racial inequalities with respect to arrest rates, incarceration, education, and wealth. Yet media coverage and statements by many city officials have largely obscured these social differences, choosing instead to play up Madison’s liberal image and its reputation for offering a relatively high quality-of-life. For example, Mayor Soglin’s recent eschewal of comparisons between Robinson’s killing and officer-involved shootings in other cities dismisses accusations that the MPD perpetuates racial bias. There, Soglin claims that racism within the police force is “the wrong question to be asked.” Madison is different, he continues, because it participates in several national initiatives dedicated to eliminating violent deaths in minority communities. No doubt, widespread effort is urgently needed to alleviate the racial inequities that have structured the city’s spaces over the last 150 years. But could the notion that Madison is an exceptional, ‘liberal’ city actually serve to foreclose conversations about accountability and limit opportunities to pursue equity?

Youth Rally at the Capitol in protest of Tony Robinson’s killing, March 9th, 2015. Photo by Nick Lally.

Madison’s Young, Gifted and Black Coalition (YGB) seem to answer “yes.” Even the kinds of initiatives Soglin names can reproduce historic racial divisions by identifying marginal spaces with criminal activity, thereby making them sites of increased policing. As YGB members Alix Shabazz and Brandi Grayson explain:

The “kinder and gentler” – and media-friendly – approach of the Madison Police Department after Tony Robinson’s death might look good in pictures and headlines, but it means nothing for the lives of black people here who live through – or die from – state violence. Police accountability has to remain after the cameras inevitably leave, or nothing will change.

Clearly there are stark differences between the concerns of those struggling in racially divided spaces and those of city managers, who operate from seats of power and privilege. But more are implicated in this unevenness than Madison’s policy-minded administrators. As YWCA Madison CEO Rachel Krinsky recently observed, white Madison has “a long history … of pretending everything is fine, not talking about it, and being defensive and covering our bases.”

That many of the city’s residents remain oblivious to these differences attests to the peculiar privilege of privilege to lean upon selective memory and narrow spatial awareness when convenient. Consider, for example, the tendency to represent Madison exclusively in terms of its East and West Sides. Here, the East becomes a space for hip graduate students and young professionals, and the West the site of undergraduate housing and pricey residential areas for upper middle class families and university faculty. This East-West fragment frequently sits in for a more complex whole, resulting in what geographer Derek Gregory would call Madison’s “spatial imaginary.” It also erases many of the neighborhoods that are home to the city’s already underrepresented communities. It is no accident that two of the areas that the East-West imaginary excludes – South and North Madison – also happen to be those into which many of the city’s African American and impoverished communities were gradually pushed following central Madison’s major redevelopment beginning in the 1950s.

The blindness that comes with this privileged imaginary might explain why some officials and citizens react to accusations of “structural” racism with confusion, defensiveness and, occasionally, downright hostility. For example, when YGB responded to Robinson’s killing by calling for a stop to all policing in Madison’s African American communities, MPD Chief Koval chose not to reflect upon why they might make such a request. Instead, much like Soglin, he shifted the discourse by detailing MPD’s liberal policing policies, its philosophy that allows for peaceful demonstrations, and its “Madison Method” of restraint in the use of force. Koval’s defensive reactions, as Dane County Supervisor Leland Pan observes, have the perverse effect of painting the MPD as the victims in the Robinson shooting. Obviously, what is at issue is not MPD’s relatively benign protest policing policies (introduced in the wake of its brutally oppressive protest policing in the 1960s and ‘70s). What Koval seems to miss in YGB’s call is that MPD might introduce such policies and yet still participate in practices that reproduce systemic racialized difference across the city.

And so there are many ways that we might consider Madison’s racism to be a “structural” problem. It is systemic insofar as it has consistently placed power disproportionately in the hands of the privileged. It is spatial insofar as it retains a social map that evolved alongside 150 years of spatial segregation. Finally, it is oppressive insofar as police, whether through obligation or inclination, have tended to over-criminalize the city’s disenfranchised living in those spaces.

