The day Rev. Jesse Jackson was black like me
Expanded from the 11-7-99 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
Updated 4-15-2007, 6-22-2008

I was black for a day, right here in river city.

It's very rare that somebody like me becomes a victim of wholesale racism. A hundred years ago, when Italian immigrants were on the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, calling one of us a guinea or wop would have been fighting words.

But we've moved up the food chain and have comfortably merged into the majority. Once you're prosperous and part of the white establishment, people can feel free to joke about you. That's why white guys, especially dear old dad, have always been about the only fair game for humor on major network television. You can't be accused of discriminating against a minority if you're lampooning the majority.

Alas, the state once known as Mississippi West in many ways still merits the label.

There are no black television news persons in northern Nevada. I've been here for 28 years and couldn't count enough to use all the fingers of one hand. Fox Network affiliate KRXI TV-11 currently employs an African-American weekend weathercaster, and that's as close as we've come in a long time. (That weatherman is beamed in from an Oakland, Calif., sister station.)

Last week, as a result of discovery proceedings in a rash of lawsuits, came new disclosures of apparent endemic and epidemic racism in Sparks city government. No blacks were hired for three years in a row. Dark-skinned workers also can't seem to get promoted if they do get jobs.

Sparks police officer Larry Johnson was gunned down in the line of duty about five years ago. Talk about naming the new city police station after him somehow stayed just talk. [UPDATE, 4-15-2007: The building is slated to open in 2007.]

During last summer's Hot August Nights rock 'n' roll nostalgiafest, Larry Johnson's son was arrested for walking down a Sparks street while obviously black.

Last month, State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, criticized the University of Nevada Medical School for having only 11 blacks among almost 1,000 graduates since 1980. University officials agreed that the criticism is merited.

Reno-Sparks NAACP President Lonnie Feemster recently addressed the Northern Nevada Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. He noted that the African-American dropout rate in the Washoe County School District has jumped from 12% in 1989 to 16% in 1994 and 18% in 1998. He contrasted that with the fact that 28% of the Nevada prison population is black, fully double our black population of 14%. Four of five inmates have an eighth grade education or less.

To some low income families, "jail is an upgrade" in their standard of living from the likes of the motels of Reno's W. 4th Street, Feemster said.

In 1997-98, the Washoe County dropout rate among Alaskan and other Native Americans stood at 13.5%. The Hispanic rate was 9%; "white," 6.2%; Asians and Pacific Islanders, 5.7%.

Feemster criticized how the district has funneled students from the four worst-performing grade schools to Traner Middle School. He blasted how black students are shunted to special education classes, often without good reason and sometimes illegally, while being excluded from honors (gifted and talented) classes.

He called Traner, where his wife is principal, simply "re-segregated" and decried the disparity in school resources. Parents in higher income areas pump an extra $5,000 per year per pupil into their children's education, he said.

Feemster typified the school district's attitude on funding as "we give everybody a Band-Aid. Those with bullet wounds and those with scratches all get the same treatment," he stated.

"After sitting by the door for many years," Feemster said he was finally appointed to the WCSD finance committee.

The disparities in Washoe County school funding are not new. The Reno Gazette-Journal, in perhaps its finest hour, published a weeklong series about the problem about five years ago. Apparently, not much has changed.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Black Like Me was the title of John Howard Griffin's soul-shaking book and a disappointing movie starring James Whitmore in the early 1960s. Griffin found a way to temporarily darken his skin, then traveled through the south as a black person.

"Chilling" accurately describes and woefully understates the impact of that book on me when I read it.

I knew I would never have the courage to do such a thing and shelved it in the back of my mind for three decades.

In 1991, I heard that a Reno radio station was having guest news directors until it could replace someone who had suddenly quit. I called the station manager, an old friend, and volunteered.

I wanted to do a spectacular job and selected the hottest issue of the day: the 1991 Civil Rights Act. Caving in to the racist right wing of his party, President Bush had vetoed an identical 1990 version, but was under severe pressure to reverse himself in a non-election year.

When I showed up for my day as guest news director, I came prepared with a series of interviews with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The station's phones went crazy, but something bothered me about the morning disc jockey's face on the other side of the glass as he talked to listeners.

By 8:00 a.m., I was handed a note from the station manager ordering me to stop running the Jackson segments.

"We cater to a 'white bread' audience," the note read.

It took awhile for the shock to set in. The huge northern Nevada audience of a highly rated radio station — which featured Motown recording artists every hour — vehemently objected to a black leader being interviewed.

"Who does this guy think he is?" was the most gentle comment about my efforts.

The manager offered to let me do one more day, but I declined. For one fleeting moment, I glimpsed the heart of darkness. I felt the paper-cut slice of mindless discrimination. Nobody in the radio audience could see the color of my skin but many had made a judgment on the content of my character and wanted me the hell off their white bread radio station.

For one morning, I became a black man in Mississippi West.

Be well. Raise hell.

UPDATE: Mirror, mirror on the tube, BARBWIRE 4-15-2007

UPDATE: Freedom Loving Racists, BARBWIRE 6-22-2008


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Copyright © 1999, 2004, 2007, 2008 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past three years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 11/7/99.

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