When Race Affects Your Life. July 17, 2017
As I sit here at home retired involuntarily, I ponder my circumstances. A few years ago I was a promising school administrator. I made a poor decision to leave the school district where I was superintendent and seeing progress, to take the lead role in a district that was closer to home, but had infinitely more challenges. I must admit that I let my ego and the increased salary get in the way of the serious reservations that several close friends and advisors had about this job. Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread. It was the worst job that I have ever had. I saw behavior exhibited by adults that was unbelievable. I saw school board members almost come to blows during a meeting. I was bought out and left that job, with a sense of relief. I did not realize that this misstep would affect my career and future opportunities.
A year later I had an opportunity to become superintendent in a district where the demographics were completely different than any that I had ever experienced. It was a district with only a small smattering of minority students,most of whom were members of the Oneida tribe. I was one of three minority staff members. In these circumstances the fact that you are the superintendent has little impact on how you feel. You are living in a small town. Few of the people understand that you feel alone most of the time. You can go to a football stadium to see the high school team play and look around the stadium and see that there is no one like you in the stands. I remember feeling elation when we played Sheboygan North, because they had several black players. If you are white you may not understand this. How many times have you ever been in a situation where you were the only white person in a particular venue? If you are honest, most of you will say that it has never happened to you.
At first things went well within this district. I pride myself on getting to know the staff and students. I spent a lot of time in the buildings and tried to build relationships with the staff. The only staff that I was unsuccessful connecting with were those who were a part of my central office team. The exception was my business manager who was open, warm and honest with me. This person warned to be careful about who I trusted. This was hard for me. In my previous school districts my closest friends were the people who worked with me as part of my Executive team. This was not the case.
Despite all of this, the school board extended my contract and increased my salary more than $13,000 and included an annuity, something that was not a part of my original contract. A friend of mine, another superintendent asked me if I would be interested in applying for a superintendent job in the Milwaukee area. I told him that I was not interested. Everything appeared to be going well in my Northern Wisconsin district. A significant salary increase is usually an indicator that your boss is satisfied with you.
Within a few months things went south. By December the school board was secretly meeting with an attorney to try to figure out how to get rid of me. They never sat down with me and gave me the common courtesy of telling me that there were issues that they wanted to discuss with me. Finally, the new school board member showed up in my office with a draft letter of termination. No conversation, no opportunity to respond. Of course, I secured an attorney to protect myself. I also was very angry. I would have never treated anyone like this. I have had to have hard conversations with employees that I have had to release. Talking with a lawyer was never the first step. I sat down with them and talked about areas of concern and gave them an opportunity to improve. I was not afforded any such opportunity.
By June, my attorney and I settled with the district. I had to sign a non disparagement clause, meaning that I would not publicly say anything libelous about the district. I agreed to this.
The Green Bay Press Gazette demanded documentation from the school board that included their allegations against me. They stated that I had been dishonest and made several accusations. My lawyer and I had addressed all of these in our responses to the district's lawyer. We also included 10 instances of disparate treatment, that is, times where I was treated completely differently than any preceding superintendent. We believed that discrimination on the bases of race, played a role in my dismissal. The non-disparagement clause put pressure on me not to respond. If I did, risked not being paid out on my contract, without a means of supporting my family. I did not give them our documentation, refuting each of their allegations and showing the contrived nature of their assertions. I just wanted to move on. If someone goes to those lengths to get rid of you, why would you want to stay?
What I did not realize was that the allegations in the Press Gazette would signal the end of my career. I have since applied for jobs which I was imminently qualified for. I have not even been given the benefit of an interview. The only exception was in Clinton where the school board looked past this information, talked with my references, including school board members from the Northern Wisconsin school district, and hired me to be their interim superintendent during the 2015-16 school year. They looked beyond the surface, sat me down and asked direct questions about what happened in the previous district. No other place that I have applied has done this. I have been told that the district's that I have applied to have done a Google search and decided that it would not be worth their time to interview me.
If you are new to the world of school districts and superintendents, let me share one fact with you. There are many retreads among superintendents. By this I mean that there are many superintendents who have blemishes on their records. The ran afoul of board members by firing a popular coach or they spearheaded a failing referendum. The reasons that superintendents get fired are numerous. I must state that it is very bothersome to me that I have not been given the same opportunity to be a retread. Is race an underlying reason. Given my resume and some of the successes that I have had, including within the Northern Wisconsin district, I really think so. Maybe some district will break the mold and give me another opportunity. If not, I will remain highly qualified but involuntarily retired.
