Black like me

Black Like Me is a book published in 1961 about a white man, passing for black, making his way through the South on buses. The man darkened his skin and posed his way to fame. While some considered the story a bold statement, others labeled John Griffin a fraud.

And he was. Albeit a fraud who profited on the continuing desire to define race.

I am frustrated that articles on race, written by those who profess to be professionals in the area of racial justice, rarely move past the one side – their personal viewpoint – to discuss race.

Rachel Krinksy did it a couple of days ago in her opinion piece at The Cap Times. White people are supposed to be part of the solution she says. She admonishes me and demands I call to mind all of my white privilege. I should join a collective to retrain my life-long understanding of race.

She never once identifies the problem. There are phrases like “racial justice” and “racial disparities” but she fails to articulate definitions. She does mention, but does not link, an opinion column by Rev. Alex Gee who claims to be justified in his anger because “Madison” is failing the black community.

Gee offers two bits of evidence: Wisconsin “leads the nation in the incarceration of African-American males between 20 and 24 years old,” and he was stopped by Madison police officers. It pissed him off.

(I was stopped a week ago by a Wisconsin highway patrol. It pissed me off, too.)

I couldn’t find a discussion as to why Wisconsin leads the nation in the incarceration of African-American males between 20 and 24 years old. I would presume it was because said males did something that offended the laws of this state. I have a very difficult time believing that those mean old Madison police officers are rounding up black 20 -24 year old males and tossing them into jail for the fun of it.

Yes that was flippant. But please see my point: real discussions about race are not taking place. There is, however, ample posturing on the matter.

Tell me why black men 20-24 are in jail. Tell me about the man putting his white foot on the back of your black neck and keeping you down. But be prepared for me to judge. If you were put to jail for dealing in narcotics, tough. If you went to jail but your white suburban friend had a better lawyer and stayed out, tough. You still broke the law.

And please, stop wagging your lily-white finger at me and telling me I’m a racist just because you possess a degree in social justice. I have a degree in political science, but I doubt very seriously that you will allow my well-schooled self to tell you how to vote.

I want, more than anything, for this state to discuss this subject. Dredge up every single anecdote one can find. But if my story doesn’t prove your point, you don’t get to dismiss it just because it offends your finely tuned sensibilities.

Tell me why black men 20-24 are in jail. Tell me how my white privilege of staying in school and working within cultural norms is demeaning to an entire race of black people. Please note none of the Indian or Pakistani families in my neighborhood, nor the couple of Jewish families I know, make the same complaints. I really only see blacks, and increasingly Hispanics, speaking up about their victimization. And don’t even get a Columbian and a Cuban started on how that other Spanish speaker isn’t one of “his people.”

Blacks, tell me what you want. You want me to move into your neighborhood? Fine. I’ll consider that. You want to move into my neighborhood? Welcome. I’d bake you cookies, but I don’t bake much anymore. How about flowers instead?

Tell me what you want. We’ll start from there.


  1. You are being flippant. The reality is that there are now so many laws, that everyone is a criminal. You, me, and the black guy in the inner city.

    Because of that, law enforcement is no longer about whether or not you broke a law, its is instead about discretion by the Executive Branch regarding which laws we want to enforce, and who we want to enforce them on.

    In other words, if someone decides they don’t like you, they can come after you, and find *something* you did wrong. While you may be lucky enough to have enough money to hire a good lawyer and get off, while someone else can’t, that does not equate to justice.

    Most certainly, it is *not* the rule of law. Having an executive branch (the police) which can pick and choose who goes to jail is the very nature of authoritarianism.

  2. So if a person is in jail, it’s not that person’s fault.

  3. As a white guy in Madison, WI, I mostly agree with your opinion piece; it’s hard to fathom that 20-24 year old African American males are being disproportionally incarcerated, unjustly, in Dane County, and beyond in Wisconsin.

    Having said that, there’s history here that may predispose African Americans to see encounters with Wisconsin State Troopers, and more local police in a different light; they’ve dealt with incidents such as the Kelly Thomas affair in Fullerton, California (white citizen beaten to death by police), orders of magnitude more frequently than you or I.

  4. You’d consider moving into a black neighborhood? I thought you wouldn’t even consider riding the bus through it.

  5. Dialogue is good. Even better if its thoughtful and honest.

    So if black males, ages 20-24, are being incarcerated at greater rates than whites, why is that? Let’s oversimplify it (ignore all the problems in our criminal justice system) and say that they are committing more crime. Then we have to ask why are they committing more crime. Is it something societal or are black males inferior? If you answer they’re inferior, then you have to admit (shaking my lily-white finger) that you are racist. If you agree that it must be societal, then we have to talk about what in society has caused these disparities.

    That’s a much longer, complex dialogue. I, for one, am up for it.

  6. Yes, I’ll try to get a post up about the cultural differences and how to restructure the governmental offerings to support a cultural change within the communities that have the highest jail numbers.

    But that’s where I’m heading: It’s the culture, and to some extent, it’s government’s fault for supporting a culture that creates crime.

  7. I would lay blame on the government’s (fed, state and local) deliberate policies which created communities completely devoid of opportunity. (restrictive covenants, FHA redlining, HOLC, VA loans, Urban Renewal – and those are just a few of the housing policies. I didn’t touch on employment or voting or public accommodations, etc). For many years these deliberate policies created forced segregation and severely poor living conditions inhibiting life success among African American and others. And by making most of those nasty policies illegal with the passage of the fair housing act in 1968, things didn’t just get better. Opportunities afforded to the rest of us, didn’t just appear in the black segregated communities.

    “…what white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” 1968 Kerner Commission.

    Really hard to dispute these findings…

  8. I don’t condone the ghetto. But I would tend to agree everything society has thrown at the problem over the last 50 years isn’t working.

    Also, do blacks self-separate from other mixed communities?