Police shooting spotlights racial split in Wis. capital

Scott Bauer
Associated Press

Madison, Wis. — Known as a liberal haven with a long history of progressive politics, Madison takes pride in being named one of the nation's best places to live, raise a family and retire, lovingly embracing its unofficial motto as "77 square miles surrounded by reality."

But the fatal shooting of an unarmed young biracial man by a white police officer in the heart of one of the city's most liberal neighborhoods is forcing a renewed discussion about the racial divide in a community where African-Americans make up 7 percent of the population but account for a disproportionate share of arrests, incarcerations and children in poverty.

"Madison relies on its progressive history and past to ignore the current realities," said Sergio Gonzalez, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. "It's unfortunate it takes the death of a 19-year-old to open up the eyes of Madison."

Tony Robinson was shot and killed by police officer Matt Kenny early Friday evening while investigating a call that the young man was jumping in and out of traffic and had assaulted someone. The officer heard a disturbance and forced his way into an apartment where Robinson had gone. Authorities said Kenny fired after Robinson assaulted him.

The Associated Press had described Robinson as black based on police descriptions of him. But at a news conference Monday, family members repeatedly emphasized that he embraced a biracial identity from having a white mother and black father.

Since the shooting, the police chief and mayor — both white — have struck a conciliatory tone with black leaders, who have organized peaceful protests and marches in reaction to the shooting. The police chief apologized for the shooting on Monday without acknowledging any wrongdoing by the officer or the department. An investigation by the state Department of Justice is ongoing.

Those who have worked for years on addressing Madison's racial disparities hope the shooting brings new attention to underlying problems in the city of 240,000 that is anchored by the university and the state Capitol.

A 2013 report by Wisconsin Children and Families analyzed census data to paint a picture of two Madisons — one where white people were thriving and blacks were struggling.

The report showed the jobless rate for blacks in Dane County, which includes Madison, was 25 percent in 2011 compared with 5 percent for whites. That was a larger divide than both the state and national average.

The percentage of black children living in poverty in Madison was 58 percent over a three-year period ending in 2013, compared with 5 percent for white children. Nationally, 38 percent of black children were in poverty over that time.

Student test scores, juvenile and adult arrests rates, incarceration rates and graduation rates all show massive gaps between whites and blacks.

"This is one of the best places in America, and I love this community. But until we solve some of the issues in this city, we can't call ourselves progressive," said Michael Johnson, leader of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. "It's like a cancer. You have to root out the problems causing the economic challenges for the city."