My White Racism: A Journey

My White Racism: A Journey

Posted On February 11, 2018 by Joe Abramajtys

                                                               My White Racism: A Journey

 

Beginnings

I am White and I came by my racism honestly. Both my parents were racists, though they were loath to admit it. During my formative years I lived in an ethnically mixed all-White neighborhood, the mix being everything except Black. It was a working-class neighborhood where the men spent their days in chemical factories and bars, and the women kept homes and raised children. Nobody had a maid or even a woman who came in once a week to do housework, and hiring a gardener was unheard of…we cut our own grass and pulled our own weeds. If you asked anyone in my circle of friends and relatives if they thought Black were the equal of Whites, they likely would say “yes, but”… and it was the “buts” that molded and informed my attitude toward Blacks.

I only saw Black people when I went to church on Sunday at Holy Trinity; our Roman Catholic Church bordered on a small predominantly Black neighborhood of shabby rental houses, trashy yards, and broken fences whose occupants we did our best to ignore. Our parish priest, Monsignor Wodjahowich, held special collections for the poor in Africa and South America and each family threw in a couple of bucks when the wicker collection basket came by. In catechism class I asked Sister Mary Agnus why we didn’t save money by giving the special collection to the neighboring Black people instead of sending it all the way to Africa; without hesitation she said because the Africans were “more deserving.” That was okay with me and I tucked that lesson away.

My first elementary school (grades 1-3), Hyde Park School, had no Blacks, and my second (4-6), Niagara Street School, had only a handful, none of which were ever in any of my classes. Gaskill Junior High, and Niagara Falls High School had a few Blacks but I don’t remember a single one nor remember being in class with a Black. From birth to the end of high school I never associated with a Black person.

During my entire elementary and secondary education, the only Blacks I encountered were called slaves, and the only things I learned about them was that they worked on plantations in the South picking cotton and that a Civil War was fought to free them which Lincoln promptly did when it looked like the North would prevail. Every bit of social studies and history I learned in twelve years of schooling had nothing more to say about Black people. They were slaves, then they were freed. Period.  

In all of this, “ignored” is the operative word. Blacks hardly registered on my radar. It wasn’t until years later that I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that I began to understand what went on in my childhood years vis á vis Blacks: I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. 

University

After high school I went to Michigan State University. MSU recruited many students who paid high out-of-state tuition to counter balance the lower costs paid by in-state students, and a lot of those out-state students were from New York. Somebody in the MSU student housing office must have thought all people from New York shared the same culture because they stuck me in a Freshman dorm room in Butterfield Hall with Dave Abrams and Steve Bachenheimer, two hyper-active, loud, flashy, New York City guys; the reality was that those of us from Upstate New York, and those from New York City were (to paraphrase G.B. Shaw) two groups separated by a common language. The dorm room was built to house two students but because there was a nationwide glut of college students MSU put three students to a room. My high school grades were rather dismal and MSU had me on a provisional acceptance, which meant I had to get grades of ‘C’ or above in all my first semester classes or I was out on my ass. I would also loose the partial football scholarship that they sometimes gave to long-shot players. I wasn’t that crazy or good at football so I knew I had to study.

I moved into my room a day before my roommates arrived, selected a lower bunk, stowed my possessions, and walked around the Brody quadrangle, a complex of six dormitory buildings clustered around a massive central dining/entertainment student services building. I was to learn that the Brody kitchen was the largest non-military kitchen in the world in terms of daily meals served.

The next day my roommates arrived like banshees from the dark, talking non-stop and tossing their stuff all over the room like they owned the place and I was a casual visitor. Steve turned to me and said, “Boy are you lucky. I brought a really great stereo set.” They were both skinny as rails, with zit filled faces, and as Steve talked fast and loud spittle formed between his lips. I looked at their gear, then looked back at them and said, “The stereo will have to be off at 8:00pm,” then turned and walked out the door. Our dorm also housed many freshman football players so I knew if I had to kick ass to get peace and quiet I would have plenty of back-up should I need it. I met some of the other jocks and told them about the jerks I was to live with and they said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Mostly because of the jocks, Butterfield housed a substantial number of Blacks and even had a Black Head Resident Advisor running the dorm. Through the eighteen years of my public-school attendance my knowledge of Blacks was a shroud of ignorance, vague like ill-formed ideas and negative opinions. Now things were about to get interesting.

When I eventually returned to my room my roommates were subdued, with Dave Abrams saying that it was too bad we got off on the wrong foot and they too had to study and they wouldn’t be spending much time in the room anyway. That’s when I discovered they were sophomores and most of their bravado was from their considering themselves to be worldly MSUers as opposed to me a lowly freshman. From what I could tell, the only difference between college freshman and sophomores was the asshole factor.

My first semester went okay and I got the grades needed to get off provisional status, but I had grown tired of living cramped three to a room and was hoping to take advantage of semester-end attrition to find someone who lost roommates and was willing to take me in. An unadulterated case of sangfroid. So, I went to the Head RA, a graduate student named Hal, and asked for a room move. Hal was sitting in the dorm commons with two other Black guys watching a basketball game on the big TV that ran 24/7. Hal looked at one of the other Black guys and shrugged his shoulders in a ‘what do you think’ gesture and the other guy asked me why I wanted to move. I told him my roommates were okay but the situation was crowded and I wanted quiet and privacy. Suddenly I felt like a supplicant kissing the Popes ring hoping for absolution. He asked me my room number and I said 214 and he smiled and nodded to Hal. The entire second floor of Butterfield hall was filled with guys from New York and New Jersey—sort of an Eastern concentration camp—and known for its raucous nature. Hal and his buddies immediately knew why I wanted out. My interrogator stood up and held out his hand and said, “My name is Bob Johnson and I’m your new roommate.”

