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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher April 18, 2011

Rev. Jesse Jackson says Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America

The legislative offensive launched by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker against public employee unions has galvanized national debate for months. Perhaps no national figure has engaged the controversy as consistently as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jackson and staff from his Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition have traveled to  Madison, Milwaukee and out-state Wisconsin to attend demonstrations and register voters.

On April 4, 2011, Jackson appeared on MSNBC-TV’s "The Ed Show" via satellite from Madison, where he was attending a workers rally held on the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

In 1968, Jackson was with King, supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., when King was killed.

In his interview with host Ed Schultz, Jackson said he supported collective bargaining powers for workers. Then, reiterating that he was in Wisconsin, he called Milwaukee "the most segregated city in America."

It was unclear why Jackson linked collective bargaining to segregation, but he repeated his claim about Milwaukee the next day on WMCS-AM (1290), which serves Milwaukee’s African-American community. And he repeated it the following day, in a news release cheering the election of liberal philanthropist Chris Abele to Walker’s former post as Milwaukee County executive.

Milwaukee as long been considered one of the nation’s segregated cities. But we wanted to know if Jackson’s claim, that Milwaukee is the most segregated, is true.

In repeating his statement to Milwaukee radio host Eric Von, Jackson cited data he said had been released the previous week. A Rainbow PUSH spokeswoman told us Jackson was referring to an article that was posted on the Chicago Tribune website on April 1, 2011.

The article was actually text from a story that aired the same day on WITI-TV (Channel 6) in Milwaukee. The TV story mentioned new census data, but it actually relied on an article from, a news and entertainment website.

Salon reported March 29, 2011, on segregation rankings made four days earlier by William Frey and John DeWitt of the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network, which analyzes census data, and the Brookings Institution, a centrist-to-liberal Washington, D.C. think tank.

The rankings used 2010 census data and a "dissimilarity index" for 102 metropolitan areas with a population of over 500,000.

Let’s pause here to be clear on what part of the Frey-DeWitt study that Jackson used in making his claim.

Featured Fact-check

  • The part of the study Jackson cited measured segregation only between white and black residents. Asians, Hispanics and other minorities are not accounted for.
  • Jackson called Milwaukee the nation’s most segregated city, but the Frey-DeWitt study -- like other studies on the subject -- measured segregation in large metropolitan areas. For metro Milwaukee, that included racially mixed Milwaukee County, plus largely white Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties.
  • While racial segregation doesn’t have a precise meaning, Frey defines it with the dissimilarity index, which uses a scoring system in which zero is "complete integration" -- blacks and whites are distributed equally across neighborhoods; and 100 is "complete segregation" -- blacks and whites live in completely separate neighborhoods.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area scored 81.5 in the Frey-DeWitt study. In other words, 81.5 percent of black residents in metro Milwaukee would have to move to other parts of the metro area in order to achieve "complete integration."

That score ranked Milwaukee No. 1 on the black-white segregation list.

The New York metro area was second at 78 and metro Chicago, which includes the Kenosha area in Wisconsin’s southeastern corner, ranked third at 76.4.

So, in using Frey’s definition of segregation, Jackson was correct in saying that Milwaukee ranked as the most segregated -- except the Frey rankings are not for all cities, but rather large metro areas.

What we’re testing, however, is not whether Jackson accurately quoted a study, but whether his statement is accurate -- that segregation is highest in Milwaukee.

So, let’s examine some other recent segregation rankings.

Another March 2011 study of 2010 census data, done by John Logan of Brown University and Brian Stults of Florida State University, also used a dissimilarity index. It found that the Milwaukee metro area tied for first with Detroit in black-white segregation.

Another Frey study using the dissimilarity index, done in December 2010 with 2005-2009 census data, put metro Milwaukee No. 1 in black-white segregation rankings.

So, in three studies from December 2010 through March 2011, Milwaukee ranked first in black-white segregation twice and tied for first once.

The dissimilarity index -- sometimes called the segregation index -- is also used by Harvard University’s DiversityData project, the Mumford Center at State University of New York-Albany and other universities.

It is the most common measure of racial segregation, said Frey, although he acknowledged it has its limitations and its critics.

Two critics, John Pawasarat and Lois Quinn, happen to be senior scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Pawasarat and Quinn first took aim at the dissimilarity index in a 2003 research paper, published shortly after the Milwaukee metro area was ranked the third most segregated in the United States. They acknowledged that researchers have repeatedly used the dissimilarity index since it was popularized by two University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in 1965.

The Pawasarat-Quinn paper argued that the index "seeks an even distribution of the black population in the metro area as the ideal condition." They wrote:

"For example, if the black population in a metro area makes up 10 percent of the combined black and white populations, the goal of the segregation index would be to have each census tract with a 90 percent white and 10 percent black population out of the combined black-white total. Under the one-way-movement approach, if a census tract has 1,000 black residents and 18 white residents, all but 2 of the black residents would be expected to move out of the tract so that the tract could be 90 percent white."

Pawasarat and Quinn proposed in their paper an alternative measure of segregation, analyzing city blocks rather than metro areas. They said Milwaukee ranked 43rd with that measure.

The pair reiterated their criticisms of the widely used dissimilarity index to PolitiFact Wisconsin. Pawasarat said that even though the index is "the Bible now," it would view an area as integrated if it is 80 percent white and 20 percent black, but as segregated if the percentages are in reverse. Quinn said that "far more interesting" are attempts, such as a 2008 study made by DePaul University in Chicago, to measure ethnic, income and age diversity by neighborhood.

Jackson’s claim, however, was strictly about white-black racial segregation.

Let’s sum up the evidence.

Jackson claimed Milwaukee is the nation’s most segregated city. He didn’t define what he meant by segregated, but he referred to a study that measured segregation among whites and blacks.

While some may disagree with the measure used in the study, the approach has been recognized as a standard for decades. By that measure Milwaukee ranked No. 1 in white-black segregation. Jackson’s claim was accurate, although it needed some clarification, particularly in that the segregation measure is for the metropolitan area, not just the city.

We rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

MSNBC-TV, transcript of "The Ed Show," April 4, 2011, "The 10 most segregated urban areas in America," March 29, 2011

University of Michigan Social Science Data Analysis Network, dissimilarity index white-black segregation rankings using 2010 census data

US2010 Project, "The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis" preliminary report, March 24, 2011

Interview, Rev. Jesse Jackson on WMCS-AM (1290), April 6, 2011

Email interview, Rainbow PUSH coalition spokeswoman Lauren Love, April 6, 2011

Chicago Tribune, "Milwaukee earns dubious distinction of most segregated city in America," April 1, 2011

WITI-TV, "Milwaukee earns dubious distinction of most segregated city in America," April 1, 2011

Rainbow PUSH Coalition, news release, April 7, 2011

Brookings Institution, Census data: "Blacks and Hispanics take different segregation paths," Dec. 16, 2010

Brookings Institution, "100 largest metros: Black-white segregation indices sorted by 2005-2009 segregation,"Dec. 16, 2010

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "Racial integration in urban America," January 2003

Interview and email interview, University of Michigan population studies professor William Frey, April 12 and 13, 2011

Interview, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute Director John Pawasarat, April 12, 2011

Email interview, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee senior scientist Lois Quinn, April 13, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Milwaukee area tops Brookings segregation study of census data," Dec. 14, 2010

DePaul University, "A Kaleidoscope of Culture: Measuring the Diversity of Chicago’s Neighborhoods," July 1, 2008

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Rev. Jesse Jackson says Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America

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