How Much Progress Have We Made? June 1, 2017
In the last month or so there have been high profile instances that unfortunately reinforce something that I have come to experience in my own life, and know to be true. It does not matter how famous you are or how wealthy you are, If you are black it will not shield you from racism. Today there was a story on the news that someone had spray painted a racial slur on the gates of Lebron James Los Angeles home. He is an internationally recognized athlete. He is a role model for many, especially the people of the Cleveland and Akron areas of Ohio. He is generally held in high regard for his benevolent work in those areas. He has risen to a level of notoriety and wealth that many, African-Americans and others would love to achieve. This did not keep him from suffering the same treatment that other African-Americans have faced. I can remember having many conversations with my older brother James about this very subject. He was an executive with a brewing company and held a very high profile position within the company. Despite all of his success he told me that it did not insulate him from the occasional slights that came with being black. He also said that he knew that there was a cap on how far a black man could climb. He helped me to see that progress would only be made when the average African-American was experiencing success without the impairment of discrimination. My brother's counsel came in handy when I had my own experience with discrimination.
I had achieved a level of success in my career, having become a superintendent of schools in several school districts. Two of them were urban districts and there had been other African-American superintendents in the past. For the first time in my life I was not called upon to be the trailblazer, the pioneer. This did not mean that there were not challenges. One challenge that I did not face, especially in Beloit, was any kind of racial discrimination because I was a black superintendent. It was different in another district farther north in Wisconsin. I was the first black superintendent in that district, and to my knowledge, was the first black superintendent in the northern part of the state of Wisconsin. I found people who were kind and welcoming. I also found people who were hesitant and suspicious. I felt that any decision that I made was overly scrutinized, unlike the treatment that was afforded my two immediate predecessors, both of whom had tenures of five years and left unceremoniously. When I was shown the door after receiving a new contract with a significant salary increase, I thought that I had overcome the reach of any kind of discrimination. When I was threatened with being terminated, I saw that I was no different than the black man who worked in a factory or in some other profession. Climbing the ladder did not change what I experienced. A former superintendent of the district declared publicly that he believed that I was treated that way because I was black. None of this was reported in the Green Bay Press Gazette. The things that the district alleged were published and it made it impossible for me to interview for another superintendent job. I have been told by an executive search firm that a school board looked at what was published and was not even interested in hearing my side of things. By the way, there are a good number of sitting superintendents who have been terminated at some point in their careers and they find a second chance somewhere else. I have been told that this may not happen for me. I use to wonder why. I don't anymore.
It doesn't matter if you are Lebron James or even a much dimmer luminary like myself, if you are black, you will find discrimination invading your life and at times, limiting your opportunities, or trying to make you feel like you are less than others. This is in 2017, but how different is that than what people experienced in 1967? There are greater opportunities to be sure, but there are always reminders that things have not fully changed. .
'What Is Your Governor
I was at a prayer meeting with a group of local pastors. We generally have a time of fellowship before we focus in on prayer. For some reason the topic was muscle cars. Several of us, being older guys, talked about muscle cars that we either owned or drove. There is a definite fascination for men with speed. Some of the guys confessed that they drove their cars or motorcycles at speeds that match the speed of small planes. There was also a consensus that none of us like the fact that most high performance cars have a "governor". You are driving 140 miles per hour and then something kicks in that has the effect of hitting a 'speed ceiling'. The governor won't allow the car to go any faster. After a few minutes we moved on to another topic, but the function of a 'governor' kept echoing in my mind.
