Decades ago, when I was a teenager growing up in Portsmouth, Va., my buddies and I constantly railed against the evils of “the system.” We viewed the system as a vast, amorphous establishment that worked to preserve White privilege and control Black folks’ lives.
It was the 1970s, and as proof that our hatred of the White mainstream was justified, we had to look no further than our homes. We saw that our parents were beaten down, especially on their jobs. They were constantly demeaned by White bosses, denied pay equal to their White counterparts and routinely passed over for promotions. Our parents were so mentally battered that, almost without exception, they drank heavily to cope with the unrelenting racism directed their way.
My crew members and I concluded that our parents’ chief mistake was that they tried to play by the White man’s rules. We wanted no part of that. We assumed the gritty streets were a better gamble than playing it straight in a rigged system.
In time, we all suffered painful fates in our clumsy attempts to beat the establishment. In most cases, it led to trouble with the law. After serving three years for armed robbery, I concluded that I had no other viable choice than to pursue a different course: I emerged from prison in the late 1970s and reluctantly decided to give the system a try.
I went to college and launched a journalism career that took me to newspapers in Norfolk, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. When I reached The Washington Post in the 1990s, it was known for being most hospitable to White men with Ivy League educations. I was an outsider — an African American product of Norfolk State University, a historically Black school.
From the get-go, I encountered enmity from some White colleagues in the newsroom. Among the White reporters and editor on my team, I was routinely left out of after-work gatherings for dinner and drinks, when the best stories often were divvied up to help promote their careers. In the office, their constant whispering and inside jokes were frequent reminders that while they were a team, I was on my own.
One time, while I was sitting at my desk chatting with a Black editor, a White editor interrupted to interrogate me. He asked about what stories I had written lately, as though I was being subjected to an informal performance review. He wasn’t my supervisor, and the interjection was incredibly rude and disrespectful to both my Black colleague and me. It took every ounce of willpower in me to restrain myself.
Fortunately, the Black editor chimed in and defused the tension, but for me, the exchange underscored the fact that I was working eight hours every day in a system that was racially toxic. The clashes with colleagues over the handling of news stories fell short of the overt racial infractions that could be taken to human resources, but the cumulative effect of constant exclusions and questioning carried the weight of racial slights.
I always found it curious that Post reporters loved exposing bias at other institutions, yet overlooked racism in their own house. My job there provided honest work and decent pay, but it was a modern replay of the same racial stresses that had dogged my parents years before.
I left The Post after writing a book, “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” about my early life journey. Later, in 1999, I landed a position as a lecturer at Emory University, often regarded as a member of the unofficial “Southern Ivy League.” My initial impression of Emory was that it was expensive, rich and very White. But it offered the prospect of working with highly educated, liberal arts academics, people I assumed would be much more racially enlightened than folks at other places where I’d worked.
It didn’t take long for me to be proved stunningly wrong. Shortly after I arrived, a White anthropology professor sparked a controversy when she cavalierly referred to herself during a departmental meeting as “your typical n----- in a woodpile.” The phrase is a 19th-century adage used to convey a hidden fact or consequence. A young Black professor, the only person of color in the room, filed a complaint, leading some White faculty members to accuse her of trying to ruin her colleague’s career. Devastated, the Black professor was eventually driven away from Emory. The White professor, on the other hand, went on to enjoy a long, successful career at the university.
For me, working in Emory’s journalism program started out as a refreshing experience. I was hired by a program director who was a strong proponent of diversity. But when that director left, the administration hastily promoted one of my White colleagues, who showed bias in pay and targeted Black faculty members, including an award-winning writer who was vastly more accomplished than she was.
I lodged a discrimination complaint with Emory about the general treatment of Black faculty and staff by the new program director. As part of an informal negotiated settlement, I transferred from the journalism program into African American studies. To this day, I don’t know if the program director was reprimanded for her mistreatment, but I do know that she kept her job for years after.
