On the Culture of Racism with Barbara Becker, Esq.

By Patricia Obletz, Editor
Fall 2014

Barbara Becker, Esq., might best be known for her elder law practice, for which she’s received a wall of award plaques. Two of them are for the Marquette Law School Journal 2008 Achievement Recognition Award and the 2009 Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups Activist of the Year Award. She recently retired from practicing law, but has no plans to retire from her lifelong passion to help improve life for people endangered by reckless pursuits of profit at the expense of the environment, and by savage pursuits of minority groups at the expense of human and civil rights.

Becker and I became friends after meeting in 2010 at campaign strategy committee meetings to elect civil rights attorney James H. Hall, Jr., Esq. president of NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Milwaukee. An elected member of the Executive Committee for more than a decade, Becker was, in 2010, nominated for and won the First Vice President seat in Pres. Hall’s first cabinet, and was elected the Assistant Secretary in 2012. Although she isn’t planning to run again this year, she will continue to volunteer at NAACP, focusing on voter registration, Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (MMFHAC), Human Resources Committee, and the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center Advisory Board, where she is nomination committee chair.

Born in 1941, Becker grew up on the south side of Racine, Wisconsin, with parents who were open-minded, intelligent and positive people, qualities they passed on to her. They were well-spoken, knowledgeable and encouraging. Since there wasn’t much money, “there was never any talk of going to college.” Becker’s gym teacher filled that void by giving her a list of words to learn to help her do well on college entrance exams. Back then, Wisconsin gave top high school students free tuition, which enabled Becker to graduate from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1963. The following year, she won a graduate fellowship and studied Chinese and linguistics at UW, and a year later was awarded an NDEA graduate fellowship to study Chinese at Georgetown University.

In 1965 Becker gave birth to the first of two children and moved to the Milwaukee area where her husband had employment. Active in the clean air movement, she became president of the Southeast Wisconsin Clean Air Coalition in 1972, for which she testified when they were setting their pollution standards; she spoke at public hearings and followed pollution prosecutions in court cases and was awarded Citizen Activist of the Year by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1973. She “also worked with two other women to get rid of the Milwaukee County Air Pollution Control Department because they were in the pocket of industry. We succeeded and brought in state oversight by the DNR.”

Black Children Face Heartbreaking Obstacles

Becker’s activism branched out when she met Slack Ulrich in the mid-1970s at Marquette Law School. Early in their courtship, he told her that, driving through the inner city of Milwaukee, “he saw a little African American girl on a street corner waiting to cross and he started crying. He said, ‘It just hurt me so much to think about all the prejudice that she has to face in her life, so many obstacles ahead of her to overcome to succeed.’ His response to that little girl deeply moved me and raised my awareness of issues I thought had been resolved with the Civil Rights Act in 1964.”

Ulrich was on a number of boards of director. While on the Fox Point Bayside School Board, the first African American began to teach in the school district in a kindergarten teacher exchange program with Milwaukee Public Schools. On the board of Northcott Neighborhood House for a period of years, he was active in civil rights. “He went to school in Indianapolis and was acutely aware of segregation. His high school was huge and all white, with black kids in a different school. Although he didn’t have African American friends, he grew up with this fire in his belly that segregation was wrong and we needed to break down those walls. We both joined the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, MMFHC, when it first started in the late 1970s. Bill Tisdale, from St. Louis, worked with (and later married) Carla Wertheimer to increase Council membership and test landlords and home sellers for discrimination.”

While in law school, one of Becker’s black study mates assumed that she was a Republican because she was active in the environmental protection movement — Nixon had started the EPA in 1970. When a landlord denied her classmate a lease, he asked Becker to try to rent that apartment in Milwaukee, because they had similar credentials. Since she already had an apartment, she felt dishonest about carrying out his request, she said.

After joining MMFHC, she learned that house testing was legal. She became a tester and followed a script giving her character the same qualifications to rent in or buy housing that African Americans had, but who had been denied, to determine if the landlord was discriminating. She said, “I felt very bad about turning down that man’s request to test the landlord who had refused to rent to him when we were in the law school study group.”

Becker joined the MMFHC Human Resources Committee. Ulrich was on the board of directors with long-time activist and first Black Milwaukee police sergeant Felmers O. Chaney. Since Becker and Ulrich rode to work together, she’d wait for him at MMFHC when the board met and got acquainted with Felmers Chaney that way.

