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Residents Of Kenosha, Wis., Say Racism Runs Deep In Their Community


The president completed his visit to Kenosha, Wis., yesterday. In a city torn by different kinds of violence, he leaned hard to one side and did so in a way that fits his reelection themes. The president praised law enforcement and blamed, quote, "domestic terror" for destruction amid protests there. In public remarks, he did not mention Jacob Blake - that's the man shot multiple times in the back by a police officer in an encounter captured on video. A reporter asked the president about systemic racism, and the president changed the subject.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you believe systemic racism is a problem in this country?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you know, you just keep getting back to the opposite subject. We should talk about the kind of violence that we've seen in Portland and here and other places.

INSKEEP: That's how the president used his microphone in Kenosha, but how do Kenosha residents view race in their own community? NPR's David Schaper has been asking.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Forty-two-year-old Kenneth Smith is walking down 22nd Avenue in Kenosha's Uptown neighborhood with his young son, shaking his head as he looks at the burned-out buildings where busy local businesses stood just a week before.

KENNETH SMITH: It's just - it's sad. It's really sad. There's no other word for it but just sad, man. It's just sad.

SCHAPER: Smith says he frequented a lot of these places.

SMITH: Yeah, the taco place over here that's damaged and destroyed. That place, Trends right there, I went to - Open Pantry.

SCHAPER: While a used car lot, a furniture store and a state parole office were destroyed in Kenosha's downtown, here in the predominantly Black Uptown area, close to two entire blocks burned, and other buildings were damaged. While Smith understands the anger and frustration over the police shooting, he says those who burned businesses in his neighborhood were not from here.

SMITH: 'Cause why would they? You know, you got a lot of people in this area that eat in this area, Uptown area. I don't see them burning down a place that they spend money at on a regular basis.

SCHAPER: About 12% of Kenosha's residents are Black, and many of them live in this lower-income neighborhood.

TANYA MCLEAN: This town is completely divided.

SCHAPER: Tanya McLean is a mother, social worker and part of a group called the Coalition to Dismantle Racism (ph) in Kenosha.

MCLEAN: I mean, all of the poverty is in one spot. So what does that say? The jobs are lacking here. The opportunities are lacking. Something has to change here or this is going to continue.

SCHAPER: While many cities are racially divided, Marc Levine says it's worse here. His research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that southeast Wisconsin has some of the greatest racial inequities in the country.

MARC LEVINE: From poverty to employment to general income trends to income inequality, incarceration trends, school segregation levels - Black Milwaukee ranked either the worst or next-to-worst among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas. And, in fact, on most indicators that I've looked at, the status of the Black community in Kenosha is actually slightly worse.

SCHAPER: Levine says what's most startling about his study is how little the trends in southeast Wisconsin have changed over the years. While other regions have gradually seen less segregation and some economic and educational gains since the '80s and '90s, southeast Wisconsin has not. Lorna Revere is a small-business owner from nearby Racine.

LORNA REVERE: I do feel that we are marching backwards. People of color are getting pushed backwards at a rapid rate.

SCHAPER: As she prepares to participate in a weekend protest march and rally, I asked Revere if she's at least encouraged by seeing such a large and racially diverse crowd.

REVERE: This warms my heart to see all these people here today. It does. But I don't have a great amount of hope right now.

SCHAPER: At a news conference last week, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian acknowledged the challenge of restoring hope.


JOHN ANTARAMIAN: The city already had started working with the clergy on dealing with how we were going to deal with racism and how we were going to start dealing with some of the problems that we're facing.

SCHAPER: But the mayor didn't offer any specifics beyond forming committees and meetings in churches. Back in Uptown, where some small businesses and the apartments above them were destroyed, 58-year-old Eric Vines - who was born and raised here - wonders if any can rebuild.

ERIC VINES: I don't even know how, or how long it would take for all this to come back or if it will. I hope it does. But it's like, it's unimaginable to even see it coming back. With all the chaos going on, it's going to take a whole lot.

SCHAPER: Many here say changing deep-seeded racial inequities starts at the ballot box this November. In a county that President Trump won by just 255 votes four years ago, the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the protests and violence that followed are likely to shape this year's outcome.

David Schaper, NPR News, Kenosha, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 1, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
The original audio of this story misidentified the victim of the police shooting in Kenosha, Wis., as Jacob Brown. His name is Jacob Blake.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.