Is It Time to Close the Prisons?:

ferdinand stohr black on white.jpg

White on Black, Black on White

In May, the Positive Futures Network hosted the second in a series of gatherings called the State of the Possible. These pieces were written by two participants who both drew inspiration from the gathering.

Oct 1, 2000

White on Black

by Carol Estes

The excruciating 10-hour Talking Circle was not supposed to happen. It was not on the agenda, not in the plan. Maybe that explains its power.

What was supposed to happen that Thursday morning was a sunny strategy session on creating post-WTO social change. After all, we had plenty of reason to celebrate – we were winning!

The night before, when we gathered for the first time in the dining hall, the atmosphere was heady. We stand at the brink of profound social change, we told ourselves, and we – the 35 of us present in that room along with the thousands in the groups we represent – are in a position to influence its direction. Sure, we had our separate concerns, our haggles over terminology and tactics. But when we came together again the next morning, we were, it seemed to me, ready to roll up our collective sleeves, stake out a little patch of common ground, and start hammering out a plan for a new society that works for us all.

I was wrong.

We had skipped a step, forgotten something fundamentally important. We had failed to acknowledge or address racism, within and outside the movement. The people of color in the room – about a third of the group – brought the rest of us up short.

Belvie Rooks, an African-American writer and educator, pointed out what she called the fundamental “disconnect” between minority communities and the dominant culture. “Most of my passionate conversations with people in the African-American community are not about saving the planet,” she said. “They’re about saving our children.”

Priscilla Settee, a Cree Indian from Saskatchewan, pointed out that even within the movement, racism has prevented minority participation. The First Nation had been “disinvited” from its spot at the head of one of the WTO demonstrations, she told us. Even though they led a later demonstration, the incident left bitter resentment.

“How do we heal the foundation of a thousand years of oppression and hurt?” asked Brahm Ahmadi, an Iranian American and gang-member-turned-youth-activist. “I think about my personal relationship to people on the street. That’s what I want to change. Unless I can meet somebody and look them in the eyes and know their story and have the time for them to know my story, I’m not sure what we’re fighting for.”

At Ahmadi’s suggestion, and with the unanimous approval of the group, we jettisoned the agenda and set out on a different path.We called it, in accordance with Native tradition, a Talking Circle. Each of us in turn shared our perceptions and pain, and did a great deal of listening. We began mid-afternoon on Thursday, talked late into the night, and finally brought the circle to a close on Friday at noon.

Many people spoke movingly of painful experiences. Grace Wicks, a young white activist, spoke of the conflict between her love of her country, the US, and her disgust at some of its actions. Rosa Martha Zarate Mac’as, a Mexican-American musician and activist, reminded us of the people, usually nonwhite, we learn not to see – the people cleaning our rooms and serving our meals.

But it was Robert Jeffrey, pastor of an inner-city church in Seattle, who changed the way I see the world. He was sick of conducting funerals for kids killed in shootings, tired of being angry.

“I’ve been angry all my life,” Jeffrey said. “What pisses me off is that white people don’t understand racism.” His anger was particularly unsettling, because he was not talking about some distant bigots. He was talking about me and the other white people in the room – smart people, kind people. The good guys.

But he was right. I, for one, don’t understand racism. Are we are a racist society? Sure. But what does that mean today, when there are no more back-of-the-bus rules, no forced segregation, no lynchings? When black professionals, black film stars and sports heroes, and black co-workers are commonplace? I thought we were talking fine points now. I thought that the subtler racism that remains today was less lethal to the human spirit.

I hadn’t been paying attention.

“I don’t think any white person ever hated me because I’m black,” Jeffrey told us. “They were just indifferent. And I honestly don’t know which is worse.”

Indifference. Invisibility. These are feelings a white woman can understand. I thought of Virginia Woolf, saying that women have no voice with which to join the public discourse. To be rendered voiceless, unheard and unnoticed, is to be made less than fully human.

“We live in a sewer.” Jeffrey said. “It’s not a sewer we made. It’s not a sewer we want to live in. It exists because of you and your grandfathers and great- grandfathers.” He pointed to the white people in the room. “Because of your indifference, because of your unwillingness to accept responsibility for the sins of your fathers.”

I thought of recent discussions with my college English students. I asked them, “What do we owe Native Americans for the land our ancestors took, where your family’s house is built, and mine? What do we owe the descendants of the Africans we kidnapped, used as slaves?” Their answer was always the same: “Nothing! We didn’t do anything. That was then, this is now.”

What I learned from Robert Jeffrey is that then is now, and then is far from over.

And I thought, too, of what I was learning as I worked on this issue of the magazine. That on any given day, one in three young black men is in prison, on probation, or on parole. That about 1.4 million black men, have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions. Why have so many of us failed to notice?

What I have come to believe, in thinking about the Talking Circle, is this: We white people have not earned the right to be partners in planning a new society in the name of “everyone” until we have done what Jeffrey and the others seemed to be asking us to do – understand that the problem is not “theirs” but ours, all of ours. Widen the circle, not just by race, but by class. Get out in the streets. Pay attention. Alongside academic expertise, value equally the hard-won knowledge that comes from looking at the machinery of society from the bottom, because book knowledge – even the expensive Ivy League kind – is cheap compared to the knowledge that’s earned by living in the street, or by burying your children.

