Tag Archives: people of color

Prize-winning book chronicles history of racist thinking

Stamped from the Beginning, winner of the National Book Award winner for nonfiction, is a work of history very much rooted in recent events.

Ibram X. Kendi’s 600-page narrative traces racism in the United States, from colonial times to the present.

Kendi began working on the book shortly before the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and he felt a special urgency to write about what he calls “stimulations,” individuals “who believe that black people were culturally or behaviorally inferior.”

“There are notions that scientists, and journalists, and scholars can be objective,” he says. “And typically those ideas that have connoted that black people are in some ways inferior have been cast as these objective ideas, which then legitimize them and allowed for their circulation.”

Kendi, an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Florida, structured Stamped from the Beginning around five people, ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Angela Davis, and around the efforts to combat racism, whether the self-help ethic of Booker T. Washington or the moral persuasion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The book’s title comes from a speech by Jefferson Davis, given the year before he became president of the Confederate states.

“This country was created by white men for white men, and inequality between the white and black races was stamped from the beginning,” Davis said.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kendi discussed his findings on racist ideas, why some breakthroughs in American history were not such breakthroughs after all and whether he would have made any major changes had he completed the book after the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

ON THE ORIGINS OF RACIST IDEAS:

“I chronicle a history in which we’ve been taught this notion that it’s ignorance and hate that lead to racist ideas about black people, and then it’s these people with these racist ideas that are the people who create racist policies. And I actually find, through my research, that that line of thinking is ahistorical, and it’s actually been quite the opposite. Racist policies have been created typically out of self-interest and those policies have bred racist ideas to justify those policies, and then the circulation of those racist ideas has led to ignorance and hate.”

ON WHY BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, THE SUPREME COURT DECISION THAT DEEMED SEGREGATION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNCONSTITUTIONAL, WAS ALSO AN AFFIRMATION OF RACIST THINKING:

“Most Americans have not read the actual majority opinion written by Chief Justice Warren, and in that opinion, he states very clearly, and I’m quoting him, that ‘The segregation of the white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon colored children,’ and not white and colored children, but colored children, and his decision was based on all of these psychological and social science studies that were making the case that segregational poverty was literally making black children inferior. … These studies then suggested that what black children need is to be closer to white children.”

ON SIMILARITIES HE SEES BETWEEN TODAY AND THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY:

“One hundred years ago a wealthy New Yorker by the name of Madison Grant published a best-selling book called The Passing of the Great Race, and this book was translated into several languages, including German, and it became the bible of somebody by the name of Adolf Hitler, and this ‘Passing of the Great Race’ author made the case that the ‘great race,’ of course an Anglo-Saxon white race, was basically under attack by everyone else. By immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, by non-white immigrants, by civil rights activists …”

ON WHETHER HE WOULD HAVE WRITTEN THE BOOK’S OPTIMISTIC CONCLUSION, IN WHICH HE WONDERS IF “MAYBE THE TIME IS NOW” FOR REAL PROGRESS AGAINST RACISM,” HAD HE FINISHED IT AFTER THE ELECTION OF TRUMP:

“I would say that in order for anybody to bring about change you have to believe that change is possible, and so first and foremost that epilogue, and that ending, is coming from that perspective. And then, secondly, being an historian, I know that changes have usually come as a result of people feeling and recognizing that things are pretty bad. And so it would not surprise me if we are able to create an anti-racist America in the near future …”

On the web

https://www.ibram.org/

 

Study: Racial disparities found in police traffic stops

A study of statewide police traffic stops in Vermont, the second-whitest state in the country, has found racial disparities in how police treat drivers.

Black drivers were four times more likely than whites to be searched after traffic stops, and Hispanic drivers were nearly three times more likely, according to the University of Vermont study, Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont. At the same time, black and Hispanic drivers were less likely than white and Asian drivers to be found with contraband that leads to an arrest or citation, according to the report, which was based on 2015 data.

Black and Hispanic drivers also were more likely than white drivers to get traffic tickets versus warnings, and black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested after stops, the study said.

“Almost all of the agencies in our study exhibit disparities in traffic policing to one degree or another,” said study co-author Stephanie Seguino, a professor in the university’s Department of Economics. “In other words, the results are not uniquely attributable to one or two agencies, but it’s really a widespread problem in terms of policing.”

