WAUSAU, Wisconsin – A standing-only crowd grabbed a dreary boardroom in the courthouse one evening trying to resolve a sensitive, year-long debate over whether Marathon County should declare itself a “Community for All”.
The only black county board member, Supervisor William Harris, stood up and asked his colleagues, who opposed the decision, to change their minds.
“I want to feel like I’m part of this community,” he said. “That’s what many of our residents say. We want to contribute to our community. We want to feel part of this community.”
But another board member was just as passionate at Thursday’s meeting, arguing that recognizing racial differences is itself a form of racism.
“If we choose to isolate one group of people and rise above another, that’s discrimination,” said supervisor Craig McEwen, a retired police officer who is white.
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis last May, communities and businesses around the world counted on social justice, diversity, and inclusion. But while dozens of other churches passed new guidelines and issued proclamations promising to make progress, with a population of 135,000 that is 91 percent whiteI couldn’t agree on what to say.
A year later, they still can’t.
The only consensus that has emerged is that the protracted battle over a four-word phrase only made matters worse, tearing the fabric of community in this central Wisconsin County apart and adding to the tensions that preceded Mr. Floyds Death boiled.
The racial segregation that President Donald J. Trump fueled during his four years in the White House continues in the daily life of cities like Wausau, compounded by the deaths of black Americans by white cops and new battles over whether it is racism branded in local institutions. Wausau is an old paper mill town where working class workers, medical professionals and people from the tourism industry now work. However, the divisions here serve as a window into the way conflicting views on racial justice have disrupted American life.
In the end, the county board’s executive committee rejected the decision by 6-2 on Thursday evening, an outcome both sides believe is worse than they didn’t even consider.
Proponents say failure to reach an agreement will serve as a civic black eye and get the message across to an unwelcome community. Opponents argue the fight was a waste of time making the county look racist when they say it isn’t.
“I no longer have the same trust in the community as I used to,” said supervisor Ka Lo, a 39-year-old Hmong race, who said she received death threats when she pressed for a solution. “I was born and raised here and do not recognize the community in which I just grew up.”
The Fellowship for All story began last summer when a small group of county officials began drafting a resolution that they hoped would recognize the differences between the local coloreds. The original title, No Place for Hate, was deemed too flammable and therefore renamed A Community for All.
After six revisions and countless hours of negotiation and debate, they came to a document calling on the county to “achieve racial and ethnic justice in order to promote intercultural understanding and stand up for minorities”.
For the Black and Hmong people here, the resolution had given hope that their struggle for inclusion would lead to greater unity. They said the protests after Mr. Floyd’s death gave them permission to oppose the daily outrages they suffer – for example, when they occasionally need the help of white friends to rent an apartment, or when white ones People in the community assume they are getting public support.
Like many small American towns, Wausau, the seat of Marathon County, has grown into a regional hospital center. It is surrounded by small towns and villages, dairy farms and land that produces 95 percent of the nation’s ginseng. The county has long been politically competitive, vacillating between Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama before backing Mr. Trump twice.
The 1970 census Wausau had four black residents and 76 people who were listed as “others” by almost 33,000 residents. 1976 Local churches began to welcome the HmongRefugees from Laos who supported the American war effort there before they fled when the United States left Vietnam. The Hmong now make up about 9 percent of the population of Wausau – second only to St. Paul, Minnesota, in percentage terms. In front of the district court there is a statue in memory of the Hmong-American military alliance.
Among those who proposed the resolution was Supervisor Yee Leng Xiong, the executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau.
For older conservative white residents, there has been no tension over diversity and inclusion in central Wisconsin in recent years when a handful of young progressive blacks won the county board seats and asked for more input.
In June 2019, the board officially recognized Pride Month for the first time. A month later Superiors almost canceled the recognition after an outcry of their conservative constituents. This February, it fell to Mr. Harris, 38, a Florida-born attorney who became the first black member of the county board in 2020. to advocate that Black History Month be recognized for the first time. It just passed.
