This article originally appeared in the Cap Times. The Rev. Alex Gee of Madison is pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and founder/CEO of the nonprofit Nehemiah Center of Urban Leadership.
I had just finished my presentation about the mass incarceration of African-American men to a Downtown Rotary luncheon when a woman from the audience approached me.
“Wonderful presentation, Dr. Gee!” she told me, adding she was intrigued by my data and insights about Wisconsin’s mass incarceration phenomenon.
She added, “If you don’t mind, I must tell you that I am so glad that you are not some angry black man!”
This well-intentioned white Rotarian had just heard how Wisconsin has an epidemic and leads the nation in the incarceration of African-American males between 20 and 24 years old.
Giving these kinds of presentations typically takes a toll on me because of the bleakness of the subject matter, the pain in my soul unearthed by the topic and the typically blank stares by people who wonder why we are still talking about racial disparities in 2013.
“I am an angry black man,” I responded. “Why would you think I wasn’t angry over what is happening in and to my community? Is it because I put on my best face and ‘safe’ black voice for you today?”
After pouring my heart out to a room of strangers about my community’s ugly realities, was this really the most sincere accolade she had to offer? Yet she insisted, adding that I did not appear as angry as another local black leader. “I am angry,” I said, “just like” that other leader.
. . .
So why am I sharing this experience?
My family has lived in Madison for nearly 45 years. Candidly, I enjoy what I consider to be very fruitful and recognized work in our community. For nearly 30 years I have led a vibrant, multicultural and multi-class congregation that actively serves its community.
For the past 21 years I have also led the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, which offers a path to transformation for Madison’s African-American youth, families and marginalized men.
I was compelled to write this article for several reasons: To offer a fresh, indigenous African-American male perspective on race relations in Madison; to voice my desire to see a stronger and healthier community; to challenge the city’s subtle — and at times not-so-subtle — elitism, paternalism, racism and classism; and most importantly, I am writing this because I have a nephew, a godson and a host of African-American boys who I love and respect and cannot bear to have them exposed to the reality of the current inequities of our community.
My concern about a quality of life for all Madisonians has grown in recent years. I personally need a better Madison for my daughter and the children in my community and congregation.
I admit I am frustrated that our city seems so enamored with its historic and national reputation as a liberal bastion that we either ignore our current social challenges, along with racial and economic disparities, or we blame our issues on individuals and families moving to Madison without fully accepting rightful culpability for certain homegrown problems.
I am not upset because Madison has issues; I am upset at how Madison skates on many of these issues.
I hesitate a bit out of concern my close white friends may misread my anger as being directed at all white people. My anger is with systems, ignorance, insensitivity, prejudiced views and not with individuals.
I am equally concerned that I don’t alienate my trusted African-American friends by sounding as though I am asking whites for social handouts without challenging African-Americans to work harder and take responsibility for their own lives. I believe in personal responsibility that readies individuals to truly soar in life as walls of institutional racism are eliminated.
Honestly, I feel that at this juncture in my life and career I have the responsibility to voice the concerns that many of Madison’s disenfranchised African-American residents experience regularly.
It is their respect that I hope to earn by sharing my personal perceptions and experiences, many of which will surely corroborate their own.
Why was it so important to this Rotarian, and perhaps to so many others, that I not be angry? Was anger the cause of the problems I discussed? Would anger keep me from working together with other community leaders toward community solutions?
Does she feel that my education, my public profile or the fact that I am an articulate speaker help me escape racial profiling, discrimination or feeling as though I need to always represent my race in a positive way by working harder, faster and longer? Little did she know that anger is probably what keeps me connected to the dismal realities and staying the course as an activist.
. . .
How can I not be angry when I’ve been a victim of racial profiling?
A couple of years ago I was pulled over and interrogated by police in my own church parking lot as I arrived for my standing Saturday evening meeting.
How could I not be angry when the officer told me he was looking for a red car that had been driving down the wrong side of the road (my car is clearly black, evident even in a dimly lit church parking lot)?
I was questioned (albeit politely) about what I was doing there, in a public space, at 9 p.m.
As questioning continued, my associate pastor, a white male, was already parked in the church lot and came to investigate. The officers never asked to see his identification, never asked his name nor ascertained why he was parked in the parking lot waiting for me to arrive.
They let him stand there making small talk with them while I convinced them to compare the name on the church sign with the name on my identification as well as dropping names of several police officers who attend my church.
Again, they never asked my associate a single question. They apologized — sincerely and with apparent embarrassment — and left for another call.
As they drove away, a flood of emotions which had been dammed up during their questioning began to flow. I could not afford to become emotional or outwardly upset during my interrogation out of concern that my burning anger would betray me and cause me to look guilty of some real crime, warranting a search, a ride downtown or further professional embarrassment.