Son of a bitch! Just like that I had a Black roommate.

What was I going to tell my parents?

Hal said he would make sure nobody else was assigned to Bob’s room, and Bob said I could move in whenever I want.

“The bottom bunk okay for you?” Bob said. “I prefer the top.”

“Uh yeah. Sure.” I mean what was I going to do? I couldn’t very well say no. When I left the commons I swore I heard those guys snickering.

On my way back to my room to collect my stuff, I decided I wouldn’t say anything to my parents. I’d complete the second semester and find a new roommate when I began my sophomore year and my parents, who lived too far away to visit me, wouldn’t be the wiser. One thing for sure, when I came home for the summer I didn’t want my parents telling all my relatives, “Joey lives with a colored kid,” and have to deal with the looks of disbelief and disgust.

It was 1962 and a lot of civil rights shit was going on all over the country: there were marches and boycotts and violent confrontations at universities forced to desegregate. Frankly, none of that had anything to do with me, and as far as I was concerned I wanted nothing to do with it. The last thing I wanted was to have to deal with Bob Johnson and his friends over shit I knew nothing about, or couldn’t care less. Does he shower? Does he wash his clothes? Will he leave weird food leftovers in the room? Will I have to listen to blues and jazz until I want to scream? Will he and his friends sit around and talk funny?

Now I look back with embarrassing humor because my fears were unfounded. Bob and I got along like old friends. It wasn’t until I moved in with him that I discovered he was a junior, and based on my first semester I considered that a significant achievement. In addition, Bob was Student Commander of the MSU Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which made me uneasy. I too was enrolled in the Air Force ROTC (two years of ROTC was mandatory for all male students) and hated it, though I learned something important: the military and I did not get along.

Still, if I didn’t complete ROTC, I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate.

Bob was an Education major but was single-minded about a career in the Air Force. When he graduated, he received a regular commission (as opposed to a reserve commission), an honor rarely granted to an ROTC graduate. Bob was my superior officer but he never cajoled or berated my dislike of the military and my shenanigans to get out of ROTC before my two years were up.  I never shined my ROTC issued ‘orthopedic’ shoes, and spent my entire freshman year attending ROTC trainings in the same uniform that I never washed. By spring, and the coming of warm weather, I was so ripe other cadets refused to march near me. The only thing Bob insisted was that I keep my uniform in a plastic bag and not stink up the room. Once I received a merit for doing something right (I have no recollection of what that was) and told the officer issuing it that I didn’t want it, that I just wanted no demerits and to get out of ROTC. He laughed. That incident got to Bob who told me to go see the Dean of the College of Natural Science (I was a Zoology major) to plead my case; apparently the Dean had the authority to exempt a student from ROTC. So, I strolled into the Dean’s office without an appointment and told him I didn’t care what they did to me short of immediately packing my ass off to Viet Nam, I wanted out of ROTC.

“Okay,” said the Dean. “Bob Johnson told me to make you complete your freshman year and exempt you from your sophomore year. Will that work?”

I grabbed his hand and shook it and said, “You got a deal.” I was impressed. As far as I was concerned Bob Johnson would immediately ascend into heaven should he soon croak.

As I think about it, I can’t remember Bob and I talking much about race other than him calling me his young honky, and I called him Lord High Pockets: he was tall and slim and from the waist down he looked like a butt sitting atop stilts. Bob was not active in the burgeoning campus civil rights movement; he didn’t criticize it, he just didn’t participate; he had Black friends who were active, but then he had as many White friends who were not. One day a white guy from down the hall told me that some Blacks thought Bob was an Uncle Tom because of his civil rights inactivity. I felt a rush of heat from my arms through my chest into my neck and said, “You tell them to say that to my face and I’ll rip off their fucking heads and shove them up their ass.”

Where the hell did that come from?

Maybe it was that we both wanted to do well academically, or maybe it was that we liked the same music (mostly), or we dressed alike, or went to the movies together, or ordered foot-long hot dogs delivered to our room on Sunday evenings when the Brody kitchen was closed. Or it could have been that he quickly turned into my mentor, helping guide me through the pitfalls and pratfalls of university life. I really liked this son-of-a-bitch. And I envied him because he got to go with his upper classman friends to Dagwood’s, a local barely off-campus watering hole, and sip beer and order cheese and burgers, while I had to be content drinking soda and hustling pool at the MSU Student Center pool room. Soda, for Christ sake! I was from New York where the drinking age was eighteen, and I found myself at a university where I couldn’t get a legal beer for the next two years, and where getting caught with booze on campus got you expelled. Back in the time MSU operated in loco parentis and strictly enforced the no booze on campus rule.

I remember anticipating a boring Friday night and asking bob if he would help me sneak into Dagwood’s. He had a slight overbite that disappeared when his face became serious. “Do you realize if I got caught helping a minor get alcohol I would get thrown out of the university, I would lose my Air Force commission, my career. That’s what you’re asking me to do?”