YGB’s appeal to Koval and white Madisonians recognizes that these policies still operate in tandem with institutionalized segregation and habituated prejudice. In the context of policing, we should expect that both are likely to linger in the practices of seasoned officers and, from there, be transferred on to trainees. If this sounds alarmist, consider that it has been only twenty years since a building in Somerset Circle, a South Madison apartment complex, was consumed in a fire. Five African American children between five months and nine years old were killed. Situated on West Badger Road, close to where Park Street hits the Beltway, Somerset Circle was the site of frequent patrol visits from Madison police. An internal investigation of the police response to the event would later reveal that “police Sgt. Susan Pirocanac called the city police dispatcher on the 911 emergency number during the fire and sang ‘Somerset Circle is burning down’ to the tune of ‘London Bridge.’” The response of then-Police Chief David Couper to Pirocanac’s callousness is disturbingly similar to Koval’s defensive response to Robinson’s killing: “We will have to strive to prove that this is not the dominant attitude within this department” (Chippewa Herald-Telegram, 17 July 1990, p.15).

Ten years later, this same apartment complex, having changed its name to Parker Place, became a key target of Madison’s Chronic Nuisance Premises Ordinance. According to this law, landlords – rather than the city or local law enforcement – are charged with the responsibility to rectify and transform spaces of chronic disturbance and illegality. Failing this, the building itself becomes subject to eviction. The ordinance is one of many that serves to exclude and criminalize already marginal Madisonians by piggybacking directly off of MPD’s spatial imaginaries. A map of the eight building evictions that occurred during its 2008 trial period tells an important story about the city’s spatial divisions. All are located in historically African American and lower income areas in North and South Madison.

2008 Chronic Nuisance Premise Ordinance building evictions, map by Nick Lally (See also: Chronic Nuisance Premise Report.)

Policies and ordinances seeking to control over-criminalized spaces have a long legacy in Madison. Fifty years before Somerset Circle, it was the Triangle or Greenbush Area – between Park, Washington, and Regent Streets – that police and affluent white Madisonians considered to be the city’s “problem area.” The first half of the twentieth century saw this marginal space become the home to many of Madison’s African American and Italian and Jewish immigrant families. Part of the impetus behind the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Madison during the 1920s was the supposed need to defend the city’s white affluent neighborhoods from the “threat” of the Triangle. During this same period, the KKK became the most popular fraternity on the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s campus. It is said that surveillance squads of ‘Klan-friendly’ UW students, working in cahoots with MPD Klan members, roamed the Triangle streets, harassing community members in hopes of exposing illegal activities such as bootlegging.

If the case of the Triangle always included structural elements of racism, by the mid-twentieth century, city policy began to mask explicit prejudice behind the spatialized discourse of “urban blight.” By vilifying the space rather than a people, Madison’s privileged classes were able to accomplish a kind of structural enclosure of Triangle community members. Regardless of the lingering prejudices of city planners, police, and affluent Madisonians, the shift to ‘space’ allowed city policy to continue to treat Triangle residents as different by virtue – ostensibly – of where they lived rather than who they were. For Madisonians of raced, classed, and immigrant backgrounds, the change in discourse made little difference in the lived experiences of prejudice and marginalization. It was under these conditions that, in 1958, the Madison Redevelopment Authority began the redevelopment of the Triangle area. Funded by the notoriously wrongheaded Title I of the 1949 Housing Act’s federal urban renewal program, Madison used eminent domain to force Triangle residents out of their homes. Although it made no plans for building affordable housing elsewhere, the city of Madison gave these impoverished Triangle residents a mere sixty days to sell their homes and relocate. Many African American residents moved to the ‘South Side,’ the near East, or the North Madison neighborhoods adjacent to the airport – distributions that still exist today. In the meantime, the redevelopment project tore down much of the historic area and replaced it with commercial property and medical buildings.