One of the reasons some police officers use to explain the higher rate of searches of black drivers versus white drivers is concerns about the opioid crisis and drugs coming in from out of state, and there’s a racial component to those perceptions, Seguino said. But the study found white and Asian drivers were more likely than black or Hispanic drivers stopped to be found with contraband.

Vermont, which has a population of about 625,000, was 94.8 percent white the year the policing study was done, according to U.S. Census figures. Only Maine, at 94.9 percent, was whiter. Blacks made up 1.3 percent of the Vermont population, Hispanics 1.8 percent and Asians 1.6 percent.

The study looked at traffic stop data from 29 departments across Vermont, following a 2014 state law that required police to collect such race information. But many agencies had missing data in key categories, said co-author Nancy Brooks, of Cornell University, who said more work is needed to improve the data quality.

Police treatment of drivers varied among departments, the study found.

In Rutland, for example, police searched black drivers at a rate of more than six times that of white drivers while white drivers searched were found with contraband at a higher rate than black drivers.

Rutland police Chief Brian Kilcullen, who has been on the job since November 2015, said he was somewhat surprised by the findings.

“You start with awareness, and that’s what this does,” he said of the report, adding that the police department has done training sessions.

Burlington police Chief Brandon del Pozo said his department is seeing an improvement in the rate at which searches lead to contraband, called the hit rate, meaning police are doing fewer unnecessary searches.

To reduce the racial disparities, the report’s authors recommend creating a standardized system for collecting data, giving officers feedback on their performance during stops, supporting police departments in giving frequent training sessions on bias and monitoring disparities annually.

Mark Pocan: Fighting Trump to save eight years of hard-won progress

The end of Obama’s presidency leaves the LGBTQ community at a crossroads. While it remains to be seen whether the next president will rollback protections and civil rights for our community, the track record of the Republican party and Donald Trump’s recent Cabinet appointments do not give me confidence.

The president-elect, and many of the people he is surrounding himself with, have shown apathy and even contempt for LGBTQ people, women, people of color and immigrants. The radically conservative agenda they are proposing unfairly targets so many communities that have struggled to achieve equality. As an LGBTQ elected official and a proud member of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus, I am on the frontline of the battle to save the eight years of hard-won progress that is now in danger – and I will embrace that role.

The LGBTQ community intersects with all other communities, spanning every demographic group. We are all genders, races and members of every religious community. We come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, levels of education and hold different systems of belief.

When our community is under attack, everyone is under attack. This is why it is important we begin to operate in unison with a shared mission and vision to fight anti-equality efforts.

Together, we must fight to make sure employers cannot discriminate against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — in Wisconsin or anywhere in our country. I am incredibly proud that Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to protect people based on sexual orientation, yet 34 years after that landmark bill was signed, we have yet to protect transgender people from being fired from their jobs or denied service at a grocery store, simply because of who they are.

This injustice extends to the majority of states in our nation, and the absence of a federal law makes the LGBTQ community incredibly vulnerable. This is just one of many equality issues we expected to address in Congress next year, but now seems in peril given the election results.

There is still progress that needs to be made, and we cannot allow the momentum we gained over the past eight years to falter.

It is now more apparent than ever that LGBTQ representation in elected positions at every level of government matters. With this election, we now have 500 out and proud elected officials in the country. The support of allies is invaluable, but it cannot replace the understanding of a lived experience — knowing what it’s like to be denied relationship recognition or being targeted for violence because you are holding your partner’s hand. LGBTQ elected officials understand the gravity of these issues, so in this post-election uncertainty, we are coming together to use our collective power to effectively oppose efforts to target the rights of the LGBTQ community or any other community.

The fight won’t be easy — but know that as your Congress member, I will be an outspoken and relentless voice for equality regardless of who is in the White House, and I will do everything I can to protect our progress in the coming months and years.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan represents Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District

Bring it — to the ballot box

State election officials say “bring it” to the ballot box.

They mean your photo ID.

We say “bring it.”

And we mean your right, your vote, your democratic power.

Voting in the 2016 election cycle began this month, with much attention to the caucuses in Iowa and the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire. Of course at WiG we’re as interested in — and vested in — the presidential race as you. But we also want to emphasize the importance of state and local elections and the role of each citizen in the democratic process.