Like other African-American male community leaders who have experienced similar situations, I did the typical thing you do when something like this happens: you call the police chief, the mayor, you may even consider calling the media. You tell your wife. You compare notes with others who have similar stories. You warn your sons and nephews about how to handle themselves in situations like these and to not lose their cool. You try to remind yourself that this isn’t 1913 or 1963 but 2013!
But this was not my first time being pulled over by police near my church. I was once stopped on Park Street in the Park Bank parking lot in broad daylight. Another time, I was questioned why I had visited with a person, who was a parishioner, only through a window of my car on Badger Road.
I wasn’t given any warning or citation because I had done anything wrong. I thought I looked pastoral in my black suit and was on my way to take professional pictures for my church. But one officer told me my behavior fit the profile of a drug dealer. That’s why I was stopped. What is drug dealer behavior?
Wow. I am the 1994 City of Madison Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Recipient and, in 1987, was the youngest State Journal Know Your Madisonian. I am a former South Madison paper boy, student, Cub Scout and I was told to my face that I profile like a drug dealer. That nearly broke my family’s heart.
I felt horrendous chagrin that Saturday night because I knew profiling occurred, I just never thought of myself as “profile-able.” I don’t know what disgusted me the most: the experience with police or my own delusion that education, hard work and community service would shield me from being compared to a drug dealer.
And there was another time, a Saturday night when I was at the church for a meeting. As I entered the building, I discovered there was an intruder. I left right away and called 911.
I gave the dispatcher the details and she instructed me to stay outside and not enter the building until police arrived. I had a flashback of my last encounter with police in that same parking lot and without thinking, I began to describe myself … age, ethnicity, color of clothing I was wearing, make and model of my car, etc., because I was concerned that when help arrived I might be mistaken for the intruder.
In this kind of moment, I sadly realize I have become conditioned to think like this.
All accomplishments and accolades go out the window. It doesn’t matter that I am probably the city’s most tenured minister, an author, radio host and have spoken at the White House.
It didn’t matter that I was the proud product of Madison public schools or that I hold degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Bakke Graduate University. None of that was able to shield me from the emotional blow that I don’t feel completely safe or above suspicion in the parking lot of my own church.
That sickening feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that if I talk about it — really talk about it — I’ll sound angry and paranoid to many of my non-African-American colleagues. But if I hold it in I’ll grow cynical and apathetic.
Many African-American leaders I know suffer from hypertension and bouts of depression due of the stress of living in our parallel society that boasts of an equality that can’t quite be guaranteed.
I am sorry if this casts a negative light on Madison or on some of the women and men who protect this community. I am merely stating that the fact that I feel the need to think ahead before calling 911 is problematic and unfair.
These moments force me to consider my race and ethnicity during times when I am focusing on being a dad, a businessperson or a pastor — not an African-American male. I can remember recounting these experiences to a close white male friend who, with such a sincere I-hate-to-be-the-one-to-tell-you responded, “Well Alex … you do drive a very nice car.” At which point I discovered that I am not only angry, I am hurt and disillusioned.
Honestly, I wonder if my friend’s response is much different from that of many whites in Madison. He wasn’t trying to be insensitive or malicious, however his comments were very wounding although we are still good friends. His thinking, however, reflects a bit the ideology that society functions solely on the basis of meritocracy: the best and most qualified are typically hired, promoted, lauded and compensated.
In my friend’s worldview I must have done something to provoke police questioning because his Ivy League education, lakefront address and white skin have always shielded him from such profiling. There was no room in his world view for discrimination because he cannot fathom the most qualified individual being refused the job, or raise, or loan, or mortgage, simply based upon race.
Therefore, racial disparities must be a figment of the imagination of “inferiority-complexed” individuals because the system corrects itself eventually as good trumps evil.
If this view is true, there is never room to assess shortcomings of unjust systems, hence the person who has bumped against glass ceilings, redlining and hiring discrimination must be defective because success and opportunity are color-blind.
. . .
My experience is that many white Madisonians have an inordinate fear of being seen as racist. That fear is so paralyzing that it impedes honest dialogue about discrimination, systemic racism and white privilege.
The thought that a white individual could unwittingly participate in or benefit from systemic racism is horrid because these individuals fear benefitting from systemic racism. Typically, that conversation is quickly redirected toward the individual victim because personal responsibility is easier for many whites to discuss than systemic group culpability.
A white colleague recently told me that many of their white peers feel that short of being murdered, nothing is worse than being called a racist. I responded by stating that if people exerted the same energy identifying, challenging and dismantling unjust systems as they did fearing being called racist, we could change society.
Madison cannot measure its own progress on race relations. We need to sit at a table with disenfranchised people to get a painful but accurate read on our city from their experiences.
