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Twenty years later, we've made progress on racial integration - but not enough: Our View

In Dec. 1993, Wausau was gripped by racial tensions. We've come a long way, and have a long way left to go.

6:04 PM, Dec. 9, 2013  |  Comments
History teacher Yauo Yang teaches his class Thursday at D.C. Everest Middle School in Weston. Yang was a fifth-grader in 1993 when the partner school concept flared up in Wausau. He didn't fully understand its implications then, but uses the experience as a teacher now.
History teacher Yauo Yang teaches his class Thursday at D.C. Everest Middle School in Weston. Yang was a fifth-grader in 1993 when the partner school concept flared up in Wausau. He didn't fully understand its implications then, but uses the experience as a teacher now.
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When The Atlantic magazine wrote about Hmong immigration in Wausau in 1994, it called Wausau's experience an "ordeal" and the new immigrants an "influx."

"While most residents spoke well of the immigrants as individuals, they thought that the volume of immigration had crossed some kind of social and economic threshold," wrote Roy Beck, who would go on to become executive director of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA. "Many sensed that their way of life is slipping away."

Did our way of life slip away? Nope. Twenty years after the most contentious School Board election in Wausau's history, many of the battles of those days seem far in the past. In a new Daily Herald Media report this week, those who were at the center of this city's battles about school busing and racial integration reflected on the passions of that time, and the way Wausau has grown and become stronger as it has made a substantial Hmong population part of its fabric.

The racial animus of that time was real. But there also were legitimate reasons for residents to resist the changes to Wausau's way of organizing its schools. The specific issue in the Wausau School District was addressed, then, by maintaining neighborhood schools while changing the boundaries to better integrate the Hmong population. It was not a bad compromise.

But the fights, 20 years ago, were about something much bigger. They were about what kind of community Wausau would become. Now we know.

Another way Beck makes his argument in the 1994 piece, which is still sometimes mentioned, is the notion of Wausau in the 1970s as the whitest city in America. "The 1980 U.S. Census found Wausau to be the most ethnically homogeneous city in the nation," Beck writes, "with less than 1 percent of the population other than white."

But of course even that concept, "white," was a pretty recent development in America, and the idea of Wausau as a racially or culturally homogenous zone would have come as a surprise to the German, Polish, Norwegian and Irish settlers of Wausau a generation or two back - all of whom spoke their own language and none of whom, in their time, were considered part of the mainstream American identity. It's not to say there was nothing different about Hmong immigration. It's just to say that it is cultural amnesia to portray Wausau as a place where everyone is the same.

In 20 years, we have made real strides of which we all can be proud. But it's important to understand that in some ways the city still faces some of the same challenges we did in 1993.

A neighborhood-by-neighborhood online map of 2010 U.S. Census data created by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service shows that minority populations in Wausau still are centered around downtown, the near east side and the southwest side. This seems to be for exactly the same socioeconomic reasons that were in effect shortly after the early waves of immigration: Affordable housing is clustered in a few neighborhoods near downtown, and Wausau's minority population is typically, still, at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

That means the work of integrating Wausau is not complete. And it means we need to keep working toward full equality.

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