Regardless of which party holds your allegiance or who you support on the ballot, pocket your photo ID and “bring it” to the polls on Feb. 16 to cast your choice in the Wisconsin primary, to be followed by the presidential preference primary, the spring election and the general election.

This is no endorsement of the photo ID law that the GOP enacted at the bidding of a right-wing movement to minimize the influence of voters who traditionally vote for  the Democratic Party. Like you, we wanted to see this discriminatory measure overturned by the courts. We still want to see the law repealed.

But, to get there, we must “bring it.”

We must abide by the photo ID law so we can elect those who support voting rights for all and oust those who advocate for a government that just serves them and their well-funded special interests.

We know there’s confusion among voters about whether a photo ID is needed to vote and which IDs are acceptable. We found this guidance from the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Common Cause.

ACCEPTABLE IDS: Include a Wisconsin driver’s license, a state ID card, a tribal ID card, an unexpired receipt for a driver’s license or state ID, a certificate of naturalization issued within the past two years, a U.S. military photo ID, a U.S. passport or a college photo ID card from a state-accredited college that contains an expiration date and signature.

WHAT IF THE ADDRESS ISN’T CURRENT ON THE ID? An acceptable photo ID does not have to include a current address.

THE NAME ISN’T AN EXACT MATCH: The name on a photo ID need not exactly match the name used to vote. For example, an ID that says “Sue Doe” can be used by registered voter “Susan Doe.” However, a person who’s legally changed his or her name must present an ID with the new name.

NO PHOTO ID: A resident can get a free voter photo ID from the local Division of Motor Vehicles by providing a Social Security number as well as an original document (birth certificate, certificate of citizenship, certificate of naturalization, Social Security card, military discharge papers, utility bills, pay stubs, insurance policies, mortgage papers, court order for adoption, divorce, name or gender change) containing the person’s name, date of birth, identity, proof of U.S. citizenship and residency. 

LACKING REQUIRED DOCS FOR ID: Complete a short form at the DMV stating that the documents needed to prove U.S. citizenship, name and date of birth are unavailable and require a fee to obtain.

PROVISIONAL BALLOT: If you get to the polls and don’t have a photo ID, don’t leave without voting. Voters have the right to request a provisional ballot and to show an ID by the end of the week.

Got it?

Now, “bring it.” 

Wisconsin Gazette’s mission is to help build a strong, informed community; promote social equality and justice; support immigration and electoral reform; expose government secrets and call out political corruption; celebrate and support the arts; and foster appreciation and respect for the state’s extraordinary natural resources.

Republican lawmakers target voter registration drives in Wisconsin

The Republican-controlled State Senate may consider legislation as early as Feb. 9 that would effectively undermine organized voter registration drives in Wisconsin.

Last week, on a 3-2 party-line vote, Republicans on the State Senate Elections Committee approved Senate Bill 295, along with an “11th-hour” amendment authored by the committee’s chair, Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg. Among other things, SB 295 would allow (some) Wisconsinites to register to vote online, but would eliminate “the authority to appoint and use special registration deputies.”

While we vigorously support online voter registration, we do not support this version or this legislation.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and many other good government groups in Wisconsin, oppose Senate Bill 295 in its present form as well.

The GOP proposal allows only those with a Wisconsin drivers license or state-issued ID access to the online system. As a result, those individuals less likely to have those forms of ID (minorities, the elderly, low-income persons, and students) — the very people most likely to be served by special registration deputies — will be left out in the cold, having far fewer options to be able to register to vote.

This legislation would make Wisconsin the only state in the country to offer online voter registration at a cost that outweighs the benefits of instituting such a system.

Currently, special registration deputies are appointed by a municipal clerk to register fellow citizens at many venues within their municipality. You will often see SRDs during election season at libraries, community centers, nursing homes, farmer’s markets, outside of banks, at supermarkets, and on college campuses. The success of voter registration drives — conducted by groups like the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, Voces de la Frontera, and the American Association of University Women — hinges on the SRD’s authority to register voters.

SRDs have been registering voters in Wisconsin for more than 40 years without any problem whatsoever, and there is no valid reason to eliminate them.

Please help us stop this latest attempt to make it harder for thousands of Wisconsinites to be able to register and to vote. Call or email your state senator and urge your senator to oppose SB 295! If you don’t know who your state senator is, go here.

