Black Voters in Milwaukee Say They’re ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’

August 18, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

MILWAUKEE—Democrats and Republicans are both courting Wisconsin’s black voters, whose failure to turn out for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was a shock and seen as a critical hit to her presidential campaign.

The mostly virtual Democratic National Convention, which is being held in Milwaukee through Aug. 20, has signaled the Democrats’ desire to win back their hold on the state. Clinton lost it by a small margin of 0.7 percent, and winning Milwaukee’s black voters—who make up 40 percent of the city’s population—could make all the difference for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The Republicans have also made overtures to the city’s black voters, setting up their first campaign office in the city in decades—in the predominantly black neighborhood of Bronzeville. 

On Aug. 4, Bronzeville resident Calvin Burrell stood across the street from that office (which was heavily vandalized after opening in February) and called it a “publicity stunt.” 

He said he’ll never vote Republican, but he doesn’t have high hopes for Democrats, either. 

Democrats “will come again, talk a good game, say all the right things to get elected, and then ease away from the platform ideas that help the inner city or the African American community,” he said.

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Calvin Burrell stands across the street from the Republican campaign office in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 4, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

“I, as an African American voter, feel as though I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “Ultimately, both parties act in the same manner.”

One thing is for sure, he will vote.

“I can’t give up voting; too many of my ancestors fought and died for me to have that right.”

He got out to vote for Clinton in 2016, even though he felt “she really didn’t want to be president. I don’t think she campaigned hard enough.”

She didn’t campaign in Wisconsin at all, presumably expecting it to be a sure thing. 

In 2016, turnout among the state’s black voters was about 20 percent lower than in 2012, according to data compiled by the Center for American Progress. Predominantly black districts of Milwaukee were among those with a big drop in turnout. 

During President Donald Trump’s tour following his election victory, he thanked black voters: “They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. So thank you to the African American community.” 

At Gee’s Clippers, steps away from the GOP office in Bronzeville, barber Chris Schmidt told The Epoch Times that he usually votes Democratic, and he’ll vote for Biden, but it’s not because he has high hopes for the former vice president.

“Biden is just as much a problem as the rest of them,” Schmidt said. “But you kind of weigh it out, the lesser of two evils.”

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Chris Schmidt, a barber at Gee’s Clippers, stands outside his workplace in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 4, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
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The Republican campaign office on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 4, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

A big hit against Biden in Schmidt’s mind is the controversial 1994 crime bill authored by Biden, which has been blamed for causing a sharp rise in incarceration. Milwaukee is infamous for having an especially high incarceration rate among black men.

Trump has highlighted a couple of accomplishments under his presidency as benefiting black people. One was the low unemployment rate among black people before COVID-19. And the other was his implementation of the First Step Act, which aimed to lessen the overincarceration of black people.

Burrell said he thinks the low unemployment was due to the actions of Barack Obama. Schmidt said the First Step Act was “just something to put on his resume. I just don’t believe he is for us.”

Trump’s George Floyd Response

Schmidt and Burrell both reacted to Trump’s handling of events following George Floyd’s death in police custody. 

“His racial undertone is what rubs us. He called protesters thugs or hoodlums,” Schmidt said. “We are not criminals. We are hardworking Americans just like everybody else.” 

Burrell said, “You call people who are protesting the death of George Floyd thugs. And at the same time, you call people that take, say, the Capitol building in Michigan ‘patriots.’ You can’t label black folks thugs and then tell us to come vote for you.” 

Following violence on the streets of Minneapolis, Trump tweeted on May 29, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen.” 

After events in Michigan on May 1, during which protesters—including some who were armed—called for stay-at-home orders to be lifted and forced their way into the Capitol building, Trump tweeted, “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely!”

About 90 percent of black voters disapprove of Trump’s response to Floyd’s death, according to a June Washington Post-Ipsos poll. The poll found 76 percent disapprove of how he handled the subsequent protests. 

Meanwhile, 70 percent say racism or police treatment of black people will be one of the most important issues in their presidential vote.

About 90 percent of black voters were also unhappy with Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a May poll by the African American Research Collaborative. Schmidt said Trump’s response should have been stronger and quicker. Burrell also said he feels Republicans are blocking efforts to stop the disease. 

Aside from feelings on particular issues, there has been a general sense among black voters that politicians don’t care about them. 

In 2019, The Black Futures Lab conducted what it said was the largest survey of black people in more than a century; about half of the respondents said politicians don’t care about them, and an additional 35 percent said politicians care about them only a little. 

“Well, politicians, in all those glorious speeches … you think you are included, but once they get elected, you are not,” Warren Harper told The Epoch Times on Aug. 7, at the bar he has owned for decades in Milwaukee’s Franklin Heights neighborhood.

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Warren Harper, at his bar, Warren’s Lounge, in the Franklin Heights neighborhood of Milwaukee, on Aug. 7, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
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Warren’s Lounge in the distressed neighborhood of Franklin Heights in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 7, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

“I will vote for the Democrat candidate,” Harper said. “The Republicans are for the status quo. They want things the way they were back in the 50s and 60s.”