The first step is clear. It lies in seeing and in acknowledging what we see. Jeffrey put it bluntly: “I guess all I want you to do is say, ‘There is a sewer. We made it.’”

After Jeffrey, Judy Wicks spoke. A white restaurant owner, Wicks described driving by the local high school, the school her daughter would have attended if Wicks hadn’t sent her to private school. Wicks had driven past the school many times before. But that day, for some reason, she saw it. African-American kids were streaming out the door, all of them strangers to her. That day she saw clearly that even though this was not her daughter’s school, it was her neighborhood high school and she desperately needed to know these kids. So she established scholarship and mentoring programs and began to get acquainted.

Several years later, she told the assembled parents and graduates of her programs, “I finally figured out who those kids were coming out that high school door. They’re our children.”

Two days have passed, and we are already at the end of our time together, standing in another circle, knowing now that many of the assumptions we had about each other were wrong. We’ve wept together, laughed together, felt, to some extent, each other’s pain and expressed our own. We’ve reached across spaces that are seldom bridged in our culture.

I happen to stand facing Robert Jeffrey as we sing a silly, sentimental closing song. “You have given me such treasure” I sing to him, embarrassed, until I realize that for me, the words of the song are deeply true. He has given me a treasure: the awareness of being blind. It’s a harsh gift, nothing I would have wished for. But it is the first lesson in how to see.

Black on White

by Robert Jeffrey

As I reflected on it later, this is what I wanted to tell the people in the Talking Circle at the State of the Possible gathering about what it is to be a black man.

I am an African-American man, 52 years of age. For most of my adult life I have been angry. It is an anger that I have diligently learned to control in order to maintain my sanity as well as my freedom.

I have seen in my lifetime how anger such as mine has led many to sedate themselves with drugs or lobotomize themselves with religion. Many others have been driven by this anger to lives of crime and violence.

I consider myself and others like me to be survivors, controlled sufferers of a rage that swirls inside the mind and spirit like a never-ending storm. It’s a storm that can be ignited by the slightest provocation, a misguided glance, a misspoken word.

My anger grows out of my despair over the sewer that I must walk through each day. It’s a sewer filled with the waste, the unfulfilled potential of countless brilliant men and women. Their decomposed lives litter the alleyways and roadsides that I must travel as I walk between the two worlds I live in.

It’s a world where brilliant people that you know personally are hopelessly strung out on drugs, a world where most of your high school friends are already dead or in prison. It’s a world where you daily see teenage children spread-eagled face down in the street because the country is at war with them. A world where you bank with institutions that launder the money of corporate criminals that provide the drugs to your children and then refuse to give loans to the community-based businesses that could create the jobs they so desperately crave.

Life in the sewer is life lived in full knowledge of statistics. You learn early to know how many are in jail, how many have good jobs, how many are on drugs, how many drop out of school. It is a world filled with memories of civil rights struggles, of men hanging, or preachers in jail, or Klan sheets blowing in the wind.

In my life I have met very few white people who fit the old stereotype of race haters. Most white people I’ve met have been decent, respectful, and sincere. But my anger towards them is on most occasions without compromise.

What do I want from them?

I want them to do what any decent human being would do when confronted by a tragic situation: I want them to jump in and try to make it better. Instead, they usually respond with defensive expressions of regret, prefaced by abdication of any personal responsibility. Sometimes they blame those who live in the squalor for its existence.

It is their indifference to my things, the horrors of my life, that angers me. For unlike my white brothers and sisters, I am forced to care about the things of their lives. Just to survive, I must care about their fashions, their political processes, the threats to their survival. I must care about the threat of communism, or the threat posed by Iraq. I must care about their industrial pollution of the planet. I must work in their companies and care about their government, their police, their clean streets. I must care about their children on drugs, and about protecting their banks – the ones that won’t give me a loan. I must care about their mass murderers that kill only their kind, while they ignore the murderous effects of drugs and ignorance on my people.

I must care about their things. I must also be prepared to intelligently discuss them and even to offer solutions for them or be deemed ignorant, regardless of my educational qualifications.

It is impossible for me to understand what I must do each day, and then do it without feeling angry. It is an anger that comes from the absence of real freedom, a freedom to be a person without bearing the pain of a group I did not choose.

I am assigned to the group by those who stand outside and require me to mark a racial box on every registration form from the cradle to the grave. They do this while accepting no responsibility for either their present indifference or the past racist actions of their fathers. They do this oblivious to the fact that although racism has in a moment become as extinct as the dinosaur, its racial waste, like nuclear waste, remains resistant to their failed attempt to clean it up.

And so I am left alone to live with my anger in the midst of this waste, alone to grieve over and over again, alone to hope that one day they will get it, and my anger will subside.

I found as the weeks passed, that the Talking Circle had touched me, that I no longer felt so alone or so angry. I learned that white people genuinely do not understand racism, while all along I had thought, “How could they not understand?” More important, I learned that some of them are willing to struggle with understanding. That knowledge has been life-changing for me. It has given me hope.


Robert Jeffrey
Carol Estes
Carol Estes is a former managing editor and contributing editor at YES! and is the founder of University Beyond Bars.

Fall 2000

Is It Time to Close the Prisons?


Is It Time to Close the Prisons?