Minneapolis school board calls Utah-made books offensive

Minneapolis school board members are demanding an apology and a refund from a Utah-based publisher of educational books after a community backlash against what some called racial and cultural stereotypes in the material.

The books from Reading Horizons include a story about a black girl called “Lazy Lucy” and a stereotyped illustration of an American Indian girl in a book called “Nieko the Hunting Girl,” The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports

Board members said the Utah-based company Reading Horizons should return the $1.2 million the district paid for the books for children in kindergarten through third grade.

“Reading Horizons needs to step up to the table,” board member Carla Bates said. “I want them to bring me a check, bring you a check, bring the taxpayers of Minneapolis a check.”

The dust-up comes as critics say the school district isn’t doing enough to help students of color close a wide achievement gap.

The books are designed to help teachers reinforce reading lessons, but administrators acknowledged during a Tuesday meeting that they didn’t fully vet the material before buying the books, which have since been returned.

“We rushed the contract,” Interim Superintendent Michael Goar said. “Where we can hold people accountable, we will.”

The company is overhauling its teaching material to be more culturally sensitive, but Reading Horizons representative Laura Axtell said wouldn’t say whether it will issue a refund.

The titles were published in 2012 and have been used in other schools without complaints, Axtell said.

“That doesn’t matter to us, because as soon as we became aware of the concerns in Minneapolis, we took action,” she said, adding that the company takes responsibility for its role in the controversy.

Though the subject material may be questionable, the skills taught in the books do help kids learn to read, said Peter Sage, an elementary school reading specialist in Minneapolis. Students are falling behind, and faculty can’t afford to wait for new books, he said.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the North Salt Lake-based company is considering a voluntary recall of the series, which also includes a book about Kenya that says “Kenyans are able to run very fast.”

The books were purchased as part of a program designed to help close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

The district will continue to use the Reading Horizons focus on phonetics and decoding words, though without the 54 books in the series, Goar said in a statement.

After 25 years in office, Scott Walker denies he’s a career politician

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker denies he’s a career politician — even though he has held elected office since he was 25 years old and first ran for office when he was 22. As an adult, he worked in the private, for-profit sector for little more than one year.

The 47-year-old Republican presidential contender said in an interview with CNBC, released Sept.1, that he is “just a normal guy” — a standard line in his stump speech that makes critics cringe: It’s generally taken for granted that most people are normal, so bragging about it as an accomplishment raises suspicions. Walker rejects the career politician label, despite having spent vritually his entire life in politics, when you add in his campaign work for others. 

In 1990, at the age of 22, Walker ran for the state Assembly representing Milwaukee and lost. He then moved to a more conservative suburb and ran again in 1993 and won. He hasn’t lost an election since, and he’s become an icon for right-wing suburbanites.

Walker served nine years in the Assembly, eight years as Milwaukee County executive and is now in his fifth year as governor.

After being considered a top-tier candidate earlier in the year, Walker has since fallen behind Donald Trump in polling and lost ground to other candidates with no government experience, namely retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former technology executive Carly Fiorina. Several high-profile flip-flops and gaffes, along with a nearly mute debate performance, have hurt his standing.

In a Fox News interview on Sept. 1, Walker said that he understands the attraction outsider candidates can have — because he is one.

“They want people who will take on Washington, who will shake things up, and I agree with that,” Walker said. “Heck, I’m an outsider. I was one of the guys who took on the Washington-based power structure right here in the state of Wisconsin. They tried to come after me in the recall election. They failed.”

Walker was targeted for a recall in 2012 after he unilaterally, without discussion or debate, effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. Walker won the recall, making him the first governor in U.S. history to defeat such an effort.

In the CNBC interview, which was conducted on Aug. 21, he was asked whether he was too reliant on white voters to win nationwide. His coded racist rhetoric and policies have made Walker enormously unpopular with voters of color, but massively popular with uneducated and older white males. But Walker said that he could win in a dozen states that essentially determine an election, as he sees it.

“Wisconsin’s one of them,” he said. “I’m sitting in another one right now, New Hampshire. There’s going to be Colorado, where I was born, Iowa, where I lived, Ohio, Florida, a handful of other states.”

