Confronting Racial Injustice
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
She sent me a text, asking why I wasn’t speaking out and writing about George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing racial unrest that was currently lighting Minneapolis, my hometown, on fire. She’s a friend from Chicago, a Black friend, and she said more messages condemning racial injustice from ‘White people of privilege’ like myself needed to be heard. I responded by telling her that I was heading out of town for an emergency, yes, in the middle of the pandemic.
My excuse was legitimate, but only half true. The main reason I didn’t feel comfortable speaking or writing about Floyd, the protests all of it was because I felt my point of view would come off as shallow or meaningless, and basically ineffective.
My texting friend contacted me again. When a White person uses their privilege to make an anti-racist statement publicly, the world pays attention. “When I, as a Black woman, do it, I’m often overlooked or demonized. My friend was angered by my silence, but more than anything she seemed hurt and disappointed. It’s time to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations,” she wrote.
She was, of course, correct. So let the discomfort begin.
George Floyd’s videotaped public execution was, and is, horrific. Yes, I was, and am, heartbroken, appalled and outraged. Just as I was when Philando Castile was shot by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop in 2016. Just like I was when Jamar Clark was shot by Minneapolis police in 2015. But again, no matter how much or how strongly I might express my personal condemnation, will it actually make a difference when it comes to the complex and often explosive subject of race relations?
Not that I haven’t tried before.
Like many White people (yes, as my texting friend pointed out, undeniably of privilege), my experiences with Black people and others of color are complicated. I’ve made attempts to better integrate my life, and made many efforts over the years to improve racial understanding through my journalistic work. But after living in several far more diverse cities and states, I’m back in predominantly White Minnesota, a state long-considered to be politically liberal overall, but one that George Floyd’s terrifying last minutes on earth clearly proves isn’t nearly as socially progressive as its voting record might indicate. When I first contemplated moving back here in 2011, a Black co-worker in Chicago said to me, with a smile, “Hmmm. I would have thought you’d want to stay in a city with a bit more flavor.”
Mark Saxenmeyer and Renee Nwokobia, both five-years-old, play in his Minneapolis yard in 1971.
I grew up in Minneapolis. My first and best friend was Black. Her name was Renee Nwokobia and she was beautiful. Big brown eyes and a smile that, even in my fading memories, still makes me smile myself. She was the daughter of a single woman who taught at the same school as my mother, also a single mom. We met when I was three or four. Renee lived in a big old house with a creaky wooden staircase that twisted to the second floor, a house that still stands today, four blocks from the recent protests. The sound of our footsteps would echo through Renee’s home as we scrambled up those stairs and down a long hallway to her room, to play. Renee was my first introduction to race. Her mother was white, her father black (but no longer around, for some reason). We would touch each other’s hair and remark on the difference. Hers was soft and wavy. Mine was soft and straight. But that was about the extent of our racial awareness.
Mainly, we would laugh and shout and jump and run, as children do. There were birthday parties and plastic tub pool get-togethers in the back yard. We once took a trip to the Wisconsin Dells and I ran screaming out of a haunted house, terrified. Renee followed. calm, unafraid, giggling. She was brave. She was strong. They were traits she needed because life would not be kind to her.
Renee Nwokobia in 1974, eight months before her death.
Renee and I were nine when she died, of leukemia. The last picture I have of her is partially obscured by my thumb, covering the lens. I had just gotten my first camera and was only getting the hang of it. But you could still see that Renee had lost all of her hair by this time, from the chemo. She didn’t feel very good very often, after I took that picture, and I didn’t get to see her much. Instead, we would write each other letters, and send each other jokes and puzzles. If there was a funeral, I didn’t go to it. Renee was the first person I ever knew who died. The first final goodbye.
Renee’s mother never recovered from Renee’s death. Alone and anguished over her only child’s passing, she tried drowning herself, right in front of me, in a swimming pool at a campground a year later. I thought she was goofing around, until her body floated to the bottom of the pool. My stepfather dove into the water and pulled her out. A few years later, Renee’s mother finally did take her own life. For years, there was so much sadness and confusion and death connected to Renee that I pushed my memories of her to the very back of my consciousness.
Renee Nwokobia’s obituary appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune on June 29, 1975.
I attended schools in a southern suburb of Minneapolis. I can distinctly recall the beginning of every 10th grade American History class, when the five guys I sat with would exchange racist jokes. Did I speak up to stop them? No. As a slightly geeky, not-so-popular kid, my main concern throughout my entire adolescence was to keep the fact I was gay a deep, buried secret from every living human being. I was fairly certain I would never resonate as a voice of reason with these particular classmates. And I wasn’t willing to risk their wrath.
