Oshkosh Diversity in a Time of Reckoning

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A lot has changed since March 12, 2017.

Here, I’ll focus on issues related to diversity in Oshkosh since that date, which is when I wrote a Sunday editorial here entitled, “Now is the Time to Focus on Diversity & Inclusion.” This was the first in a series of several articles I’ve written on this topic.

That column started with a litany of disturbing things that recently had occurred nationally and in the wider region, and the obvious statement,

It’s clear that we are at a unique point in our history. 

I think it’s safe to say that was nothing compared to the moment of reckoning in which we find ourselves now.

Back to 2017, I continued,

To this point, we thankfully have not had any police shootings or major instances of violence targeting minorities in Oshkosh in recent years.

I was simultaneously working on a piece about what local officials were doing to ensure that this would remain the case, conducting interviews with the city manager and police chiefs for the city and university. I didn’t get a chance to complete it before that premise became moot. 

Sadly, just four months later, in July, 2017, Isaiah Tucker, a 28-year old, African American Oshkosh native, was shot at eleven times and killed by police while trying to flee a domestic disturbance in a vehicle. Two months later, the Winnebago County District Attorney declined to press charges, arguing that the actions of the officers involved were justified under the self-defense statute, despite Tucker not having a weapon. While there was a small march and some criticism of the police department and district attorney’s office after the killing and lack of charges for the officers, this event did not produce widespread protest. 

Since then, of course, George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police in Minneapolis, which helped launch the mantra Black Lives Matter (BLM) into the mainstream and activate a local movement based upon it.

Led by a diverse group of young people, this loose BLM Oshkosh coalition has led marches, held numerous rallies at Opera House Square, issued a set of demands and sponsored a petition about local policing, hosted a cookout in South Park on Juneteenth, and shared their goal of starting an Oshkosh chapter of the NAACP. At the heart of the most emotional voicing of concerns in the square have been the open wounds of the Tucker case and the push for closure and justice in this regard from activists.

BLM Oshkosh Gathering, June 2019 (photo by Paul Van Auken)

Such extensive public engagement by young people around racial justice is not only a new phenomenon since the original column, but it may also be the most visible and sustained civil rights activism in Oshkosh since the “Black Thursday” era of the late 1960s. This is a welcome development, particularly given that shortly after celebrating its five-year anniversary of providing racial literacy training and serving as a de facto voice for Black people, FIt Oshkosh closed its doors this past spring.

On the other hand, racial tension is even more palpable now compared to 2017, in part stoked by the divisive politics of the current era. 

For example, our U.S. Representative Glenn Grothman last week claimed on the House floor that some people are trying “racialize the issue” of police reform, arguing, “they want to enrage Black people and they want to make white people feel guilty and not like America.”

In this same speech, Grothman mentioned the death of Duncan Lemp, a white “boogaloo boy”, helping to raise his stature as a martyr for that movement and, according to some, signaling to its adherents to take violent action, though Grothman claimed he randomly picked this name. In any case, the timing couldn’t have been worse, coming on the heels of a vicious, blatantly racist attack on an 18-year old bi-racial woman by young, white men dressed in boogaloo-oriented attire in Madison.

The facts are not on Grothman’s side. According to Statista Research, 2,987 people were killed by police in the U.S. between 2017 and June 4, 2020. Of those, 25% (755) were Black, while this group makes up only 13% of the total population. In the last 5 years, Black Americans have been fatally shot by police at a rate of 30 people per million people, compared to 13 people per million for white people.

Further, it has been widely observed that the current wave of George Floyd and BLM-related rallies throughout the nation is possibly the most widespread protest in U.S. history and has engaged both white people and people of color in unprecedented ways, causing many commentators to suggest that something is different this time, and providing further evidence against Grothman’s claims.

Similarly, the president has employed federal troops to push protestors aside for a photo opp and tried to divert attention from the many urgent issues in front of him by repeatedly (and without merit) blaming the unrest on “antifa.” He has generally continued to follow the successful playbook he’s used since starting his political odyssey: sow racial and cultural discord.