I began to wonder: What is my 'governor'? In other words, What is that thing that stops me just when I am about to really move in the Holy Spirit. What keeps me from experiencing the breakthrough in my life that I have been waiting for? Sometimes it has been the fear of people. There are times that I am about to experience a breakthrough and I have to decide what I am willing to do to really obey the Lord. I am a pastor of a church that believes that the Holy Spirit still moves supernaturally through the people in our church. As pastor, that means that I have to 'allow' for the moving of the Spirit through the congregation all of the time. If you really think about it for a minute, how arrogant is it to believe that you can 'allow' the Holy Spirit to do anything? Isn't He the Boss? I have to decide that If I believe what I Corinthians 14 says in the Bible, and that the way that they worshipped in the Early Church is the norm, then I have to be willing to let that be displayed, especially when visitors come to the church. Out of fear of man, I can sit on the members who are more expressive emotionally, or those who might have a message in tongues. All of these purely scriptural things can be squashed out of fear of what the visitor might think. Do you think that they did that in the Book of Acts? If I allow fear of people to influence whether or not we praise and worship with passion, then this has become my 'governor', and it keeps me from moving with God.
For some believers it is something else. A fear of what their friends or family members think. For some pastors It is deciding whether or not to preach what the Bible says about sin, especially when they might fear offending someone. In a day where good is called evil, and evil is called good,, this happens more often then you would think Fear of offending those who are the big givers in their church can also become a 'governor'. It can hinder their desire to speak the truth. If they give in to it then internally they can feel themselves hitting the spiritual speed ceiling.
My point is this: Am I willing to let the Holy Spirit show me what my governor is? What is that thing that has greater influence on me than He does? I don't want to miss his purpose for me, and for my church. Following Jesus will not be popular, in fact, it is guaranteed to bring me into conflict with the world system. Jesus said, "If they hate me, they will hate you'. (John 15:18)
I want for God to be my 'governor', the only difference is that He doesn't slow me down, He accelerates my obeying the will of God.
Here are a few of the latest comments by readers of The Only One In The Room...
First, thank you for sending me your book. It was an honor to read your life stories and be trusted with your intimate revelations.
When I wrote that I would read your book after a couple of others, I thought it would be much sooner. Actually, those are still waiting to be read. I went to Florida and took your book with me. It was difficult to put down. I especially enjoyed the private time I had with it after most of the lights were out and others slept.
Somehow, you were able to tell your story without blame, but honestly, inviting the reader into your life story slowly, gently, and purposefully. Each chapter provided "teachable moments" if readers care enough to heed. I don't think they would read your book if they didn't. I certainly learned from you.
I read your final chapter a few times. It pulled together your experiences and insights, joys and sorrows more transparently than most authors...
Race and The Church
In my book, The Only One In The Room, I examine race from several different perspectives. I have a lifetime of personal experiences on this topic. It has affected every area of my life, even limiting career advancement opportunities. When I have pondered places in our society where racial division is most prevalent, I am ashamed to say that the Church is at the top of the list.
The Church is to represent the heart and attitude of God toward human beings. The Bible says that God is no respecter of persons. This means that He does not play favorites. He does not give preferential treatment to the rich over the poor, or the poor over the rich. Black and white are not designations that endear a person to Him, or repel a person from Him. In His kingdom distinctions such as race do not matter.
It is therefore perplexing to see what happens on Sunday mornings with churches across the breath of our country. The more mainline churches, whether black or white, tend to be the most segregated. There are white churches, and there are black churches. There are churches where you find not one person of the other race. I have read things from church experts who say that this is not surprising. They state that people tend to go to church with people of the same educational level, socio-economic and racial/ethnic or language group. 'It is just more comfortable', they explain. My question is this, 'Since when did God care about what we are most comfortable with?' In heaven there are people from different time periods, races, languages, ethnicities and socio--economic levels. The apostle Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. He does not include black or white because during his time, in the Roman Empire, skin color meant nothing. You could be white and be a slave, and be black and be a Roman citizen. Race did not determine a person's station in life, or possibilities. Unfortunately, that is not true in America. During the decades and centuries in America, blacks and whites have traveled parallel lives. They developed separate institutions to meet their needs. A black grocery store and a white one. Separate schools and separate churches.. They lived in different sections of the city and became comfortable with their separate but unequal existences. For blacks they could be poor, a ditch digger or a cook, and go to church dressed up and feel like all of the stigma of being black that society at large had put on them, was put aside. At church they were afforded the dignity that they were not afforded at work or in other spheres of life. The black church was a place where blacks could dream and hope for a better life.