Harris was also quick to alert the board that officials in the past have pushed for rural initiatives such as broadband access and health care, which have benefited white people in particular.
The whiteboard members representing rural communities did not appreciate the presentation.
“They lead to disputes between people who describe us as racist and privileged because we are white,” said supervisor Arnold Schlei, a 73-year-old retired calf farmer who has served on the county board for 11 years, in an interview. “You can’t come around and tell people who work their dicks off daylight to dark and tell them that they have white privileges and are racist and that they need to treat the Hmongs, the colored and the gays better because they are racist . People are fed up with it. “
He and others who opposed the resolution argued that recognizing disparities faced by people of color would jeopardize social benefits to their benefit. The word “justice” included in the resolution acted as a trigger for many to make the false claim that commemoration of the goal would lead the county to take things away from whites to give to people of color.
Those who opposed the resolution made sweeping statements about its possible impact. Local Republican Party leader Jack Hoogendyk said the resolution would lead to the “end of private property” and “racial redistribution of wealth”. Others have argued that there is indeed no racism in Marathon County, and even if it did, it is not the county board’s job to do anything about it.
James Juedes, a dairy farmer who lives on a farm east of Wausau and has been family-owned for 126 years, was one of the most outspoken opponents of the resolution. He has also organized counter-demonstrations against local protests against Black Lives Matter.
In an interview on his farm, the 51-year-old Juedes said that systemic racism “doesn’t exist here” and suggested that those driving the resolution do so to improve financially.
“I have to remember any racist cases reported in this community that caused some kind of stress,” he said.
La’Tanya Campbell, a 39-year-old black social worker who attended the meeting last week, shared another experience. Ms. Campbell, who works as an attorney for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, said she sometimes needs to recruit white coworkers to help clients find rental apartments in Wausau.
As she campaigned for the solution, Ms. Campbell said, the subtle racism she had long experienced in Wausau became apparent, including hate mail calling black people “animals”. She was looking for therapy to cope with the stress.
“Usually the racism you experience is behind closed doors, but since I started this resolution I can’t believe some of the things I hear,” she said. “You feel insecure as a woman, I feel insecure as a black woman. And when you do anti-suppression work, it adds up. “
On the day of the resolution review meeting, few were undecided.
Some white attendees distributed copies of articles from the Epoch Times, a newspaper that explored pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. A transgender woman who voted for the resolution wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt.
28 people each spoke for three minutes in front of the board. 18 were against the resolution and 10 supported it.
Bruce Bohr, a retired engineer, described the resolution as a giveaway for the county’s colored people. “The government cannot give anything to anyone without taking it away from someone else,” said Bohr.
Supervisor E.J. Stark, a retired insurance company, said he would hold the county liable for legal damage “if someone looks at someone with their eyes closed”.
It was up to the colored people on the board to stand up for it.
Mr. Xiong warned of economic disasters if the board rejected the resolution. “If a decision is not taken, it could adversely affect our attitudes, our economy and other areas of our business,” he said.
And Mr. Harris asked his white colleagues to see people of color as equal citizens. “People with color came here,” he said. “They want to make a contribution, they want to be accepted and recognized.”
The entire county board could reconsider the resolution, but it seems clear it will not pass. John Robinson, a Community for All supporter who has been on the board since 1974, said after the meeting that there were 14 to 16 votes out of 38, “on a good day.”
Ms. Lo and Ms. Campbell both said they are considering moving from Wausau to a place where people with color are more welcome.
Although she believes the dispute over the solution has increased the political polarization of the community and caused her personal trauma, Ms. Campbell said the struggle was worth the effort.
“If you stop the conversation and continue to push for justice and recognition, nothing will change,” she said after the vote in the courthouse lobby. “So it won’t happen in my life. But with my children and grandchildren I fight for them, for the children and grandchildren of other people. All of our ancestors, if they had stopped fighting, we would have nothing.”