But during my senior year of high school in 1984 I was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and I wrote a lengthy article entitled, “Blacks in Bloomington: Minorities in suburbia face life a little differently.” Out of 1,876 students attending Thomas Jefferson Senior High School in Bloomington, Minnesota at that time, 22 were Black. comprising just 1.2 percent of enrollment. The state of Minnesota’s Black population was only slightly larger, at 1.3 percent.
I interviewed four Black students for that article. One told me that some at Jefferson High thought of him as a Black kid who talks like he’s White and thinks like he’s White. Another told me his family’s garage door was once vandalized with three letters, KKK. He continued, “There’s not a lot of people around here who are willing to befriend Blacks. There’s this barrier. I don’t know if it’s fear or hate or what, but I see it just by their expressions, people in busses, people walking past me on the street, it cuts down on the number of friends you have.”
A third Black student told me that random conversations with his White classmates could sometimes turn ugly. “We’ll be talking in a group,” he said, “and something will kind of slip out of somebody’s mouth. Somebody calls a billy club a nigger beater or something. It’s a bad feeling.”
The article concluded with this quote from the student whose garage door had been vandalized, a quote some might now consider prophetic, 36 years later: “I don’t feel there’s going to be that much progress. We can have Black astronauts, Black office holders, those are great steps. But I really, really feel that the prejudice will never go away.”
The article Mark Saxenmeyer wrote about Black students for his high school student newspaper, The Rebel, was published in February 1984.
I attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, another predominantly White school. (Perhaps surprisingly, only now as I write this am I realizing that both my high school and college town are named after White presidents who owned Black slaves.) I can’t recall meeting or knowing a single Black student during my first two years living in the dorms. I had one Black fraternity brother. My junior year, another frat, Phi Gamma Delta, known as Fiji held what they called a ‘Fiji Island’ party. Outside the party, on its front lawn, the fraternity placed a wooden statue of a spear-wielding, dark-skinned man, with a bone though his nose. Fiji the frat said the statue was meant to resemble a Polynesian native of the island nation. This party prompted a series of angry protests among Black students and others. That semester, in 1987, UW-Madison had 44,584 students enrolled and just 694, or 1.6 percent, were Black.
As the campus editor of one of the school’s two daily student newspapers, I wrote a multi-part series about the Greek System soon afterwards; one part explored racial segregation in fraternities and sororities. According to one Black frat member I interviewed at the time, Some Greek houses have been pretty slow to integrate. I’m sure some do discriminate. Maybe it’s because of the way they’ve been brought up.
The May 4, 1987 front page of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s daily student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, highlighted racial unrest on campus.
Right out of college, in the early 1990s, I worked as a television news reporter in Sacramento. During my four years there, not a single news anchor or reporter was Black. The weekend weathercaster was a Black woman when I started, replaced by a Black man by the time I left. One photographer (out of about 12) was Black, as well as the news director’s secretary. There was one Asian reporter and one Latina reporter and one openly gay reporter (me). Were we all just tokens. Everyone else, including all the managers, were White. Yet despite this, I met and interacted with more Black people there in Northern California than I had in my previous 22 years combined.
I interviewed Black gang members, many of them kids who didn’t seem to care if they lived or died. Some of them were my age, and our world views and life experiences couldn’t have been more different. If we had gangs in Minnesota and Wisconsin back in the 1980s, I’d been sheltered from them. I became involved with three kids in particular, when I reported and produced a documentary about a program in Stockton, California called “Rites of Passage,” designed to keep Black teens out of gangs and off drugs. I followed their lives and filmed their activities for at least two years. By the end of the second year, one of the kids had dropped out of the program and we couldn’t locate him for a final interview. I still wonder where those kids ended up, how their lives have turned out.
When the Los Angeles uprising began in May 1992, after a jury acquitted four officers (three of them White) of using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King (a Black man), I was dispatched to San Francisco to cover the protests that were also occurring there. While reporting, both my photographer and I were attacked from behind, and I was briefly knocked unconscious. A shopkeeper dragged me into a store to safety. My photographer identified his assailant as Black; I didn’t see mine. But because of this, I presumed, rightly or wrongly, that whoever hit me must also have been Black. As a result, I became wary, if not fearful.
Was this reaction irrational? Was it unfair? If I knew that my attacker had been White, would I have become wary and fearful of White men? The answers are clear: yes, yes and no. But I didn’t ask myself those questions in the aftermath of that attack.
Fear and mistrust can turn into hatred, and hatred can turn into anger and violence. This kind of toxic cycle never manifested in my life, but it most surely has poisoned many police officers in cities across the U.S. Their perceptions and beliefs become warped after one too many negative experiences on the beat, evolving into an irrational, dangerous and racist mislabeling of all people of color.