After attending the Chaneys’ anniversary celebration, Becker said she “learned a little bit about African American people: they had collected money so the Chaneys could go on a trip…

“Felmers later called around the beginning of 2000 and said that a small group of NAACP members had a complaint against the president of the NAACP (Milwaukee) and asked if I would represent them. I’d been a member for a long time by then, but through the national office. I never got any communication from the local organization. After Felmers asked me to represent the group who had written a complaint against then president Jerry Ann Hamilton, I agreed and met with Dorothy Coleman, Lauri Wynn and Bettye Loving who had signed the Article X Complaint. The hearing was the worst experience as a lawyer. There was no communication before the hearing. National just sent out a notice about when the hearing was going to be, which was practically the next day. National sent three people and we sat in a room. They wouldn’t let me present my opening statement on behalf of the group in Milwaukee; they wouldn’t let me present evidence, as you would in a court trial; they wouldn’t let me introduce witnesses to testify; they wouldn’t even let the complainants sit in the room while they took testimony from those alleged to have violated the bylaws of the NAACP. They wouldn’t even let me in the room to observe the process of their interview with Hamilton. We had no idea what anybody said in that process. There were no recordings made. There were no notes taken that I know of. At the end of one day, they made a decision. They told us, ‘You lose Bettye Loving, Dorothy Coleman and Lauri Wynn. We find in favor of Jerry Ann Hamilton.’ There was no written decision. The Milwaukee Branch was put on probation for financial problems and was required to pay the travel and lodging expenses of a National Board member to come to Milwaukee and monitor the Branch for a year.

“After the hearing in 2000, I was elected to the branch executive committee and got a first-hand view of how things were run. By 2008, I was so disgusted with the way (Hamilton) ran things that I refused to serve another term on the Board. I continued to support the Freedom Fund Dinner, and to register people to vote.”

The Wild West = 21st Century “Stand Your Ground” Laws

“Every time I hear of a black person who is charged with something dishonest or with incompetency, I have to wonder, is there validity there? There may be a little bit of validity, but there’s also a lot of racial bias that can build a case. I don’t like to be suspicious and think there’s a conspiracy going on behind every bush. But there’s enough evidence of it happening sometimes that we think it’s happening all the time, and I don’t know if it’s true. It makes me distrustful of government, though. I want to see the evidence before I judge. That’s what I’m looking for in the Dontre Hamilton case (unarmed black man killed by a policeman in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park in April 2014). The investigation into this matter has been completed but not yet issued to the public. The district attorney has the report and has to decide whether or not to charge the officer.

“I think the gun movement has a large part in making police fearful so that they shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the wild west. Anybody with a gun and a badge thinks he can control the world. Everything David Clarke as Milwaukee County sheriff stands for, especially the right to defend your castle with a gun, seems to me to incite more police to shoot first. The right to bear arms, I think, leads to a lot of premature killings by the police because they’re afraid that someone has a gun.

“The cultural divide gets wider and wider and it’s more difficult to bridge. Especially since the financial crash of 2008. And a lot of white people don’t know any Black people, and don’t understand the role racism plays in their own lives.”

The prison for profit industry has never been wealthier. Since 1980, the number of federal prisoners increased 790 percent. The growing movement against high incarceration rates of black men in Wisconsin is the “11×15 Project,” which includes exchanging prison cells for addiction treatment programs. WISDOM, the statewide organization seeking justice and common good, launched this campaign in 2013. “One of the biggest predictors of juvenile and adult crime is the lack of a male role model in the home. Given the high rate of incarceration of black boys and men, there are few fathers available,” Becker said.

“It just outrages me that black men and women, who have served their time and are past their mandatory release date, are still being held in the corrections system, and there’s no excuse or reason given: there are more than a 1,000 people eligible for parole right now. I don’t understand why the corrections secretary, which is a cabinet position in Wisconsin, hasn’t owned up to this fact and said why they’re keeping people. What’s his excuse? In other states, governors are touting prison reform and claiming that prisons are not a jobs program. But, you never hear anything like that from (Gov.) Scott Walker. In Wisconsin, prisons are a jobs program.

“We need a massive letter-writing campaign to the governor’s office demanding prison reform,” Becker said with intensity. “WISDOM’s open letter to the governor sums up numerous studies as well as Center for Investigative Journalism in-depth reports and concludes that, beyond 15 days, solitary confinement is torture.” The letter also quotes Secretary of Corrections Ed Wall’s memo to his staff: “Simply locking inmates up with little consideration for programming, corrective instruction or positive reinforcement may really just be helping to create a worse behavior problem.” If state residents added their own letters of protest, perhaps the state will correct this abuse.