“But I just…”

“I would be prosecuted, and as a Black, East Lansing cops wouldn’t just slap me on the wrist and send me home. As a White you can afford to risk all that, but I can’t.”

That was as close as we ever got to serious race talk. But it was a candle in the dark for me; my first confrontation with White privilege. In the entirety of life my request was a small selfish act, a prank; but for Bob it had the potential to destroy his dreams. It opened a gap between us, or more likely exposed a gap that was always there that I didn’t see. If I got this so wrong, what else was I missing?

Taking a penitential pose, I said, “Look, I’m really sorry…I didn’t realize…”

Bob gave me an avuncular half smile. “It’s okay,” he said. “But just remember, Blacks have to fight for a first chance, and we never get a second one.”

Toward the end of my second freshman semester Bob asked what I had planned for the up-coming weekend. I told him not much and he asked if I wanted to come home with him to Detroit. “My parents want to know who I’m rooming with,” he laughed. “We’ll drive in with a guy I know that has a car and we’ll be back the same day. At the very least you’ll get a good meal out of it.”

Actually, Bob’s family didn’t live in Detroit, instead his home was in Highland Park, a three-mile trapezoid enclave embraced by Detroit. Highland Park was the home of Chrysler Corporation where Bob’s father worked on an assembly line.

Bob’s family lived in a two-story clapboard house equipped with a wide front porch and small, neatly kept, front and back yards. The neighborhood consisted of similar working-class homes of mixed architecture mostly owned by Blacks. There were no dilapidated car hulks in yards or old tires or scattered refuse or dirty barefoot kids as I had envisioned. The area looked much like where I had grown up.

I found Bob’s home immediately comfortable: old woodwork, linoleum floors, serviceable furniture, and the odor of something promising in the oven that made me homesick. The place was spotless. Bob was six feet two so I expected his parents to be tall, but instead was greeted by his father and mother far shorter. Mr. Johnson shook my hand with friendly reserve and like my Dad he had calloused factory rat mitts; his mother hugged me so close I smelled the fruity sweet soap she used on her soft hair (which, to tell the truth, I thought would be greasy and stiff). Bob’s Dad offered me a beer and I accepted wondering if Bob was going to intervene with my age. He didn’t and we sat in the living room chatting about MSU while Bob’s Mom rustled around in the kitchen. I knew so little about Bob’s background that I was surprised to learn he was an only child. I thought Blacks propagated like rabbits.

Mrs. Johnson announced dinner so we moved to the dining room that was between the living room and kitchen, just like in my home. When Bob suggested this trip, I feared I would have to confront food like greens and chitterlings, that sort of stuff…hell, I didn’t know what chitterlings were. Instead Mrs. Johnson served lasagna with a rich tomato sauce and lots of bubbly parmesan cheese.

On our ride back to MSU I was unsettled, confused. Bob’s home was like my home, his parents like my parents. The Blacks I knew at MSU were all different from each other: different personalities, different political views, different dreams. What the fuck?

At the end of my freshman year I returned home to Niagara Falls and Summer work in a chemical factory: dirty and dangerous, but the good pay I needed to make next year’s tuition.

Bob and I got along famously and arranged to room together next year. Bob told me that he and Hal and a White guy named Mike, another Resident Advisor, were spending a week in New York City sometime during the Summer break. I don’t know why I said this, and felt like I was standing outside my body listening to myself, but I said, “The shortest route from Detroit to New York is through Canada, which will take you through Niagara Falls. Why not stop and have dinner at my house?” Maybe it was because I met his parents. Or maybe it was it simply felt natural asking some friends over. But there it was and now to deal with my parents.

After a couple of weeks home I told my parents who I was living with and who I invited for dinner. My Mom asked what I wanted her to fix (pot roast) and Dad said nothing. I’m not sure what reaction I expected, but I was grateful for their nonchalance silence. I told Mom our guests had an appetite, which pleased her because she liked to cook for people who ate with gusto.

Bob and Hal and Mike showed up in the late afternoon and my smiling parents greeted them and we soon sat down to dinner. Mom had put her best china and silver out and quickly had the pot roast with mash potatoes and gravy on the table. We talked and laughed and they told us about their adventures in the City. We talked about MSU and the upcoming year when Bob would be a senior and Hal and Mike would complete their graduate degrees. I made sure my parents understood how lucky I considered myself to have a roommate and friends who were upperclassmen and graduate students, and how it helped me acclimate to MSU, a campus with a fifty thousand student enrollment.

The visit ended with our walking my friends to their car and wishing them a safe trip back to Michigan. As they were driving away my Dad turned to me and said, “Joey, don’t do that again.”

“Do what again?” I said, still flush with the residual excitement of good time.

“Don’t ever invite those kind to our house again.”

First there was confusion: “What kind of people?”

“Colords.”

“Why?”

“Because our neighbors don’t like it.”

Then came the slow burn of sobering anger. These are my friends. Good people. Decent men.

I wanted to call my Dad ignorant. I wanted to say something to humiliate him. But I didn’t. I stood alone watching my parents retreat to the sanctity of my past, while my friends drove into my future. I didn’t move. My legs would neither permit me to go in our house or walk away. My new friendships stood in base relief against the hypocrisy of all my parents’ talk about equality. Sometime later a classmate would ask if my parents were racist and I would admit yes. She asked what I did about it and I said with palpable helplessness, “Well, I love them, what am I supposed to do?”

