The lies white people tell ourselves and how they haunt Milwaukee today
Frank Schneiger, the founder and president of Frank Schneiger and Associates., a planning and change management company serving the nonprofit and public service sectors, discusses how a job on a playground 60 years ago awakened his views on race.
William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The unfolding events surrounding the killing of George Floyd brought that quote to mind in a very specific way. As a white kid growing up in all-white Milwaukee neighborhoods in the 1940s and '50s, I was a product of the "colored are treated good here" era in the city's history. Eight decades later, the legacy of that universally held white belief haunts the city to this day.
In my mostly Catholic South Side neighborhood, racial bigotry was kind of low on the hierarchy of "isms." At the top of the list was anti-Protestantism, fueled by regular Sunday sermons on the Protestant "deformation." Then there was anti-Semitism, a result of the virus brought to our country by mostly East European immigrants, despite the fact that there were no Jews living anywhere near 26th Street and National Avenue. And, finally, there was reflexive homophobia, evidenced by the widespread knowledge that teenagers would travel Downtown to the Mint Bar on Saturday nights to "beat up some queers," an activity that no one seemed compelled to condemn or stop.
Black Milwaukeeans were barely on the radar screen at that time, partially because it was beyond anyone's imagination that there could ever be Black people living on the South Side; but also because, at that time, the Black image in the white mind was still one of silly but harmless people who weren't very bright, and who, mostly as part of the Great Migration, must be so thankful to have arrived in Milwaukee. That would all change with the advent of the civil rights and Black power movements when the current menacing image would take hold.
In those seemingly more innocent times, white people would swear that they had seen Black Milwaukeeans driving pink Cadillacs to pick up their welfare checks. The fact that welfare checks came in the mail, and that no one had ever seen one of these pink Cadillacs, except for Elvis Presley's, did little to dent this firmly held belief — "I mean, I swear to God."
Underpinning this whole set of attitudes was the fundamental assumption of white goodness and innocence. Logically, if "the colored are treated good here," there was no need to feel either guilty about or responsible for anything, including rampant discrimination in housing, employment, education and criminal justice. And, equally logically, if there were any problems, they were their own fault: "They" needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In our immigrant family, where a basic value was to be on the side of the underdogs, mostly people like us, Black people didn't make the cut.
Exactly 60 years ago, June of 1960, that changed for me, and it was a version of the George Floyd story that produced the change, albeit quite by accident. My friends and I grew up on Milwaukee's public school playgrounds, artifacts of the city's glorious socialist past. We were what could be called street urchins and, for a brief period, delinquents. Our operational base was 37th Street School and its playground. In the summer of 1956, we – a group of dopey 13 and 14-year-olds – made a vow. It was that no director of the 37th Street playground would survive the summer.
We were wildly successful. The first of our victims made the mistake of driving one of the early Volkswagen Beetles imported into the country. We didn't exactly steal it. We simply picked it up, carried it away and hid it under a tarp in a backyard on Sarnow Street. He quit and spent the rest of the summer looking for his car. Others were to follow. All of this was watched in horror and disgust by the district supervisor, a man who had known us and treated us with kindness ever since we were little kids.
Summer ended, and we started high school, mostly at all-white Washington High, where Mrs. Porter, the American History teacher, taught that the wrong side had won the Civil War. Troublemaking and social disruption were replaced by sports or, in a couple of rare cases, reading a book. The summer of playground terror was soon forgotten.
Flash forward four years. After my freshman year at UW-Milwaukee, the summer factory and construction job market were not looking promising. So I applied to be a playground director, the kind of person whom we had tormented at 37th Street School. And this is where an accidental encounter changes your entire life. Walking down the hall was the supervisor from our earlier childhood. He saw me, scowled and asked: "What the **** are you doing here?" I told him, he shook his head and walked away.
But here is where things took that strange twist. My punishment was not to deny me a job. It was to teach me a lesson. That lesson was to give me a job and assign me to the all-Black playground at 21st and Center streets. Placing a totally inexperienced 19-year old white boy on this playground as a "we'll show you" punishment immediately tells you something about the prevailing racial attitudes of otherwise well-meaning people. But I have been forever in their debt for the opportunity that they gave me.