With the last generation or so of racial progress you would think that this progress would have changed things in the church. it has not. Sure there are some churches in middle class neighborhoods that are a little more diverse, with some mixture in their congregations. But they are the exception, not the rule. This does not surprise me because in many places blacks and whites do not live in mixed neighborhoods or attend schools in middle and upper class neighborhoods that have diversity. At work many times they fulfill different roles, with blacks rarely in the supervisory role. In fact, when it comes to meaningful, social interactions, between blacks and whites, it is not common. I have asked my son who is a school teacher in New York, if many of his friends who come from advantaged families, have any other black friends, he says no. When I ask whether the parents of his wealthy friends have any blacks who they count as social friends, not employees. He says no.
Given the aforementioned set of circumstances, is it any wonder that there are still 'black churches' and 'white churches'. How does this change? I am a bit of an anomaly. I am a black man who pastors a church that is primarily composed of white brothers and sisters. It is not intentional. I think the fact that my wife is white has some impact. More than that, race is not a defining characteristic in my life. I do not see people as walking skin tones, moving through life. Like God, I try not to be a respecter of persons, where race is involved. I don't always succeed in this goal, but if I am to live out the truth of the Gospel, I have to make this my aim. I know that there are people who see my picture on our church website or Facebook page and surmise that since I am black, the church that I pastor must be a black church. I know that it is highly likely that over time this church will become completely diverse. They find that they are valued as people, not because of their race, money or position in society. I will write more about this later. .
The Death of Free Speech About Race
A few days ago a decision was made that brought to a halt a weekly conversation about race. This conversation took neither a liberal or conservative bend but intentionally attempted to discuss many issues that are now taboo, not being sanctioned by those who have crowned themselves the legitimizes of what can be discussed and what cannot. Here is what happened.
I was a weekly guest on a local radio station. Because of the topic of my book, The Only One In The Room, I seemed like a good spokesman on issues of race. I made it clear that my views on the subject were not those of the entire Black community, nor should they be. I also stated that there is no person, or group who is sanctioned to represent a whole community. With this in mind, I agreed to be on the show. I found the host of the show to be honest, engaging and he put me on the spot by asking very penetrating questions. Sometimes I was afraid to answer honestly because I knew the repercussions from the so called civil rights leaders in the community. I sucked it up though and answered questions as honestly as I could, always stating that these were my opinions and my opinions alone. The host referred to me as a "Civil Rights Leader", a title that I chafed at repeatedly, since I do not purport that my views represents those of all black people. We talked about everything that was even tangential to the topic of race. We did not feel any constraint to be overly 'politically correct' since, being a Christian and wanting to respect and show dignity to all people, there were overt lines that I would not cross. We however neglected to factor in the hyper-sensitivity of people on the issue of race. The shoe finally dropped and it was a 'civil rights' group that dropped it.
We were having a conversation on the issue of blacks in sports and the growing number of blacks playing hockey. I told him that I was a little incredulous about it, not being a hockey fan, and not knowing a lot of black people in my immediate circle who ice skate. He cited that recently, some of the best players in the National Hockey League where black. He then stated that historically, since the color barrier had been broken, blacks have been prominent in baseball, basketball and pro football. He then queried, when do you think that they will take over hockey. Being in the studio, I know that his question was done in a lighthearted manner, and was not offensive to me in any way. We moved on to another subject and thought nothing of it.
I found out a few days later that our experiment of talking honestly about race was at an end. Someone from a local 'civil rights' group had complained. They stated that they were offended at his question and feel that it was "racist". This lead to the removal of the host of the program.
I registered my complaint but it centered on two issues. The first was free speech. It seemed to me that the thought police in this country had shut down most honest conversation about subjects for which they believe that there is only one sanctioned, acceptable view: the one that they agree with. I actually like free speech. I believe that it leads to honest dialogue and actually can bring people closer together and cause them to see issues from a different perspective. This is no longer the case. We have citizens in this country who regulate and intimidate others by calling them names, branding them as offensive people and dehumanizing their viewpoints. People wonder with amazement what happened in the last Presidential election. I can tell you in a nutshell. The silent almost half of the voters decided that they had had enough. Calling them racists and deplorables had taken its toll. They rebelled and did the unthinkable. Americans, blacks especially should be supporters of free speech. My ancestors were not only oppressed, their thoughts and speech was suppressed and censored for several centuries. It was the Frederick Douglasses and Sojourner Truths who gave expression to the thoughts and feelings of the minimized. How much different would our history be if there had been conversations that allowed slaves and oppressed people to bare their souls. The few voices that were allowed to speak, changed the feelings of many in this country and lead to the freeing of the slaves.