Thus, Madison’s policies increasingly manipulated dimensions of spatial difference to mask abiding prejudices. There were certainly moments in the city’s history where spatialized racism retained the more familiar character of exclusion – for example, efforts by affluent whites to force African American Madisonians to swim in roped-off areas of Lakes Monona and Mendota or the Nakoma residents’ signed agreement with the Nakoma Homes Company that “No part of these premises shall ever be owned or operated by any person of the Ethiopian race” (the signers include the former UW–Madison President Conrad Elvehjem). But the nuances of distributed social prejudice were also increasingly inscribed on the landscape in the form of uneven development and spaces of difference. Nowhere is this legacy of spatial struggle more clearly reflected than in the radical histories of Madison’s African American community members and organizations – from St. Paul AME and First Baptist Churches, to Mother Watch, the NAACP, and the Urban League – who mobilized against segregation in the city’s housing, stores, schools, and health services.

YGB continues this struggle by agitating for concrete changes to address pervasive local disparities in policing, incarceration, economic opportunity, and spatial segregation that target Madison’s poor people and people of color. It is easy for everyone to recognize the disparities in the statistics highlighted by the Race to Equity report and MPD’s annual reports. But numbers cannot provide clear causal explanations. They are only traces of practices and structures that can do little more than hint at the lived experience of people on the ground. So while officials may be quick to recognize the problem of racial inequities reflected in those numbers, their rhetoric does not tend to translate into concrete changes in practice that address the concerns of those most affected by structural racism. Neither does it result in a break from current policies, which have failed to impact the statistics that show Madison to be a profoundly unequal place for people of color.

The mayor, the police chief, and other city officials have expressed regret and offered apologies for Robinson’s death. Yet, with few exceptions, they stop well short of acknowledging the roles of historic spatial segregation and localized discriminatory structures in reproducing the city’s long standing racial disparities. Built upon raced spatial exclusions that extend back more than a century, policing in Madison continues to criminalize and marginalize communities of color. Madison officials maintain that the police department is a key part of the solution rather than the problem. When asked about racial bias within the police department, Mayor Soglin asserted, “The problem lies within the entire criminal justice system.” He praised community policing efforts in Madison, saying, “it works, it’s successful and we’re not backing off.” However, by foisting blame onto a broad, abstract “system” for which no one person – nor city – could possibly be accountable, the Mayor ignores the impact of everyday policing practices. Similarly, in response to YGB’s explicit call for MPD to “dramatically reduce the number of police contacts with Black people and poor people,” Koval vowed to increase police presence in those communities as a means to “build relationships,” ignoring the real concerns about what these contacts lead to – arrests and incarceration.

Arrests by police on patrol in Madison, determined by keyword searches of police incident reports and searches of court records, map by Nick Lally.

Community groups are demanding substantive changes to address racial disparities. But if the city’s liberal officials were quick to acknowledge the existence of racialized inequity, they continually assign blame elsewhere. As M. Adams of YGB argues in a testimony before the Madison City Council, paying lip service to the shameful disparities in Madison without taking concrete actions to address them means being complicit with structural racism and violence.

It is time to address these racial disparities head-on and in all of their complexity, from the historical practices that have structured and spatialized racial and economic disparity, to the current ‘well-intentioned’ policies and practices that uphold and reproduce those inequities. Indeed, a 22-year-old news article from the Cap Times, titled “Madison: liberal, affluent — and racist?” reads like it was printed yesterday. It is time not only to ask hard questions, but also to take action: following the lead of long-standing and emergent Black activists in our community, challenging the complicity of everyday practices with structural racism, and truly addressing the reasons that statistics show Madison to be one of the worst places in the country to be Black.

To find out more and get involved, check out:

  • Young Gifted and Black Coalition is working to end state violence – including poverty and mass incarceration – against Black communities in Madison and Dane County.
  • No Dane County Jail Working Group is a collective of residents who oppose the construction of a new, expanded or renovated Dane County Jail.
  • Groundwork is a community organization working to achieve racial justice and equity in Dane County.
  • MOSES is an interfaith organization taking action on issues of social justice in Wisconsin, such as mass incarceration.
  • Freedom Inc. is an organization in Madison which engages with communities of color to bring about social, political, cultural and economic change.


1 Department of Geography, University of Kentucky
2 Queens’ College, University of Cambridge
3 Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin–Madison

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