A recent poll, however, showed Walker losing to Hillary Clinton by double digits in Wisconsin, which normally votes Democratic in presidential elections.

Walker has shifted to a more aggressive tone in recent weeks, increasing criticism of fellow Republicans.

Trump donated $10,000 to Walker’s 2014 re-election campaign for governor, something Walker noted in the interview. Walker said Trump never asked for anything in return because he viewed Walker as different from other politicians.

“His words were, to me, ‘I like you ’cause you’re a fighter,’” Walker said.

But in late July, a Walker fundraiser referred to Trump as “DumbDumb” in an email.

“I’ve been nice to Scott Walker,” Trump said after that. “He’s a nice guy. He came up to my office like three, four months ago, presented me with a plaque because I helped him with his election.”

Trump went on: “I liked that he was fighting. I didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but he was fighting and I like a fighter.”

AP writer Scott Bauer contributed to this story.


Federal court looks at N.C. voting law

“This is our Selma,” the president of the North Carolina NAACP said, rallying activists and denouncing Republican efforts to suppress the vote 50 years after the brutal, bloody marches for voting rights in the South.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the leader of the state NAACP, joined other civil rights activists in mid-July in a massive march in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They were marking the start of a federal trial over a state law restricting when and how people can vote. The outcome of the trial could have sweeping implications for voting rights nationwide.

“North Carolina was the first state to pass a restrictive voting law after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 2013, and it is the worst voter suppression law the country has seen since 1965,” Barber said. “The people of North Carolina are standing up — in the courts and on the streets — because we refuse to accept the revival of Jim Crow tactics used to block access to the ballot for African-American and Latino voters.”

When first introduced in 2013, the North Carolina measure consisted of 12 pages and called for requiring voters to present photo IDs. That measure, inspired by a model bill drafted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council — which is heavily influenced by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch — proved objectionable to progressives.

But it got much worse.

After the Supreme Court ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder voting rights case, lawmakers expanded the bill to 40 pages. The measure — H.B. 589, which passed along party lines — shortens the early voting period by a week, eliminates same-day registration, prohibits counting provisional ballots cast out of precinct, expands the ability to challenge voters, eliminates a pre-registration program for teenagers and requires photo IDs.

Post-Shelby, other state legislatures reduced access to the polls and created new restrictions on voting. But in North Carolina, lawmakers rolled all the right-wing voting restrictions advocated by ALEC into an omnibus measure that passed swiftly, with minimal public comment, just before the end of the 2013 legislative session. At the time, critics compared Republicans’ drive in North Carolina to the suppression strategy carried out by Republicans in Wisconsin. Since 2011, Wisconsin has twice reduced in-person early voting, introduced restrictions on voter registration, changed residency requirements, eliminated straight-ticket voting, limited opportunity to obtain an absentee ballot by fax or email and imposed a voter ID requirement.

In the North Carolina House, every Democrat asked to speak against the bill.

“The whole Democratic caucus, after the bill passed, stood up and bowed their heads in a moment of silence,” said state Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, who testified at the trial.

As in Wisconsin, the ACLU and the League of Women Voters organizations in North Carolina are leading the challenge to the voter suppression law, along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

They maintain the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against voters of color.

Throughout the trial, witnesses repeatedly testified that lawmakers’ intent with H.B. 589 is to make it more difficult for black and Latino voters to register and cast ballots by eliminating opportunities and access used at disproportionately higher rates by voters of color.

Other challenges to other voter suppression laws have argued that lawmakers’ intent was to make it more difficult for people who traditionally vote Democratic to cast ballots. In North Carolina, the focus is on race and racism, not partisanship.

In 2012, about 900,000 North Carolina voters cast ballots in the seven days of early voting eliminated a year later by the Legislature. About 70 percent of those voters were African-American. Lawmakers knew that percentage before changing the law. They also knew that an estimated 200,000 votes were lost in Florida in 2012 after cuts to early voting.

In the 2012 and 2008 elections, more than 90,000 North Carolina voters used same-day registration. African-Americans relied on same-day registration at twice the rate of white voters — another fact known to lawmakers before they eliminated same-day registration.

Before 2013, if a voter appeared at the wrong precinct, North Carolina used to count the ballot for all offices in which the person would be eligible to vote — including statewide offices and for president. Now ballots cast at the wrong precinct are discarded.

