There's a contradiction in Dane County that is becoming hard to ignore. While the community is known for its high standard of living, educated workforce and progressive values, multiple studies have found African Americans here have one of the highest arrest and incarceration rates in the country, do poorly in school relative to whites, and live far more often in poverty.
Trying to get to the bottom of these seemingly incompatible truths inspired a report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families that measures the "extent and pattern" of racial disparities in Dane County.
"The desire to understand the seeming paradox between reputation and reality was an important motive behind the creation of the Race to Equity Project," the authors wrote in their introduction. "Could a place as prosperous, resourceful and progressive as Dane County also be home to some of the most profound, pervasive and persistent racial disparities in the country?"
Project director Erica Nelson acknowledges that Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County, to be released formally Wednesday at the annual YWCA Racial Justice Summit, did not produce the answer to the "paradox."
"If it were simple, many of these issues across the nation would be better resolved," she says in an interview.
But her team did disprove one initial theory about the "extreme degree of disparity."
"We expected that [local] whites would be doing better than whites on average, and blacks would be on par," she says. It turns out whites here do better on measures of health, employment and educational achievement than their national counterparts. But the wide gulf between races is due more to how poorly black residents fare relative to blacks nationally.
"It's being tugged on both ends, so the disparities are widening," says Nelson.
The local jobless rate in 2011 was 25.2% for blacks and 4.8% for whites, while the national unemployment rate for blacks was about twice that of whites.
The poverty disparity is worse: 54% of black Dane County residents lived below the poverty line in 2011, compared to 8.7% of whites. More startling: Nearly three-quarters of black children in 2011 were poor compared to 5.5% of white children.
These disparities "contribute to a pipeline of accumulating risk factors," which show up in the county's child welfare, juvenile justice and correctional systems, according to the report. More than twice as many black kids as white kids end up in foster care, for instance.
"What is extraordinary about Dane County's numbers... is the sheer magnitude of the disparities we found in many of the most fundamental status indicators," the researchers wrote.
Nelson and her team found some bright spots. The teen birth rate among Dane County African American moms was lower than the state or national average. And more local black moms earned at least a high school diploma than black moms elsewhere in Wisconsin or the country.
Nelson says a lot of good work is going on locally to address the disparities, including Madison's neighborhood resource teams and Dane County's Early Childhood Initiative, a home visitation program for pregnant women and caretakers. "We want to add value to the work that is being done," she says.
Nelson says it's unlikely any of the data-crunching her team did on local disparities is new. But for the first time all of the data -- whether measuring health, poverty, unemployment or arrests -- is gathered in one report.
"Part of the point of creating this baseline report is that by putting it all under one roof, people can begin to make the connections between the different indicators," Nelson says. That is, what happens in schools affects graduation rates, which affect future job prospects, and so on.
The report identifies some local conditions that likely fuel the wide racial disparities. The authors say the labor market favors those with advanced degrees and good contacts, while there are fewer opportunities for quality jobs for lower-skilled workers.
The local housing market offered some clues as well. The report found that about half of the area's low-income African American households are clustered in some 15 Madison neighborhoods. Typically these are dominated by large rental buildings and are surrounded by areas where white families own their homes. "The city and county actually have few, if any, large-scale and prominent black neighborhoods, such as those that culturally and politically anchor the African American community in most major cities," the authors wrote.
Nelson hopes the discussion at Wednesday's racial summit will help provide direction on next steps for the Race to Equity Project. She says she's already planning to gather similar data on the local Latino and Hmong communities and wants to make sure accountability measures are in place.
"We hope to track these same indicators to see what progress we have made."
Read the complete report.