No amount of argument or reasoning or cajoling would change my parents; I knew that instinctually. The process of separation from our parents is at times glacial, with our not admitting we are growing apart. We ignore historic rules that we now find petty; we gloss over references they don’t understand; we remember the trials and pains they have endured. But there comes a time, an issue or incident, that can’t be ignored or glossed or excused; that sets an insurmountable barrier that is the break that defines you from them. At the moment when my friends drove away, I knew there was no turning back. No matter how much I loved my parents, and how many times I came back to visit them, I could never really come home.

During my sophomore year Bob and I continued as successful roommates (during visits home my parents never once asked about Bob). I also read: James Baldwin’s, Nobody Knows My Name; Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man; Zora Hursten’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God; and Richard Wright’s, Native Son. Again, we never much talked about race, but I listened to what he and his Black friends had to say when they came to our room and talked about these books.

I learned there were any number of definitions of racism, but the one that made sense to me was the simplest: Racism is any belief that regards a racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group.[1] I also learned that when it came to race American’s historically fit into three categories: Segregationists---blame Black people for racial differences; Antiracists---blame the behavior of Whites for racial disparities; and Assimilationists---blame both Blacks and racial discrimination for racial disparities.

In my mind both Bob and I were assimilationists. We both thought that slavery and other forms of racial discrimination (e.g. Jim Crow laws, employment inequality, housing red-lining, gerrymandering, voter suppression) certainly put Blacks at a disadvantage compared to Whites, but we also believed Blacks fiscal and familial irresponsibility and general lack of drive greatly contributed to their inferior status. If only Blacks were given opportunities and were taught to pull themselves up by their proverbial boot-straps, they would act more like Whites and eventually be accepted by Whites. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this so-called assimilationist ‘uplift suasion’ was itself racist because it held that negative Black behavior was at least in part responsible for racism. As Ibram X. Kendi explains:

From the beginning, uplift suasion was not only racist, it was impossible for Blacks to execute. Free Blacks were unable to always display positive characteristics, for the same reason poor immigrants and rich planters were unable to do so: free Blacks were human and humanly flawed. Uplift suasion assumed, moreover, that racist ideas were sensible and could be undone by appealing to sensibilities. But the common political desire to justify racial inequalities produced racist ideas, not logic. Uplift suasion also failed to account for the widespread belief in the extraordinary Negro, which had dominated assimilationist and abolitionist in America for a century. Upwardly mobile Blacks were regularly cast aside as unique and as different from ordinary, inferior Black people.

 

As Bob’s graduation approached, and the end of my sophomore year, he grew anxious about where the Air Force would send him. We looked at a World map and found the exotic locations of many American Air Force bases. He fantasized about Air Force life in Japan or Europe. When he got his orders to report to K. I. Sawyer Air Force base near Marquette, Michigan, about as far from any “exotic” location you could get, I saw his disappointment by the incredulous look that rapidly spread across his face. K. I. Sawyer was in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula where Summer was a month-long season, where ice and snow defined life, and Bob would be one of probably ten Blacks in 16,500 square miles (not counting those in Marquette Prison).

Radicalization

I went back home to my Summer chemical factory job, and Bob and I had only one contact thereafter; about five years later I tracked him down and spoke with him on the telephone. He was married and living in Cleveland and worked for IBM; I was surprised he wasn’t in the Air Force. He said he left the service because they had him working as a B-52 bombardier, blowing up small Cambodian villages killing lots of brown people.

After taking a year off to teach American diplomatic dependents in Venezuela (I got a 2A draft deferment to continue my anti-military ways), I returned to MSU to work on a Master’s Degree in Labor and Industrial Relations (MLIR), and was an adjunct instructor at Lansing Community College (LCC) teaching freshman sociology, political science, and economics. I joined the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), participating in anti-war demonstrations, teach-ins, boycotts, and helped run an underground newspaper. While at LCC I experienced two life changing events: I met my future wife, and I was recruited to volunteer teach college level courses at the Michigan Reformatory, in Ionia, Michigan, a maximum-security prison.

My first real job after getting my MLIR was working for the Michigan Department of Education as an economics analyst, where I was put to work planning the racial desegregation of Michigan public schools, a job that was a perfect fit with my assimilationist racial philosophy. I embraced the job with gusto, identifying school districts with sizable minority populations that also contained racially imbalanced individual school buildings. I constructed tables and maps detailing how busing could integrate those imbalanced buildings. I sailed along fine until I got my ass out of my office and met with school administrators and teachers, and parents: the administrators and teachers said urban, predominately black, schools could not be desegregated without including white suburban districts, and that would never happen (they were right); and white parents told me to go fuck myself; no kid of theirs was going to be bussed across town to some lousy, (meaning Black) school. Meanwhile, Black parents repeatedly asked me the same question: “What makes you think the answer to the problems in my child’s underfunded, underequipped school is to bring in white kids, or send my child to a white school where they certainly are not wanted?”

