The employment rate in Milwaukee's African-American community used to be the highest among U.S. cities in the 1970s, but its unemployment rate is now over 50 percent, noted Rev. Steve Jerbi, senior pastor at All Peoples Church in the city. "It's a radical shift of the Milwaukee reality," he said.
Many of the manufacturing jobs that once existed left the downtown; many remaining jobs are in the suburbs, which are largely inaccessible from the downtown via public transit. There is reportedly a lack of affordable housing in the suburbs for low-income families.
Also, there have been "systematic cuts in education funding" and "systematic cuts in social services," Fr. Michael McNulty said of Milwaukee's poorer neighborhoods. A poor education system has resulted in only about 6 in 10 students graduating high school in four years.
African-American communities that are "economically depressed" and "educationally deprived," have an experience of "indifference on the part of government" and "oppression on the part of the police," he said.
There is "essentially no hope," he added.
Existing tensions between the police and these communities haven't helped the situation. "We've had members who were harassed by police officers," Rev. Jerbi told CNA. "We've had folks in our congregation area who have been assaulted by local police officers."
"Community leaders and elected officials have been asking for the Department of Justice to do a 'pattern of practice' investigation since at least 2012."
Thus, frustration boiled over in the "perfect storm" of last weekend's riots, Fr. Kitzke said.
"These issues have been simmering for a while," he said, "and I think that the eruption this past weekend of the rioting was the result of not just one occasion of something that happened but a combination of factors."
"They're making rather unfortunate decisions about reacting to anger," he continued, "with violence instead of proper ways of dealing with it."
Although the closing of Catholic parishes in the city center hasn't helped the outreach to troubled communities, religious groups have been fighting indifference to bring these issues to the forefront.
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"We have some wonderful parishes in the central city of Milwaukee, and we're working hard now to shore them up so they can serve the neighborhoods," Fr. Kitzke said.
The Catholic response to the city's ills has been "getting better," he said, but added that "the problems are so overwhelming."
Andrew Musgrave, who directs the social justice ministries for three parishes on the east side of the city, said that some parishes in the city have been "responding really well" to nearby neighborhoods, but many parishes outside the city are either unaware of the magnitude of the problems or are not helping to resolve them.
They don't have "that same ease of relationship" to the neighborhoods with problems, he said, and are not necessarily "making the effort to do so."
One parish in the western suburbs, for instance, is bringing young parishioners into the city to serve and be exposed to the struggles there, Musgrave said, but most parishes are "not making the effort."
The split among Catholics isn't new, he said. While priests took part in the civil rights marches 50 years ago, other Catholics actively opposed the marchers. Even recently, minorities on the west side of the city were "facing issues of overt racism in the Churches" where white parishioners refused to serve minorities or have black parishioners sing in the choir, he said.