This is America: Being black in Eau Claire public spaces

May 16, 2018

A mid-morning trip to The Goat Coffee House in Eau Claire for Selika Ducksworth-Lawton comes with its own set of rules.

First, make sure to buy something, no exceptions. No sitting down to wait for someone, or using the restroom.

Second, carry a receipt. If challenged, be prepared to shut down the confrontation quickly.

Being black in the dominantly white communities in Eau Claire County creates a unique type of discrimination, even today. © 2018 Matt Halverson

“Being black in a public space is different,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “I have to buy something so I don’t have the same problem those two guys in Philly did.”

Ducksworth-Lawton is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a campus with a student body representation of 0.9 percent black students. 

Ducksworth-Lawton was referring to a recent incident in which Dante Robinson and Rashon Nelson, 23-year-old black men, were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for waiting for an associate at a table without ordering.

The occurrences of racial-based incarceration are national, but in the state of Wisconsin, blacks are incarcerated at nearly 10 times the rate of whites, according to the 2010 United States Census.

The stories make headlines in bigger cities, such as Chicago, but are not as often addressed in small communities like Eau Claire.

For example, the Chicago Tribune reported over 500 homicides in the city before Labor Day weekend in 2017, nearly all of them black men.

“The idea of being a criminal before you walk into a place is always in the back of your head,” Ducksworth-Lawson said.

In such a predominantly white place like Eau Claire, she said she’s easily noticed. Because of that, everyday life can become a struggle of preparing for potential conflict.

“I’ve been called the ‘n-word’ just walking down Water Street,” she said. “You need to have everything in order if you are black, because while some white people will give you a break, it’s going to depend on the situation.”

According to U.S. Census data, black people made up about one percent of the population in Eau Claire County as of 2010. However, the incarceration rate of blacks in the county is over 35 times that of whites.

Survey of Eau Claire County Incarceration Rate, via

Jefferson Hall, a UW-Eau Claire student and the vice president of the campus Black Male Empowerment group, said a pivotal point in his life was the moment he got his driver’s license.

“My mom first told me, make sure you stop at every stop sign,” Hall said. “And that I have to understand that people won’t adjust to me well.”

His precautions with driving came well before the fatal shooting of Philando Castile in Minneapolis back in July of 2016.

Both Hall and Ducksworth-Lawton agree that racism is alive in Eau Claire. It’s visible in many public spaces.

“On the bus, I’ll leave room for someone to sit down, and you see all the other seats pile up, but everyone else would rather stand than sit next to me,” Hall said.

Hall grew up in the inner city, spending time in Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Violence was a part of Hall’s younger life for as long as he can remember, which is what drew him out of the inner city.

“I came to school specifically in Eau Claire because of that reason,” Hall said. “It’s safer, it’s a lot quieter. The demographics are a lot different, but there are still a lot of microaggressions that go on.”

Hall also came to play on the UW-Eau Claire football team. Former director of football operations and player development Derrick Swanigan recruited him. 

“He wanted to increase the diversity on campus here and improve the football team by bringing inner city kids here,” Hall said.

Following Hall’s sophomore season, Swanigan was fired by the university, along with other coaches on the team after a disappointing season.

Within months of moving to Chicago, Swanigan was shot in the chest and killed.

Detectives identified and questioned a person of interest, but no charges were filed and the person was released.

“After that, we decided to put something together,” Hall said. “The brotherhood was already there with the football team, but that’s how Black Male Empowerment started.”

The organization has met regularly for the last year and half as a place for black male students to come together in a community where they are the glaring minority.

Ducksworth-Lawton recently organized a meeting to create a student-lead civil liberties and student rights group at UW-Eau Claire. The group is affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and aims to educate people about their rights in the United States.

“If you’re a middle class black person who aspires, you cannot avoid white people. You’re going to have to manage white people in your space, and you’re going to have to make them comfortable,” Ducksworth-Lawton said.

One tool that she said has changed the way blacks can defend themselves is smartphones, specifically cameras.

“It’s no longer ‘Who do you believe’ because we have video,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “If you’re a smart person of color, you carry one of these (smartphones) with you at all times.”

Things have improved in some ways since she was younger, but there is still a lot of progress to be made, she said.

Last week, entertainment icon Donald Glover, also known by his stage persona “Childish Gambino,” released a graphic music video for his new single “This is America” that depicts scenes of mass shootings, minstrelsy and African dances.

“There are a number of artists who have been doing things like that,” she said. “These are the guys that are rapping about something.”

She also gave an example of Chance the Rapper, Questlove, and The Roots making music about social consciousness.

“The Internet allows black people to normalize our experiences and talk to each other,” she said.

Technology and pop culture are several tools the black community have utilized to highlight their experiences in public spaces. With racial issues receiving media focus, Ducksworth-Lawton said this point in history is pivotal for the black community.

“I always say, history is a cha-cha. Two steps forward, one step back,” she said. Right now, we’re one step back.”

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