UW-Madison professor Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center, told the court about the “calculus of voting,” a model used to determine the financial, educational and psychological costs of voting. “In general, disruptions to voting habits raise costs and deter participation,” he said. “What may appear to be equal costs imposed by a restriction on voting practices are, in fact, more acute for black and Latino voters. These groups are doubly burdened because they have fewer resources needed to overcome those costs and vote.”

North Carolina, in its defense, has maintained that the changes in H.B. 589 are “neutral on their face” — the same claim made for poll taxes and literacy tests.

“The law teaches that it is the impact that matters … not whether a law explicitly says African-Americans or Latinos are not allowed to vote,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group.

The state also has said H.B. 589 was needed to curb voter fraud, but the state elections board said from 2000 to 2014 there were two claims of voter impersonation out of 35 million votes.

“Any fair reading of the sequence of events before the bill’s passage leads to the conclusion that (the legislators) were voter suppressors in search of a pretext,” Hair said of the North Carolina process. “There was no legitimate problem they were trying to solve.”

Uprooted ends, but a tradition of promoting diverse theater lives on

Uprooted Theatre was born out of a simple realization: Over decades, Milwaukee had inadvertently developed a longstanding, unofficial tradition of actors, directors and designers of color training in the city only to leave and make their careers elsewhere. The company’s four founding artists — Marti Gobel, Dennis Johnson, Travis Knight and Tiffany Yvonne Cox — made it their job not just to break that tradition themselves, but make it easier for other artists of color to do the same.

The fact that Uprooted did such a phenomenal job over the last six years made the announcement that the company was closing all the more disappointing. From 2009 to 2015, the company gave numerous artists of color their first professional roles in the city, developed the well-received Against Type fundraiser and launched the Milwaukee Diversity Generals, which drew more than a dozen companies from Chicago and across Wisconsin to see actors’ auditions last year. And, perhaps most importantly, the company helped spark a conversation in the theater community about race and ethnicity, both in the plays that are staged and the artists chosen to create them.

But nonetheless, there the announcement was, in a Facebook post published by the group on March 23: “After much soul-searching and looking at the budget, we have decided to dissolve Uprooted Theatre following the close of our full production of ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ by Tennessee Williams.”

But while both Johnson and Gobel, the two founders who remain active members of the company, are both sad to dissolve Uprooted, neither of them sees the last six years as anything but a success.

“Maybe this is me being pompous, but I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it,” Johnson says. “We achieved what we were trying to do. We’re going out on top. … I think we had a good run.”

Gobel, speaking via email, is more succinct: “We did great things and we helped so many people. I’d do it all again. Truth.”

PUTTING DOWN ROOTS

Every theater company starts with a conversation, but it took two different plays to spark Uprooted’s. Gobel and Knight, both Milwaukee Rep interns, connected with Johnson while performing in a production of ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’ The Persians at Renaissance Theaterworks. The two then worked with fellow understudy Cox on Trouble in Mind, depicting the backstage drama of a mixed-race cast tackling a problematic anti-lynching play in the 1950s, at the Rep.

As rehearsals for that second show progressed, Gobel says, the three of them realized how strange it was that this was the first time any of them had worked on a play rooted in the African-American experience that was also directed by an African-American (Timothy Douglas). As they continued to discuss and analyze that lapse, they included Johnson in the conversation and began to realize that the four of them could contribute to the solution, all by starting an African-American-run theater company of their own.

That company started small and picked up steam fast. Uprooted’s first production, a one-woman show by Dael Orlandersmith called”Beauty’s Daughter,” didn’t even include Knight and Cox, as both were under contract with summer stock theaters elsewhere. Director Johnson and actor Gobel produced the show without them, each contributing $500 for the Broadway Theatre Center’s rental fee and hoping for success — knowing that, if they didn’t sell seats, they’d lost $1,000 before they even started.

Just the opposite occurred. The show received rave reviews and practically sold out, giving the company the momentum to launch the Against Type fundraiser (in which artists perform scenes from roles they wouldn’t normally be cast in for reasons of gender, race or age) in the fall, and productions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” (in partnership with Renaissance) early the next year.