Wisconsin is making national headlines for its dismal African-American community life. And although these statistics reflect a statewide snapshot, we can no longer believe these numbers are mostly about Racine, Beloit and Milwaukee.
Sadly, Madison is contributing to the ugly statistics about mass incarceration, unemployment, high school dropouts, achievement gaps and poverty. The recent Race to Equity report, which looked at the state of racial disparities in Dane County, offers a sobering, even frightening, glimpse of African-American life here.
Wisconsin has the nation’s worst rate of incarceration of young African-American males on a per capita basis, and Dane County is much worse than the state average.
Wisconsin has by some measures the widest academic achievement gap between African-American and white students in the country, and Dane County is worse than the state average.
Why am I angry?
I am angry because it seemingly is the best of times for many and yet the worst of times for others. How long will we tell ourselves that this isn’t so? Perhaps I missed it, however, when the Race To Equity Report was published I didn’t see a single letter to the editor in local newspapers about the dismal snapshot of African-Americans in Dane County.
We are a state known for protests and rallies against injustice, yet we have been negligent in our response to our state’s academic and incarceration disparity.
There has been more online and editorial chatter on the hunting of wolves in newspapers than the slow, loathsome death of many African-American families in our state. It nearly breaks my spirit that there’s been no state of emergency announcement.
I’ve seen no statement from the governor or the Department of Public Instruction. There’s been no press conference with city and county officials. It’s almost as though we’re holding our collective breath and waiting for this storm to pass.
This storm isn’t passing until a lot more damage has occurred and tens of millions of dollars have been blown. African-Americans are not genetically inferior to our white counterparts, nor are we predisposed to failure and criminal activity.
So, what is wrong with our corrections system, government agencies, educational system, foundations and funding sources, businesses, churches and political leaders that we have allowed this to happen on our liberal watch? Why aren’t more African-American leaders consulted and brought to real decision-making tables?
Why am I often invited to the table to rubber stamp someone else’s attempt at cultural competence and rarely asked how I may be supported to better serve the community?
Why is there pushback when we as African-American leaders suggest greater cultural competence, cross-cultural hires and racial sensitivity to our community partners?
It is becoming too costly, embarrassing and destructive for our community to continue to ignore these huge problems!
. . .
As a male African-American Madisonian, I am issuing a call that goes far beyond the various task forces that now exist. We need more. We need to bring national attention to the various crises of our community.
I challenge the entire community to become concerned and involved. I challenge African-American pastors to make their voices and concerns known and hold community forums with politicians to demand action.
I challenge white clergy to address racial disparity and discrimination from their pulpits, challenge parishioners to think and act differently and help sound the alarm of the injustice and inequity in our community. I need those pastors to explain how these systems are perpetuated by the silence of “nice” people.
I invite Latino and Asian pastors to stand with us in solidarity. I issue a challenge to the business executives and directors of local funding agencies and foundations to sit with African-American leaders to see how they may support us directly in our strategies in serving our community rather than just harvesting our ideas and forgetting us when solutions are funded. We are very capable of creating solutions for our own community if given the chance … and resources.
I challenge the broader community and governmental leaders to check the history books to see that there has never been a successful empowerment effort for African-Americans that didn’t find its roots in the African-American faith community and spirituality.
Madison all but ignores the African-American faith community as a credible community partner. This is an arrogant mistake, one that our major sister cities have refused to make. I want to remind the Urban League and NAACP to keep our political leaders’ feet to the fire for finding doable solutions for eradicating this awful disparity and to challenge them to seek community partnerships, indigenous leaders and collaborative strategies to help them in doing so.
I love this community but I am fed up. That’s why I am speaking up. I believe that Madison is capable of the compassion needed to address issues to the extent we’re willing to display the humility to recognize them.
I believe it is grossly shortsighted to think Madison leaders can empower the African-American disenfranchised community while many of the “franchised” African-Americans feel divorced from the decision-making tables, funding pools and power brokers.
I publicly recommit myself to community-based solutions and strategic alliances with other partners.
I cannot live with myself if I allow my middle-class life to convince me that I’ve arrived and others should do likewise. I am not successful because I’m unique or because there were no systemic barriers. I succeeded because as a kid I was given wonderful tools from God, family and a concerned and empowering Madison community to navigate the rough waters of systemic racism.
I challenge my Madison community to look more closely at the issues discussed here and work toward returning to its roots of offering disenfranchised families the same support and respect that Madison offered my single, divorced mother with two children in 1970 when she moved to Madison from Chicago to attend UW-Madison and to make a better life for her children.
We can only address our issues to the extent we admit we have them. We should strive for more than just the reputation of liberalism; we should strive for the fruit of liberalism. Andy Crouch says in his book “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power” that true power is creating space in which others may flourish … not falter. This is what I need those in power to create in Madison, a place where the poor and disenfranchised may flourish.
I will close with the late Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”