I assumed that African American studies, a totally Black department, would provide relief from racial hassles and envisioned using Emory’s vast research resources to tackle some of Black America’s most pressing problems. But I soon learned the faculty and staff labored under the constant fear of being eliminated. The administration insisted that it kept the department in a tenuous position because of “budgetary constraints,” despite the school’s multibillion-dollar endowment. The truth was that, at Emory, African American studies were regarded as nonessential, while courses in the school’s well-funded Department of History were considered required learning.
Such flawed institutional values, which place a premium on the story of Europeans and their descendants, have negative repercussions, for White Americans in particular. That point was bluntly illustrated in 2013, when Emory’s then-president, James Wagner, published an essay in which he cited the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise as a good example of how Americans should work together to find common ground. The agreement was a racist political bargain between Northern and Southern politicians that counted each Black enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being. Wagner’s article neglected to mention the dreadful impact of that legislation and while he later apologized, it exposed the school to national embarrassment.
Wagner’s blunder clearly demonstrated how White privilege reinforces systemic racism. Many Whites of the educated elite, though astonishingly clueless about race, are often the very people tapped for prominent leadership positions, raising deep concerns about this nation’s ability to tackle its complex racial challenges. Their racial ignorance filters down through the ranks and manifests in the form of superior attitudes toward — and biased treatment of — Black Americans and other ethnic minorities working under their direction.
My wife, a psychologist, learned that lesson in 2012 after noticing a pattern of being bypassed as less-qualified Whites were granted pay raises and groomed for advancement. After a decade at Emory and failed appeals up the chain of command, she filed a discrimination action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission determined that, as a private institution, Emory possessed the power to dictate advancement within its ranks. However, Emory later granted my wife a raise and a promotion.
The systemic insanity didn’t end there. As a student at Emory, my son, Ian, was called to a dean’s office and told that his comparative literature teacher, a White woman, was afraid of him. Ian thought he’d enjoyed positive interactions with the teacher as he’d joined classmates in spirited debates about reading assignments. But the dean threatened to expel Ian, insisting that it was his duty to make his teacher feel at ease. It was unclear what the dean expected Ian to change — whether to talk less or smile more — but the one thing that he could not alter was the color of his skin.
Acting on Ian’s behalf, my wife and I submitted a complaint and met with the university provost, a Black man. The dean was eventually reprimanded, but the damage had already been done.
My family’s experiences at Emory aren’t unique. In June, a month after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman, an employee at Emory Healthcare alleged in an email to an executive that Black people in her department were routinely subjected to “blatant racism, a hostile working environment, retaliation and unprofessionalism.”
Emory officials declined to comment on specific allegations of systemic racism at the university. However, a spokeswoman said that university President Gregory L. Fenves has launched a range of initiatives to address racism and increase awareness. Among those efforts, university officials plan to establish scholarships for Black students and review policing policies at Emory.
Yet stories of my family and other Black people at Emory underscore the sheer persistence of racial trauma — how Black Americans are forced to operate virtually our entire lives in battle mode. It’s an unhealthy, abnormal existence. It’s utterly exhausting. And it’s downright insane.
That’s why the killing of George Floyd struck me as a haunting metaphor for Black people in America. What that cop did to Floyd, pressing a knee on his neck for over nine minutes, was barbaric. But there’s a less visible, psychic violence commonly committed against Black Americans, and many of us are persecuted — and often crushed — in personal dramas that never come to light or make the evening news.
The system forces race into Black people’s everyday lives in ways that alter our direction, define our experiences and keep us in a near-constant state of alert. It forces us to fight the establishment, whether we play by the rules or not. It erects hurdles in our paths and, with every sudden obstacle, forces us to recalibrate.
Black folks everywhere in America are always recalibrating.
After 20 years, I recently jumped at the chance to take an early retirement from Emory and claim a measure of freedom. When I recall my teenage years, it turns out that the perception my crew members and I held about America’s racial psychosis was dead on the mark. Our fears about the dangers and harshness of the White establishment were fully warranted.
I have come to accept that, while America is my homeland, it’s also been my fiercest enemy. In a country that brags about its greatness and exceptionalism, much of what I’ve achieved has been despite — not because of — the system.
Nathan McCall is the author of “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.”