Racial unrest and calls for change continued in California throughout the early 1990s, in various forms. In 1993, the news director at my station called a staff meeting and announced we would no longer use the word Black. From now on, Blacks would be referred to as African Americans. “Black” was to be discarded into dustbin of racist history, joining “Colored” and “Negro.” Newsrooms everywhere were following suit. During this time, I was having issues with an African American co-worker who made the employees’ schedules and I felt as if my time-off requests were being ignored. This woman didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. I thought she was incompetent; she thought I was petulant. (The truth may lie somewhere in the middle.) But I was careful with whom I discussed this acrimony because disdain for someone who was African American seemed to sometimes translate into being labeled a racist. And being called a racist was a career-ender.
A Sacramento Union newspaper columnist wrote about the attacks on television reporters during the May 1992 California uprising.
In 1994, I began a 17-year stint as a reporter and producer at the FOX affiliate in Chicago. (In those days, FOX Chicago was nothing like the national FOX News Channel, which didn’t even exist until the late 1990s. Locally, we were anything but a right-wing propaganda network.) Chicago was obviously a very diverse city, but also very segregated, best evidenced by downtown’s elevated train station platforms in the evening after work. Southbound commuters stood on one platform; northbound on another. Those heading south were almost always African American. Those heading north were almost always White. An African American co-worker and friend once confided in me, “After a rough week at this damn TV station, I want to go home and not see another White face until Monday.”
Almost every newscast on every station in Chicago had one White and one African American anchor. This seemed to be an unspoken rule. The reporting staffs were far more racially balanced, even though news management remained mainly White during my tenure. I can’t tell you how many shootings and murders and other violent crimes I reported during those first few years. When we covered something at one of the predominantly African American high-rise housing projects, we would sometimes be accompanied by security guards and urged to wear a bullet-proof vest. This was unnerving and stressful but I was determined to push away any residual personal bias against African Americans that lingered inside me after my attack in San Francisco.
Having grown up with a step-father who was also a cop, I was raised to always respect the police. Always keep your hands on the steering wheel if you’re ever pulled over, my stepdad would tell me. Keep ’em where the officer can see ’em. And I did, when I was targeted for speeding quite a few times in my 20s. This never got me out of a ticket, but I never once felt in danger. This upbringing and these experiences led me to believe that the truthfulness and integrity of police wasn’t something I ever needed to question, until I got to Chicago.
One story, one case, changed my perception and naivete almost immediately after starting work in Chicago. It involved an African American 10-year-old accused and convicted of murdering his elderly White neighbor. I covered the trial and, from the very beginning, I sensed something wasn’t right. The facts, the motive, the evidence, none of it, added up. In 2002, eight years later, a federal judge threw out the conviction of this boy, now a 19-year-old young man. The judge ruled that the only actual evidence against the boy was his confession, and that it had been improperly obtained, coerced. Turns out that the police detective who conducted the interrogation had a history of obtaining similar false confessions from innocent people. Turns out, he wasn’t alone. Cases like these abound in Chicago.
Still single for most of the ’90s, I dated every color in the crayon box, culminating in a several-year relationship with a man of Mexican heritage. He wasn’t a fan of African Americans and used several disparaging terms to describe them, frequently. He would claim that, as a member of “another repressed minority,” he had the right to make these comments. Several White photographers I worked with at FOX would dismissively refer to African American men as “the brothers.” This often made me wonder what they called gays, like me, when I wasn’t around.
By the late 1990s, I had become the “special projects” reporter at FOX, which meant I was responsible for original, in-depth, long-form reports. In 2001, I pitched a rather unconventional idea: how about if we tackle race relations by sequestering five Black and five White Chicagoans in a house for a week, videotape them 24/7, and assign them tasks that will elicit honest and meaningful conversations about race? This was my way of combining my love of journalism with my fascination with the sociological aspects of reality TV. (Quick side note: By this time, “Black” was back, and we in the news business seemed to be using both Black and African American interchangeably.)
The resulting project was a nine-part series and eventual documentary that we called The Experiment in Black and White. “Our ground-breaking, and controversial,” approach created an emotional and enlightening dialogue among the housemates, involving hot-button subjects like affirmative action, slavery reparations, and racial profiling. I think the project’s lasting impact is how it encouraged our Black and White participants to speak openly and honestly about their biases, prejudices, fears, concerns, and hopes. They grew as people, and I surely did too. It’s one of my proudest moments as a journalist, and as a human being. The Experiment in Black and White won the national Emmy and the national Edward R. Murrow award, two of broadcast journalism’s highest honors. I truly hope that The Reporters Inc. can one day re-make this documentary project for a new generation of viewers.
The Chicago cast and crew of The Experiment in Black and White, outside the Experiment house, in the spring of 2001.