Time after time I limped back to my charts and maps wondering how such a good intentioned approach could go so wrong. Finally, I read the original Supreme Court decision that found separate but equal schools unconstitutional, the basis for school desegregation efforts. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren said that Black schools were inherently inferior to White schools (“[The] segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect on the colored children”) and that Blacks’ “education and mental development” would benefit from attending white schools.

Nothing in the opinion spoke to Whites benefiting from contact with Black students; and in reality, where desegregation plans were brought to full implementation, it almost always was busing Black kids and not Whites. Nora Hurston, one of the authors I mentioned above, summed up my newly waxing enlightenment:

If there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida, and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro children of Florida be allowed to share this boon. But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different than the presence of white people. For this reason, I regard the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court insulting rather than honoring my race.”[2]

Instead of admitting that states and school districts purposely underfunded schools with large Black enrollments, and establishing a remedy of funding formulas that provided Black schools with resources equal to White schools, the Court essentially blamed Blacks for their educational disadvantages. Of course, Whites would have nothing to do with the school desegregation solution and subverted those effort through violent protests, increased white flight to the suburbs, and the establishment of private schools…efforts that continue today with Betsy DeVos’s attempts to secure tax dollar funding for private schools at the expense of public schools.

Philip Runkel and I were in a Grand Rapids, Michigan bar (his venue of choice for conducting business) when he was Superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools. “Joe,” he said, “You’re pissing in the wind. It’s not possible for an urban district to desegregate without including the white suburban districts, and that will never happen. To prove my point, I’m going to sue the suburban districts surrounding Grand Rapids, and I’m going to lose.”

He did sue, and he lost.

Runkel understood that the only thing that would help predominately Black schools was more money, better teachers, and parental involvement. To that end he successfully campaigned for increased school millages both in Grand Rapids, and in districts throughout Michigan once he became Superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education. He brought in much Federal money, and successfully fought the Republican Governor’s attempts to cut school funding.

“School desegregation is based on the premise that Whites are superior to Blacks,” Runkel said, “and I will not accept that.”

Obviously, nothing was happening in Michigan with school desegregation. I sat in my office, grappling with my utter failure in my first real post-collegiate job; my lack of success exacerbated by the thought that to have succeeded in desegregating schools would likely have been as racist as working against desegregation. Then someone in the Dept. of Ed. found out about my interest in prison education.

All Michigan prisons had education programs that were funded by the Michigan Legislature sending money to the local school district in which a prison was located. Districts typically first skimmed substantial “administrative” fees, then used the fiscal dregs to pay incompetent tenured teachers the district couldn’t get rid of to teach in the prisons. The Department of Corrections (MDOC) convinced the legislature that it could do a better, more cost effective, job running its own education programs. I was appointed liaison between the Departments of Education and Corrections to facilitate the transition. Unfortunately, to get the change Corrections agreed to employ the deadwood teachers districts didn’t want.

Mental Health

I left the Michigan Dept. of Education and negotiated a ¾ time position with Kent County Mental Health; I was paid full-time but had a ¼ time available to work on my Ph.D. at Union Graduate School. I majored in philosophy but with a bent toward experimental education. I continued teaching college courses at the Michigan Reformatory and learned that the education taking place in Michigan prisons was crap: the teachers and students did nothing. No one was learning anything while teachers were collecting paychecks: a total lack of accountability. I decided I would use my Ph.D. studies to design a new prison model. I resolved from my Dept. of Ed. experience that attempting social change when I’m ignorant of the issues was a sure way to do harm; which you’d think was self-evident, but then I was young and nothing in youth is self-evident.

 As the Dept. of Ed. liaison to Corrections I made friends with a guy named Gary Wells, MDOC Treatment Director, and thought he might be interested in my ideas. I asked Gary to be on my Ph.D. committee and he agreed; I wanted him there because he had a good mind, and because I needed continuing entry to prisons. The combination of academics with the practical reality of prisons allowed me to understand issues from multiple angles: philosophical, political, and practical.

Kent County hired me for one specific project: To develop and implement a system that delivered metal health services to the Grand Rapids inner-city. Grand Rapids is in Kent County, which formed a Mental Health Board to fund local agencies to provide services. None of the existing agencies understood, let alone served, the needs of the inner-city population, meaning Blacks and other minorities. All the existing agencies saw the answer as providing themselves additional funding to expand their services to minorities.

I said no. I didn’t know the mental health needs of minorities, and the existing agencies were virtually all-white and certainly didn’t know what was needed. And rather than a shotgun, uncoordinated approach, why not form an inner city mental health team composed of inner city residents who did understand the needs of their community and let them design the programs?

That’s what we did and it worked well. Provided the resources through the Baxter Community Center, and coordinated by one agency, Child and Family Services, the Inner-City Mental Health team knew the problems and came up with the answers despite the funding being but crumbs from the County Mental Health budget.

The Carceral

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates: whether they are isolated in cells or whether they are given useless work, for which they will find no employment…”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      ---Michel Foucault

My Ph.D. thesis described a model prison education program and at my graduation party Gary Wells handed me the Michigan Civil Service School Principal job description and said, “Call me soon.” A couple of days later he told me the MDOC was building a new prison in Muskegon, Michigan, and he was to be the warden; then he said he wanted me to be his school principal. Gary was telling me to put my money where my mouth was…if I really believed in what I wrote in my thesis, this was an opportunity to prove it. I said I wanted free reign in all school related hiring and program matters and he said he would run interference for me with MDOC Central Office types, and I could even design the damn school building. I was entering prison work at a good time: prison populations were stable and prison rehabilitation programs were expanding under the philosophy that criminals could and should be given a chance to better themselves and prepare to be successful after release, which at the least meant not returning to prison.

