New Berlin Mayor’s Characterization of Citizens as Bigots Should Have Been Snobs

It’s too bad. There are so many closed-minded people. In New Berlin, WI, plans for a low-income housing unit have been underway. When this was announced to residents, they sent the mayor emails asking him to reconsider for various reasons, including an increase in crime, an increase in property taxes, and home/property devaluation. For an overview of this controversy (including a copy of the offending email), please visit this story at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website. These may be sincere, valid concerns. But they also may be thinly veiled racism, since minorities are disproportionately represented in low-income communities.

New Berlin is an upper middle class suburb where the population is 95% white (see for the demographic information). In addition, the average home value is $164,200 and the average annual household income is $79,346. The emails sent to the mayor discuss how the people who live in New Berlin chose to do so because they wanted to be in a nice neighborhood away from crime and with “quality people”.

I can, in a way, understand these concerns. Nobody wants to hear gunshots and sirens all the time. And people want to believe that their homes and children are safe. Unfortunately, those kind of beliefs are often based on assumptions and the safety itself is just an illusion. Think of all the news stories about suburban kids using and selling recreational drugs (often the sum of excess free time and excess disposable income – the reasons the parents live in the ‘burbs to begin with) and how the parents always seem so surprised.

Let’s look at this another way. Let’s say you live in New Berlin (or a place like it) and have a teenager who has worked at a local retail store or fast food restaurant (common teen jobs) and is graduating from High School. Maybe your kid goes away to college and decides s/he wants to come back home to work and create a life. In general, entry-level jobs do not support living in this kind of a suburb – much less the kinds of entry level jobs recent college graduates are getting in this economy. So maybe your kid gets a job in town, but has to live 15-20 miles away, where housing is actually affordable and s/he can get a roommate. Then this person has to pay more in gas every day for a commute which could be unnecessary but for a community’s desire to maintain an image. This person has to pay a higher sales-tax rate (because in Milwaukee County, the sales tax is 5.6% versus the 5.1% in New Berlin), provided s/he shops near home. This person has to travel further to see family and enjoy many things in the hometown community. Wouldn’t you, as the parent, want your kid to be able to afford to live nearby? Wouldn’t you want your kids friends (even the ones who decided college wasn’t the way to go) to be able to stick around? What if your kid chose a worthwhile line of work with low pay (working for a non-profit or religious institution – or just teaching!)? Would you want these people to be included in your community or eliminated because the city is trying to maintain an image? Or would you want your community to consistently be infused with new people trying desperately to escape the city? Can it even be called a community if your children are economically forced out as young adults?

I think that dismissing an project that could really help enrich the community through racial, economic, and educational diversity is a mistake that no community can afford to make. The people that wrote the emails linked to above were acting in a selfishly snobby way. Racist? Maybe. But selfish and snobby? Definitely. That’s what the mayor should have called them out for. And the plan should go forward – at least until someone can come up with a valid, unselfish and un-snobby reason it shouldn’t.

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