Six years gave Gobel and Johnson a lot of time to determine what sort of company Uprooted was going to be. Initially, the company started to focus on stories of African-American culture and black playwrights. But as time passed, Johnson says, their objectives began to broaden. “We realized that we were sort of limiting others the way we felt limited, so then we wanted to include all people of color — and not even just of color, people that weren’t really working in other houses who should be,” Johnson says.

LEAVING A LEGACY

But as wonderful as Uprooted’s success was for its artists and the Milwaukee theater community at large, that success would ultimately lead to its end. As the company grew, so too did the administrative and financial responsibilities. Once Knight and Cox left active participation in the company, Gobel became the only member of the team working as a full-time theater artist, and many of those administrative duties fell to her by necessity, compromising her ability to fulfill other responsibilities both professionally and as a wife and mother of four.

The ideal solution, Johnson and Gobel say, would have been to hire a managing director, but there was no way for the company to afford it at this point and no way to grow without stretching Gobel past her limits. Ironically, the only way for the members of Uprooted to be free to do the work they started the company for was to close the company. “I personally felt that I could donate my time to up-and-coming theater organizations and still focus on my own career with the dissolving of Uprooted,” Gobel says. 

Johnson says Uprooted Theatre will officially cease to exist on May 25, after the final show, “Suddenly Last Summer,” closes (see sidebar, prior page). But the most important elements of the company will continue on. They will continue to stage Against Type every year, donating the proceeds to a local charity. And Johnson would like to continue staging a cabaret series the company recently started, although installments will be irregularly scheduled for the time being.

And Johnson and Gobel still hope to collaborate on the initiative that has the potential to be the biggest piece of Uprooted’s legacy: the Milwaukee Diversity Generals. 

Modeled after traditional general auditions, where aspiring, non-union actors audition for a panel of casting directors from multiple theaters in a city or region, Uprooted originally conceived the Diversity Generals as a way to cast actors of color for their 2014–15 season. But as news spread, more and more companies, of increasing stature, asked to join the auditions. By the day of, the 50-odd actors auditioning were seen by representatives from 13 Milwaukee theaters, including the Milwaukee Rep, American Players Theatre and Forward Theatre, as well as Chicago’s acclaimed Goodman Theatre and a Chicago film and television agency casting for “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago PD,” among others.

Johnson hopes that he and Gobel can help coordinate next year’s Milwaukee Diversity Generals and keep it going biennially. “It was a necessity that hadn’t been filled before. Companies may think the talent isn’t here to fill minority roles … but they are here. They just haven’t been seen.”

Johnson and Gobel have no intention of ending their efforts to improve that visibility. “Milwaukee is not fixed. It’s just better,” Gobel says. After all, seeing actors of color audition is only the first step, she adds — there are administrative offices still lacking diversity in their staffing and directors of color who are not hired to direct plays revolving around the Caucasian community while Caucasian directors take on stories about the African-American experience. 

And while Uprooted may have done more than any company before it to shatter that unofficial tradition of artists of color leaving Milwaukee and Wisconsin for cities that provide them better opportunities, one company can’t erase that migration all on its own. 

Gobel, Johnson and Uprooted have taught the theater community what can be achieved. It’s up to that community to carry on their new tradition and erase the old.

College cancels diversity event after whites told not to come

South Puget Sound Community College says it was a mistake for an employee group to invite only people of color to a diversity “happy hour.”

The group that sent out the email last week apologized the next day and canceled the event, said Kellie Purce Braseth, dean of college relations.

The college believes the best way to celebrate and discuss diversity is to include everyone, Braseth told KING5.com.

“If you want to come you should be able to come; that just makes a richer conversation,” she said.

The invitation to all 300 staffers said the “Staff, Faculty and Administrators of Color” encouraged employees to reply to the invitation to find out the confidential date and time of what was being called a “happy hour” to “build support and community” for people of color.

The invite made it clear white people were not welcome.

“If you want to create space for white folks to meet and work on racism, white supremacy, and white privilege to better our campus community and yourselves, please feel free to do just that,” the email read.

Karama Blackhorn, program coordinator for the school’s Diversity and Equity Center, helped write the invitation.

It could have been worded differently, but she maintains the staff members of color would have a more honest discussion about race without white employees.

Explicitly talking about race “can be a really difficult conversation for a lot of people,” Blackhorn said.