The average prisoner coming to the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) was reading between the second and third grade levels. Many prisoners having graduated from inner-city schools were functionally illiterate. It was obvious that the traditional grade level, lock-step, public education model was not working for these guys, if the expected outcome was the acquisition of basic academic skills. We tossed out the old model and implemented a system with two programs: The Skills Acquisition Program, and the Skills Application Program.

Skills Acquisition had three academic areas: reading math, and social studies. All curricula were modularized, and self-paced and everyone took the General Education Development (GED) exam at the end of their studies. Our research showed that the average prisoner academic performance increased four years for every year in reading and social studies, and 2.5 years for every year in math. Every prisoner who passed the GED got a diploma from the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District.

Skills Application consisted of array of activities that allowed prisoners to apply the academic skills they gained: everything from poetry, gardening and drama, to literature, writing, and accounting, and much more. We had a lot of Black history, Black literature, and Black social science activities. None of the Skills Application classes were graded, but each prisoner received a teacher written evaluation.

The MCF education program was directed by a racially integrated, prisoner run, Student Education Group (SEG) that had a substantial budget. I don’t recall having to intervene even once to block an SEG decision. MCF’s prisoner population was 60% Black, 30% White, and 10% Hispanic and Other, and so was the membership of the SEG.

MCF was the first Michigan prison to receive American Correctional Association accreditation, which meant the education program had to be accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), the same body that accredits all high schools in Michigan. During our NCA program review an NCA team member mentioned to me that we had the academic areas covered, but we were not paying sufficient attention to the “affective needs” of our students. Affective education theory is very concerned with student self-esteem, a rather amorphous concept that like pornography you know when you see it but it is hard to define, and covers everything from self-respect to self-conceit to self-aggrandizement. There are total assholes out there with loads of toxic self-esteem…President Trump being a case in point.

I met with the NCA team and explained that our sole goal was to give these guys academic skills they could use once released to get and hold a job. I pointed out that most of our students came from NCA accredited, self-esteem permeated, public schools, had been graduated, and still couldn’t read or do math. I said we were not here to repeat the failures of their accredited public schools; that ours’ was a stiped-down program designed to impart academic knowledge, and provide activities where those academic skills could be honed. I explained that rich people don’t usually go to prison, though they commit their fair share of crimes; that most of our students were poor and criminal because they didn’t have access to legal jobs paying a living wage so crime was how they made a living. The best criminals usually don’t come to prison, while those less talented historically came to prison to learn to be better criminals. “What,” I asked them, “makes you think that they lack self-esteem?” We assume they have self-esteem and treat them accordingly, not as victims, not as academically deficient human beings. “And frankly,” I said, “I think they do pretty damn well.”

To its credit, NCA asked us to help them develop accreditation standards for prison schools, realizing that in a prison setting the standards they applied to public schools were as useful as tits on a bull.

Another Failure

Somewhere between my job as education director and my promotion to MCF Deputy Warden I read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison.[3]

There are seminal moments in your intellectual life when you read something and you are left stunned; where the “wow” factor’s impact shakes your perception of the world and you feel the lifting of a thick, almost congenital, blindness. You are disoriented… partly because your worldview has been fragmented, but also because you didn’t realize you were blind.

Foucault argues that prisons are a central component of a vast and diffuse network (including factories, schools, hospitals, military organizations) of social power use to control all of us through constant surveillance, judgement, and testing; all aimed at labelling us and turning us into individual “cases/subjects/files”. Prisons, he explains, are not here to reform but rather to create delinquents whose existence is then used to justify even greater surveillance, judgement, and testing. The laws we pass to control behavior are arbitrary in that they are targeted and selective both in their intent, surveillance, and prosecution. Through our laws, and especially through selective surveillance and prosecution, we target certain groups of people (Blacks, Hispanics, Illegals, Immigrants, the poor) to turn into delinquents, then pass more laws (hiring restrictions, voting restrictions, living location restrictions, drug laws) to make sure they stay delinquent and can be used to justify expanding the web of social control.

I realized that my efforts to reform prisoners were mitigated by the overarching prison goal of labeling prisoners and cementing their status as delinquents: dangerous social misfits, the dregs of society, the scum of the Earth.

I remember stepping out of my Deputy Warden’s office, past the steel bars of four-gate, into the MCF yard. I remember the day being warm and prisoners walking the wooded yard as if they were strolling on a community college campus. Some men were tossing frisbees, some were talking in small groups. Others simply sat alone in the sunshine. The vast majority of them were Black: I had known this for years, but on this day it meant something different because I now saw my part in a massive social effort to beat Black people down. The fact that some Whites also got caught up in this grand carceral was incidental; nothing but collateral damage mostly effecting the White lower classes. I clearly saw that if we got rid of all the laws and all the selective surveillance and prosecution, whose primary aim was to keep Blacks and other targeted groups subservient, our criminal justice system would shrink to that of a vestigial social organ. I finally understood that we Whites need this massive web of discipline and punishment because we are unwilling to treat these targeted groups as equals by giving them access to good schools, and decent jobs and living conditions.