Sixty years ago, in June of 1960 on 21st and Center Streets, it was possible to have more than 100 kids – all Black – on a playground at 8 o'clock at night, supervised by a 19-year old dimwit, in complete peace and harmony. Which brings me back to the prevailing white view at the time that, "the colored are treated good here." Within a few weeks in this new world, I was exposed to stories and realities that totally shattered that mantra.
At the heart of that shattering was the Milwaukee Police Department. Growing up, my friends and I had always had a bad relationship with the cops. But this was largely a result of the fact that there was so little crime and, consequently, so little for them to do, that they spent most of their time harassing kids. With a few exceptions, it was more of a cat-and-mouse game than anything else. I can state, with total certainty, that the thought that they might shoot us or kneel on our neck never crossed our minds.
That was not the case at 21st and Center. Which brings us to the past never being past, and the importance of dealing with history. More specifically, the refusal of people to deal with the past, their need to believe lies and the profound consequences of those failures. Two years before I arrived at 21st Street, a young Black man, Daniel Bell, had been killed by the police a few blocks from the playground. Daniel Bell was George Floyd in the age long before cellphone cameras.
I vaguely remembered hearing about the case in high school, with the cops claiming self-defense and being completely exonerated, until one of them, guilt ridden, confessed to the murder on CBS' "60 Minutes" decades later. The story of Daniel Bell, regularly discussed on the playground, was one of a cold-blooded murder. What was strange (at least, to a white person) was that it was told as a cautionary tale more than anything else. Rather than outrage or a quest for justice, the theme was the need to avoid the cops so that you didn't end up like Daniel Bell.
Along with other things, including being arrested on the playground for breaking the code of white solidarity by taking the side of a kid who was telling the truth against a cop who was accusing him of lying, my view of the world was changing in significant ways. These changes often resulted from describing my experiences at home or to other white friends. When I would say, "Here is what some of the people on the playground are saying about ..." the response was almost invariably, "Why are you always taking their side?"
Truth had become a "side," and it was a "side" that collided with the whole narrative of white innocence and Milwaukee as kind of a racial paradise. It was a narrative that transformed a vicious racist and anti-Semite, Police Chief Harold Breier, into a "good tough cop." (Breier would have been proud of the cops at the recent 6th and McKinley streets encounter.) After my "arrest," I was regularly stopped by cops on Center Street for "safety inspections." If I was driving or riding with anyone Black, being stopped was almost a given and usually included a demand to know where we were going.
A Black colleague recently asked me if this experience had changed my views of Black people. I thought about it and said that, "No," it had changed my view of white people, along with my assumptions about truth and trust. It is a strange experience to – in a very compressed time period – suddenly realize that you are a member of a tribe, to begin to be excluded from that tribe and to then grasp that you are never going to be a member of a different tribe. That all happened in the summer and fall of 1960.
A couple of years later, when I returned from a brief stint in the Deep South, white people were eager to hear about how horrible Mississippi was. It was part of the search for additional proof that Milwaukee was a racial paradise. When they asked, "What was it like?" I typically responded, "It's sort of like Milwaukee." That answer triggered outrage and suggestions that maybe it was time for me to leave, which I soon did, heading for New York City, another place that had convinced itself that it was a progressive racial paradise.
Six decades later, the consequences of denial, coupled with the city's deindustrialization, and its extreme segregation and inequality, have all produced huge bills that are now coming due. It has been 60 years of social and economic decline, avoidance and a widespread refusal to accept any responsibility. Just think, can anyone imagine 150 kids enjoying a peaceful summer evening on 21st Street playground in our times?
The question now is: What's next? How do you address a legacy that has replaced a fair amount of hope and trust with deep-seated pessimism, mistrust and misery? Those are the questions that should be front and center for Milwaukee's leaders, especially those from a younger generation who will have to deal with the mess that their elders have left behind.
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