The second issue of my complaint was that the decision legitimized the voices of a few offended people. Though there were many in the community who stated that they appreciated our openness and honesty in discussing the thorny issue of race, their voices were overruled. It was overruled by those who are the 'self appointed' determiners of what is allowable and not, or what is considered offensive or not. Calls from these organizations has shut down this type of dialogue across the nation. I told the person that I was talking with that for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for white people. I said that I now understood why they would not engage in any meaningful conversations about race. For a white person to talk openly about race is tantamount to choosing to walk into a minefield. What could you say without having someone, somewhere, finding it potentially offensive?
I am still angry about this situation,but my anger is tempered by the pity that I feel for people who are so easily offended, who cannot see that the actions that they take shut down the very conversations and understanding that they purport to be seeking. When will we stop legitimizing the voices of those who do not represent any sizeable constituency. They are shutting down the thoughts and words of many others. I am black and feel that my rights to freedom of speech and expression were repressed by the complaints of this group. Who is going to insure that my right to express views that lead to understanding and reconciliation of races are heard?
Article from the Green Bay Press Gazette
Ex-Pulaski superintendent pens book on race
Patti Zarling, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin11:04 a.m. CDT July 18, 2016
Buy Photo(Photo: File/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
Milt Thompson has been thinking a lot about race relations since losing his job as superintendent for the Pulaski School District a year ago.
He feels the color of his skin might have played a part in his break with the mostly white suburban Northeastern Wisconsin district. But his sense of aloneness came to the forefront a year earlier when he attended a state school administrators leadership conference and realized he was the only African-American in the room.
This occurred so frequently during his time in school administration that he wrote a book: "The Only One in the Room: A Lifetime of Observations on Race."
Thompson visited Green Bay last week to talk about the book and his experiences. He says he's not a bitter man but seeks understanding among people of all color. Not every black person is a fan of the Black Lives Matter movement, he noted. But he feels sadness about the shooting deaths of black men by white police and the deaths of white police officers by a black man in Dallas a week ago.
"It's heartbreaking what's going on now," Thompson said. "There is an unusual relationship with African-American men and law enforcement. I am trying to make it clear, I am not damning the police, but there is a relationship that needs to be acknowledged."
So sad is the state of violence in the U.S. these days, that he and his editor had to create a cut-off to conclude the book.
"After a while, we could keep writing a book about race relations," he said. "It's a gift that keeps on giving."
He clearly still stings from his experience in Pulaski. In June 2015, Thompson resigned from the post he held for about a year and a half, rather than be fired following a performance review that said he was dishonest and disloyal and had broken rules with vacation time and claiming work hours.
RELATED: Pulaski board accuses Thompson of dishonesty
Thompson now says he carefully documented his time but was never given a chance to defend himself.
"Almost prophetically, the day came when I was accused of misusing vacation time, but when I was not asked to submit any proof to the contrary, I was disappointed but not surprised," Thompson writes, although he does not name the Pulaski district in the book. "There were other restrictions put upon me that, in hindsight, felt like a trap."
He decided not to go through what likely would have been a years long discrimination lawsuit and instead chose to focus on the book and a new job search. He has yet to find a new full-time position, but is working on a second book and his ministry in the meantime.
"I've been asked, 'Well, are (Pulaski officials) racist?'" he said. "And the truth is, I don't know. But I think I was held to a different standard than the two superintendents before me, who were white."
He's quick to note many in Pulaski were supportive of him and his work. In conversation, Thompson did not want to dwell on Pulaski.
"The impetus for the book was that in my lifetime I've been in so many circumstances where I'm the only African-American," Thompson said. "As I climbed the ladder of school administration, once you get beyond principal or assistant principal, there aren't many."
That needs to change, he said.
Racial biases are no longer about the Ku Klux Klan burning churches, it's generally more subtle. Thompson points to new Pew Center research that found the median income for blacks was $20,000 lower than whites in the U.S. And the report shows education doesn't change things — the median income of blacks with a four-year college degree was $23,000 below whites.
"Whether they have education or not, there still is that same disparity," Thompson said. "No rhyme or reason. That's what we need to talk about."
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