Now what? Two out of three of my post-college jobs came down to nothing more than my pissing in the wind. In baseball batting 330 is not bad, but in life? I took a year’s leave of absence from the MDOC to decide where the hell my life was going. I didn’t know if I would return.

I kicked around reading a lot and being a house husband and wondering what I could do to make a difference in the world. I really liked working with prisoners and marveled at their resilience; their ability to absorb disappointment and rejection. I watched them try to maintain family ties and raise kids from afar, witnessing their utter helplessness and occasional rage at being unable to solve domestic problems. I was astounded by their ingenuity to get around prison regulations. I enjoyed talking with prisoners and asking about their backgrounds and family lives, and their motives for being criminal. I concluded that prisoners do really stupid things that eventually get them caught, but that the vast majority of them were from poor families and did what they did to make a living. I only met one rich prisoner during my MDOC career. If rich people went to prison, it sure as hell wasn’t where I had worked. 

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which began 32 years of ever increasing mass incarceration, aimed principally at Blacks. A drug dealer caught with five (5) grams of crack cocaine (used mainly by the poor and Blacks) got a minimum sentence of five years, a white dealer needed to be caught with five hundred (500) grams of cocaine to get the same five-year sentence. Study after study has shown that the prison expansion was due to sentencing practices, not increases in crime. And study after study has shown that Whites abuse drugs at the same rate as Blacks, and that White youth are 32 times more likely to sell drugs than are Blacks.[4] Blacks represent 12.5% of monthly drug users, but 32% of monthly drug arrests. Mandatory minimums, and three strikes and you’re out, coupled by the intense policing of poor urban areas expanded state and Federal prison populations at an unprecedented rate. Michigan, under Governor James Blanchard, joined the national crime hysteria by first opening prisons such as the Muskegon Temporary Facility (MTF).

MTF (now called the West Shoreline correctional facility), an 860 bed, pole barn constructed facility was supposed to remain open until the nearby permanent bricks and mortar Brooks Correctional Facility (LRF) opened, at which point MTF was supposed to close. Of course, that never happened and I became the first Warden of both facilities.

One of the main reasons I decided to return to the MDOC was because the state decided to implement a solid affirmative action state employment program, and I saw this as a chance to make an impact.

I am not a charismatic person or a great orator. I don’t like people enough to be a politician. I dislike being in groups for any length of time: my wife says I’m the only person she knows who on the way to a party asks when we can leave the party. I like company in small doses for short periods. My sort of personality doesn’t lend itself to creating and leading great social movements. I am ill-suited to movements and causes, but I damn well know right from wrong.

The Last Hurrah

By the sweat of your brow will you eat your food…

                                                                                                --- Genesis 3

From the beginning, Jehovah’s curse on Adam defined work as the core of human existence thus cementing the conditions of work as the central determinates of how we judge our self-worth. By self-worth I don’t mean the yardsticks celebrity and wealth with which our society and politicians are enamored; I mean the simple personal knowledge that you provide a living for your family and to the greatest extent possible control your fate. Most of the people I know who have gained celebrity and wealth say it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and the few that revel in their status finish life having lost their ethical and moral compasses, to wit: Most of sycophants with which President Trump surrounds himself.

I learned the centrality of work to the human psyche from dabbling in the thoughts of Marx and Engels in college, though I didn’t buy the whole Communist stick.[5] But I bought the work part because I could see it in my parents, friends, associates, myself, and really, everyone I knew. Decent work, paying a living wage and with benefits (in a country without universal health care), was necessary for people to have hope, if not for themselves, then at least for their children. With good jobs you can find good housing. With good jobs you can find good schools. A good job goes a long way in generating a feeling of self-worth, which in turn supports hope and happiness. A good job is your armor in battling life’s crises; it is empowering. 

I also knew that Blacks composed 14% of Muskegon County’s total population, and were principally located in two areas very near MTF/LRF: the cities of Muskegon (32%), and Muskegon Heights (80%). I discovered Muskegon County had a median yearly household income of $43,920, while Muskegon’s was $27,500, and that of Muskegon Heights was $22,075. There was a lot of unemployment and under employment in areas with significant Black populations, as well as a very high level of residential segregation.

My experience living with Bob Johnson led me to think that when Blacks and Whites live and work together they would come to know each other better and Whites would become more tolerant and accepting of other Blacks. Prisons are dangerous places, and staff who don’t learn to rely on one another quickly get into trouble. I reasoned that if Whites were put in situations where they had to rely on Blacks, racial barriers would break down and racism would cease. I had visions of everyone joining hands in kumbaya moments.

Despite my misgivings about my achievements, I enjoyed working at MCF because I labored alongside staff, many of whom were Black, that were dedicated to their work and cared about running as humane a prison as possible. I worked with Blacks who were very good at their jobs and simply wanted to provide security and opportunity for their families.

That’s not what happened.