Human Brain Still Primitive

“I think that the human brain is still at a very primitive level, which would account for racists --- I raised two sons and there sure was a lot of competition and aggression. I think that this is a basic part of the human brain, that reptile part of our brain, which makes people fight strangers, fear them and fight for territory appears to be deep-seated in humans. The more educated you are, I think, the less likely you are to hold those prejudices. And, the more we mix the races when kids are growing up, the better chance they have in not being racially biased when they grow up. I look at what’s happened with the Milwaukee public schools and the efforts to first desegregate them, and then the effort to integrate them with the suburban schools because they can mix races, black and white, and how that’s all now considered a dismal failure. But having all black schools in the city and having the surrounding schools be all white is no solution, either. Kids don’t get a quality education, no matter how good the school, when they are segregated. And people segregate themselves – so how do you change the human heart, that reptile brain? How do you get at those fears, those prejudices? Why do we fear somebody who has a different skin color? I would more likely fear somebody with power who can buy any kind of advertising against the opposition. It is interesting though, that despite all the money that went into the last two presidential elections, we elected and re-elected a black man. The younger generation, who don’t have as much racial prejudice, voted him in. But where’s the support for him now? His approval rating is about 47 percent (8/14), despite his major accomplishments. He’s being blamed for the obstructionism in Congress.

“It won’t be that long before white people are the minority group. Perhaps that’s why the incarceration rate of black people is so high. But a lot of people don’t know that, once they finish their probation, they can get reinstated and vote. Ex-felon Gary George is an example, and he ran for US Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s seat in the recent primary. According to the daily paper’s political analysis of the recent primary, the African American community ‘overwhelmingly re-elected Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke,’ less because he’s black, and more because he promotes guns.

Becker said that city aldermen aren’t doing their job when it comes to the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM). She doesn’t know why black Milwaukee city councilmen haven’t gone after the mayor for allowing federal Community Development Block Grant money to fund white developers and contractors, who don’t hire the residents and who gentrify inner-city neighborhoods, which then forces out African Americans because they cannot afford the new housing. The City of Milwaukee has spent millions of dollars on disparity studies that prove these Civil Rights Law violations, but very little has been done to correct this enormous problem. The Westlawn Project exemplifies this. In September 2013, NAACP Milwaukee issued a statement regarding the results of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) investigation that found that the HACM failed to comply with Section 3.

Shaking her head, Becker said, “We haven’t really civilized our thinking to the extent that people focus on the human being rather than on his or her looks and origins. We have always been wary of people who do not look like us. I’ve gotten tired of going to programs that focus on the high incarceration rate and the block grants aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do and the mayor not doing his job. I don’t see action following them; I see public education, but people just go home and continue their lives. We can only judge by what the mayor does, but we can’t prove that he’s in the pocket of conservative foundations. Kurt R. Bauer used to be CEO of SEWRPAC, SE Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, when I was on their Air Pollution Advisory Council in the late 70s-80s, but he left there to head up the Wisconsin Bankers Association. I think he now heads up Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Association. He runs that organization, but it looks like the bankers are running it. Unfortunately, they are so right wing, so anti-civil rights in every respect… it’s a shame.

“I think globalization has contributed to the economic oppression because the less skilled jobs were sent overseas where wages were lower and labor conditions were worse. I also think that the recession has contributed to more people now having economic fears, which make them less likely to feel charitable toward people trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps… I think this feeds into the gun movement.

“What’s the answer though, since those factory jobs aren’t coming back. We’re certainly not educating black children in the inner city very well to prepare them for tech and trade jobs, such as computer programming and carpentry. Wisconsin is the worst state in the US for black children according to the latest research. No wonder there are more guns in the hands of young black men who live in the inner city. Hopelessness breeds desperation and clinical depression. What’s the answer? We know that a good education is the best way to achieve a successful future. We also know that children do better when their fathers are available.

“Although I sometimes feel discouraged by the myriad problems we face in Milwaukee, I know that, unless I’m willing to stay focused and involved, then I’m part of the problem, not the solution. I hope that others will see the need and work in whatever capacity they can to change things here. The Greater Together Challenge of the Association of Graphic Artists to address and change the culture of racism is one of those positive steps forward.”

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 09, 2016

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