It is notable that while attending several of the BLM rallies on the square, I have observed that people who demonstrably react while passing by have been overwhelmingly supportive, but there have been a number of middle fingers and “f*#k you all!”s towards the protestors. The most common oppositional response, though, has been for people to simply hold their red hat or Trump sign in the air; this is telling given that the protests have not been directed at the president, but these supporters of his clearly view the whiteness of MAGA as trumping the claim that Black Lives Matter. 

The president’s own recent volley in the race and culture wars came when he retweeted a video featuring a skirmish between his fans and protesters at a retirement village, thanking the “great people” who supported him. In the video, one of the great people, an elderly white man driving a golf cart decked out with a “Trump 2020” sign, shook his fist in the air and yelled, “White Power!”

I would simply shake my head at the comic absurdity of this episode if it didn’t hit so close to home.

Raising two children in Oshkosh whose Black lives matter very much to me and being a sociologist who studies racial inequality, it was a no-brainer to place a BLM sign in the front yard of our central city home. Already feeling on edge from the fatigue of twin pandemics — from Covid-19 and systemic racism — though, the presence of this simple symbol of support quickly took it to a higher level for me. 

Living on a corner with no backyard, the only spot to put our new inflatable pool is in the front yard, which features a variety of perennial plants, fruit trees and bushes, and very often our quite conspicuous family. There is a lot to look at for people at the four-way stop on our corner. Are they checking out the pool? Staring at us? Glaring at us? Just taking in the whole scene? It’s hard to know.

Our sign has only garnered a handful of obvious responses to this point, including a couple thumbs-up. I did not see the person, but while sitting on the porch some days ago I heard a young female voice yell, in more of a sad-sounding whine, “My life matters, too.” I think I muttered to myself, “Okay…nobody’s questioning that.”

Unlike many who seem to oppose BLM because they are truly choosing sides, this person simply may not understand the message behind the phrase, which is actually pretty straightforward, as long one can view it objectively and not through the lens of polarized politics. Since I won’t have the opportunity to facilitate a discussion with this person in my Sociology 101 class or otherwise, the best I can do is let the sign from these young Des Moines protestors explain it.

Photo by Ryan Lenz, special to the Des Moines Register

A subsequent retort took the cake, though. Once again, I sat on my porch on a beautiful, sunny day in Oshkosh. Similar to what was happening in Trump’s re-tweeted video, an elderly couple slowly approached our house on motorized scooters. As they got closer, the woman started vigorously pointing to our sign, saying, “There! There!” As they turned the corner to scoot past our house, she raised her fist in the air and yelled, “White Power!” I couldn’t make it up if I wanted to. And though it was such a goofy scene, it’s nonetheless a bit chilling to have such misguided vitriol aimed at my house and family, too.

Going back to the original column, I wrote,

Our population remains quite homogeneous and people of color may not see it as very inclusive or welcoming. How important are these concerns to those in power? What can we expect for the future? Many local people and some institutions seem to be working together to try to figure it out.

This was the period in which the Oshkosh City Council was considering the creation of a diversity coordinator position, which Appleton had already done in the 1990s. This has not come to pass, but last month the council voted unanimously to create a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion advisory committee and shortly thereafter Mayor Lori Palmeri (another notable change since 2017, being the first female and person of color elected to the post) filled it with a strong-looking and diverse group of committed local people. 

Around the same time, a long list of alums of local public schools signed on to a letter demanding reform of the Oshkosh Area School District’s curriculum, practices, and staffing as it relates to race and diversity, and a grassroots group calling itself Oshkosh Parents of Black and Brown Students emerged to advocate for similar changes.

These are all steps in the right direction. Time will tell whether this indeed proves to be a watershed moment in our city’s history of human relations, yielding systemic change that makes it more inclusive and equitable to go along with being increasingly diverse.

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He lives with his wife and two daughters on the historic, walkable, and interesting east side of Oshkosh, near the shores of Lake Winnebago.

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