A Troubled Neighborhood

Franklin Heights is northwest of Bronzeville and part of it is covered by the ZIP code 53206, which was featured in the 2017 documentary, “Milwaukee 53206” for having an especially high incarceration rate; at the time, 60 percent of its adult black male residents were either in prison or had served time. 

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A boarded-up house in the 53206 ZIP code area of Milwaukee, on Aug. 7, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
A boarded house in the 53206 ZIP code area of Milwaukee, on Aug. 7, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Harper recalled the changes he’s seen in the area. When booming manufacturing in Milwaukee attracted many black workers from the south in the 1970s, Harper opened his bar across the street from the city’s largest manufacturer, A.O. Smith, which produced automobile frames. 

“There were a lot of factories here at the time, International Harvester, Allis-Chalmers … one by one, they left,” Harper said. A.O. Smith is long gone, too. “Now we are the poorest neighborhood in the country, I guess.”

It’s not the poorest neighborhood, but the signs of distress are clear. Once a middle-class neighborhood, its streets are lined with single-family homes. Many are badly damaged, boarded up, or covered in paint that’s chipped and peeling. 

Burdette Senter, 57, sat on the steps of house he was helping repair in his neighborhood—in ZIP code 53206—on Aug. 7, and told The Epoch Times he’s not sure about his vote this year. 

“I’m undecided,” he said. “If Biden becomes the president, we are still going to be in the same situation. He’s going to do no better than Trump.”

“I’ll always be in my situation,” Senter said. “[It will be] as usual—a lot of violence, a lot of gun shootings, innocent kids getting shot over nothing, the same thing going on and on, and nothing changes. It’s getting worse.

“Because—we can be sitting here right now, somebody might come out and start shooting. You never know.

“All I can do is try to stay myself out of this madness. I just stay prayed up. Thank God that I woke up this morning.”

He said racism holds his community back. He voted for Obama, but he sat out the 2016 election. 

“It’s always the same thing. Everybody is giving offers and saying what they’re going to do, and it’s the same thing.”

Ken Black, 46, another area resident, said the only two votes he ever cast in his life were for Obama. 

“I was disappointed; he didn’t do anything for me,” Black told The Epoch Times, saying he wouldn’t vote this year because “it’s a waste of time.”

“It is all rigged. They put who they want in there. They don’t give people a fair chance.”

Catherine James, 64, said she’s not sure if she will vote this year.

“Sometimes, I don’t vote because I don’t feel comfortable. They talk about one thing and they’ll do something different,” she said.

“Sometimes I vote, but that doesn’t mean it really counts. It’s all rigged. They are going to put whoever they want in there.”

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Catherine James stands at a bus stop on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, on Aug. 4, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dietram Scheufele, whose research focuses on public opinions and political participation, told The Epoch Times, “The upcoming election is going to be one decided by turnout.”

“For the Democratic Party, you need to win big in Madison and Milwaukee, otherwise, you are not going to carry Wisconsin. I think last time has shown [that] pretty powerfully.”

A Vote for Trump

The only black Milwaukee resident who told The Epoch Times he will vote for Trump was Cedric Ford, 34. It will be the first time he ever casts a presidential vote. 

Also a resident within the ZIP code infamous for incarceration, Ford had spent most of his adult life in prison. 

He was born and raised in Sherman Park—just southwest of Franklin Heights—and he said, “[It’s] a rough neighborhood. [There was] a mixed-up crowd of young fellows, violent, wild. … So I had a gun to protect myself.”

In 2002, at the age of 16, he was caught with the gun and sentenced to about a year for illegal possession as a minor. He says being locked up set him further down the wrong path.

“It solidified my incorrigible belief,” Ford said. “It just solidified the belief that I had to do what I had to do in order to stay in the streets.” He became a drug dealer. 

At 19, he killed someone in a personal dispute, he said, and spent another five years behind bars. While out on parole in 2014, he violated the terms of his parole and went back to prison. He’s now been out for three years, and recently got back his right to vote, just in time for the November election.

Ford says he doesn’t live the criminal life anymore.

“I had nothing to live for back then. Now I gotta wake up and find a way to feed my kids every day,” he said. “I want to feed them, see them, hold them, and nurture them. I cannot do that in prison.”

He works for his cousin doing handyman jobs. He was painting a storefront on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Bronzeville on Aug. 4 when he told The Epoch Times, “I will vote for Trump, because he is the only person that can help us right now.” 

Epoch Times Photo
Cedric Ford paints a storefront on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, on Aug. 4, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

“[Trump] is not the normal puppet they usually put up there. He doesn’t always follow the lead of the Republican Party,” Ford said. 

“With our votes, he can win [Wisconsin], and I believe he’ll help us in the long run,” Ford said. “It’s gonna be ‘We help you stay in office, and you give us something.’”

He said his choice is rare among his friends and relatives. He pointed to his cousin and said, “He is very annoyed because I’m voting for Trump.”

Ford said his thinking comes from reading a lot, a habit he started in prison. He believes that it’s not the community that has changed over the years, but rather the mindset.

“The entrapped mindset that this is all it is. I believe that we trap ourselves to believing that we have no power,” Ford said.

“[Reading] just opens me up to know that I’m not who they say [I am].”