What I failed to realize is that our American owns a culture suffering from endemic racism; that few Whites make the effort to examine our national social compact and see that it has been erected on a foundation of White privilege that relies on beliefs that non-whites are inferior to Whites. At its very worst White privilege sees Blacks as helplessly genetically inferior: intellectually deficient, lazy, over-sexed, criminally prone, and forever dependent; while at its best White privilege holds that the legacy of slavery is for Blacks a legacy of defeat, and that Blacks should stop using that legacy as an excuse to justify their bad behavior. Neither of these belief sets acknowledge the impact of unemployment and over-policing on Blacks communities. And the reason that individual Whites don’t examine our social compact is because we disproportionately benefit from these social arrangements to the point that when there are attempts at establishing equality we Whites feel we are the group being discriminated against, that we are the ones being disadvantaged.

I, like so many others, have personally benefited from the racist political policies that were recently described by former Nixon top-aide John Ehrlichman in an April, 2016, interview with Harper’s Magazine writer Dan Baum:

You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war [Vietnam]or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.

 

Practically, what this means is that one major consequence of the policy described by Ehrlichman is that the dramatic expansion of all aspects of the criminal justice system provided a massive increase of jobs disproportionally benefiting Whites such as myself: Thousands more jobs as prison workers, judges, prosecutors, and police; thousands more defense lawyers, parole and probation officers, and security and weapons related industries making everything from electronic monitoring bracelets to prison equipment and weapons. Whole new industries, such as private corrections, were born.

It was Cornell West that pointed out to me the centrality of Blacks to the White identity when he wrote: “Without the presence of Black people in America, European-Americans would not be ‘white’---they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. What made America distinctly American for them [Whites] was not simply the presence of unprecedent opportunities, but the struggle for seizing these opportunities in a new land in which Black slavery and racial caste served as a floor upon which White class, ethnic, and gender struggles could be defused and diverted.”[6]

Cornell West was reiterating what President Lyndon B. Johnson bluntly said three decades earlier in the 1960’s in an interview with Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest White man that he is better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you picking his pockets. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”[7]

The affirmative action goal that was given to me when I began staffing MTF/LRF was 16 % for Blacks (There were additional goals for other minorities and women based on regional population figures). The goal I set for myself was 35% Black employment.

Why the difference?

My work experience taught me that when Blacks had a token employment presence they kept a very low profile so as not to draw both overt and subtle White criticism and discrimination. I reasoned that with a large enough employment presence, and with an integrated supervisory staff, Blacks would support one another and make Whites think twice about racist behavior such as assigning Blacks to shit assignments, or burdening them with unfair evaluations. It’s harder to push someone around because of the color of their skin if there are a lot of those someones to deal with. Call it a racial checks and balances.

It was easier to get to 35% than to get Whites to accept what was happening. Whites claimed that I was unfair to them because I was hiring and promoting too many Blacks. I told those Whites they had 65% of the jobs and if that wasn’t an acceptable number what was? No answer.

They complained the “most qualified” person didn’t always get the job. I asked them how did they know since Civil Service test results were not made public. No answer.

I also told them that employment and personal recommendations meant a lot more than test results, and that most Whites I know got their job because somebody recommended them. In addition, I pointed out that correctional officer jobs historically were handed down from father to son and had nothing to do with formal qualifications. If you were a good cop, it was assumed your kid would be to, which gave Blacks a zero chance of breaking into that club.

I put all staff through diversity training, and watched as many White male staff stood along the room’s periphery walls with their arms crossed in front of their chests. They couldn’t have been clearer with their intent if they had worn white hoods.

I did see some close friendships develop between White and Black staff, as well as working relationships built on trust and respect. Although some Whites were quite vocal about their opposition to what I was doing, most remained mute. I never once had a White staff person tell me they agreed with my hiring and promotion policies. Not once in twenty-five years.

White ineradicable indifference.

I even had several White staff come to me and say they didn’t feel welcome in the personnel office because the Black Personnel Director had African art on her office walls! I asked them what kind of art did they want me to order her to put up? No answer.

It is no small irony that I saw racist policies, such as the one described above by Ehrlichman, which caused the incarceration of one out of every eight Black men, as a chance to provide Blacks with decent jobs keeping other Blacks locked-up. It is a testament to the depth and breadth of embedded racism in America that efforts to ameliorate racism are themselves products of implementing racist policies.

Racism is a living, breathing, thing; a cultural meme spread virus-like from one person to another.[8] Whenever we make progress toward racial equality, we also see the mutation and reassertion of racism. We are witness to this co-evolution of racial progress and racism with the today’s racially charged politics after the racial progress made with the election of our first Black President.

So yeah, when a Black prisoner rapes a White officer I get nervous.

 

[1] For a comprehensive analysis of American Racism see, Ibram X. Kendi’s, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Nation Books, 2016).

 

[2] Zora Neale Hurston, “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix,” Orlando Sentinel, August 11, 1955; Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning, p. 363.

 

[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

 

[4] Christopher Ingraham, “White People are More likely to Deal Drugs, But Black People Are More Likely to Get Arrested for It,” (Washington Post, September 30, 2014).

 

[5] Before you go screaming into the night, I also dabbled in Ayn Rand, though for a shorter time because I thought what she had to say was just plain stupid. To quote Cornel West: “Where there is no framework of moral reasoning, the people close ranks in a war of all against all.” Race Matters, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017) p. 31.

 

[6] Cornell West: Race Matters, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017) pp. 107-108.

 

[7] Bill D, Moyers, What A Real President Was like, (The Washington Post: November 13, 1988).

 

Related Tags

white racism, prisons, mental health, employment, blacks, whites

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