In 2009, a 16-year-old African American boy named Derrion Albert was brutally beaten to death by four other teens in Chicago. Amateur footage of the beating was obtained by my station and eventually broadcast around the world. It brought attention, once again, to violence in Chicago’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. Yet by this time, after having covered so very many of these types of crimes, interviewing so many anguished parents, attending so many outraged protests, and hearing so many calls to action that never seemed to effect any kind of lasting change, I truly felt as if this kind of violence would never end, at least not in my lifetime. I put together a story at the time, called Chicago’s Cycle of Violence, that touched on the pathology of poverty, drugs, discrimination, dysfunction and despair that often led to the violence, and has continued for generations.
As my texting friend wrote me, “We can’t address police violence or gun violence unless we also address issues of housing violence, educational violence, food injustices, and economic violence. When Black and Brown communities are depleted of resources and set up to fail every single day, what do you expect?”
I created The Reporters Inc. in 2005, a nonprofit journalistic production house with a mission to “promote social awareness, encourage social change and champion social justice.” Our upcoming wrongful convictions documentary series project profiles at least two cases involving people of color, though I know that’s not enough. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, African Americans account for only 13 percent of the American population but they make up a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. In fact, they constitute a whopping 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the Registry.
Over the years, The Reporters Inc. has consistently published articles that focus on race relations and racial injustice but yes, again, probably not enough. And not a single piece, until now, has been penned by us involving the culture-changing, societal awakening that’s transpiring in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I called my texting friend and we talked at length about it. I told her that, for me, one of the most disturbing conclusions from the video is the fact the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck doesn’t stop or let up, not for one second, even though he knows he’s being filmed. He doesn’t stop because he doesn’t think the video of him snuffing the life out of Floyd on camera is going to get him into any trouble at all. He doesn’t think so because so many other officers, in so many other cities, have done something similarly inhumane while being filmed. Because so many other officers have also gotten away with it.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe these past couple months of sustained protests and emotional upheaval, and these past couple years of a depraved and blatantly racist president, have pushed our country to a boiling point that will actually boil over into lasting change. Maybe. But I’m still not sure. Can hundreds of years of racial inequality and injustice truly turn on the knee of one murderous cop?
One day back in the 1990s, in the make-up room of FOX Chicago, a Black reporter and I were combing our hair in the mirror, preparing to go on set. I had long, straight hair back then, that I lathered with mousse, parted on the side, and swooped back. The final touch was hair spray to keep it all in place. This always took a while because, well, it just did. My co-worker had short, tightly cropped hair, but his careful combing on this day seemed to take even longer than my excessive primping. I turned to him and said, “For someone with such short hair, you sure do take a long time combing it.” Without pausing, he responded, “That just goes to show you know nothing about Black hair.”
And yes, he was right. I didn’t. Nearly three decades had passed since curiosity prompted me to reach out and touch my childhood friend Renee?s hair. It was wild and free and soft, but that’s about as much as I can remember. Who knows if Renee and I would have remained the best of friends, had she lived. None of my other pre-adolescence friendships have endured, but maybe the one I had with Renee would have been different. Maybe that carefree, color-blind camaraderie that blossomed out of childhood innocence would have grown into a close, mature, interracial adult friendship, and a lifetime of far-better racial understanding. Maybe.
Mark Saxenmeyer and Renee Nwokobia in 1971, on the front porch of Renee’s Minneapolis home.
The chronicling of my experiences with race here makes it abundantly obvious: from the community I was raised in to the schools I attended, from the career I’ve been able to forge to my daily interactions with societal institutions, my White privilege carved an easy-to-traverse path. The American political and economic system was definitely set up to benefit White people like me and I’ve enjoyed unearned advantages based on skin color, from day one. Even though I’m also part of the LGBTQ+ community, a group of people who have also been historically disparaged and discriminated against, I have often simply “passed” as a straight White man.
It’s time to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations. My texting Chicago friend followed that remark by adding, “Because Black people have been living uncomfortably for 400 years.”
Back here in Minnesota, the recent international epicenter of racial unrest, I live a few miles south of the Floyd murder scene in a quiet first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. Since I mainly work from home now (even in non-pandemic times), days if not weeks can pass without me interacting with someone Black in person, because Minnesota’s Black population is still only around 6 percent. My partner of 15 years is White, our families are White, most of my neighbors are White, and most of my close friends here, from high school and college, are White. I’d say nearly all can be considered socially-progressive Democrats, who live comfortably in our privilege, no matter what the outcome of any election might be. We can shop in stores without being profiled, and we can call the police if needed, never fearing that call might endanger our own safety.
“We’re all in agreement that Black Lives Matter,” one of these White friends said to me recently. But we’re all products of our environment, of our upbringing, of our culture, he observed. “In the end, don’t we all just naturally gravitate to our own kind?”
Maybe we do, but in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, there is no doubt that Minneapolis, the country, and the world will only be changed by action, uncomfortable action, not just conversation. Text message received.
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