It’s Sunday night, and John Miller is ironing his clothes. He lays his khakis on the ironing board. He starches, presses, and creases. He folds and examines. His motions are smooth and methodical, as if more is at stake than a pressed pair of slacks.
“I take this very seriously,” he says, more to his pants than to me. After 6 months of knowing John, recording his voice and filming him for a documentary I’m producing, I realize that this is the first time I’ve seen him slow down.
John’s a complex character, and there’s more to him than I can express in a 10-minute film. He’s a felon, a black man in a county where in 2006, African-American males were 17 to 18 times more likely to be sent to prison than white men of the same age.
On paper, John doesn’t stand a great chance of succeeding in life. I suppose that “succeeding” is relative, so let’s get concrete. Numbers indicate that John will return to prison.
But the fact is that John isn’t a number. He hasn’t been since he was DOC inmate #192824
Tonight, as John carefully selects next week’s wardrobe, his concern is time—how, if he’s meticulous enough, he just might make up for the 14 years he lost in prison.
It’s impossible to tell John’s story without first telling a story about Madison.
It’s a piece I’ve tried unsuccessfully to write for the past three months—a story that, the closer I think I’m getting to answers, leaves me feeling fractured and dumb.
How colorblind is Madison? That was the question I started with. Madison, with its strong tradition of progressive ideals, seems unable to reconcile the racial disparities it produces in schools or prisons.
In many ways, that alone would be a story. I’d start with an assumption—Madison is an educated, affluent, and socially-conscious city—and I’d contrast it with the overrepresentation of people of color living in prisons or poverty. Madisonians, as forward-thinking as they seem, may be colorblind in all the wrong ways.
It might have been a fine story. It might have been published, or even roused some rabble. But I don’t think it would have been an accurate or complete picture.
Karma Chavez, a UW professor and expert in xenophobia in the United States, was the first person I spoke with on this story.
During our conversation three months ago, Chavez discussed how the city’s achievement gap was just one example of how we, as a community, are failing to resolve racial imbalances.
“One of the things about Madison is that people are very invested in the idea that they’re not racist,” she said. “And what that does is it prevents people from actually doing anything, or doing the right thing.”
If Chavez was indignant about the achievement gap, she had every reason to be. We all do. The numbers are disturbing.
Indignation may also be an appropriate response if we look at our disparities in the criminal justice system, or the fact that in 2010, according to the Wisconsin Council of Children and Families, black children in Dane County were 7.4 times more likely to be poor than white kids.
I see the interconnectedness of race, poverty and place. But I also realize these issues are way too complex for cause-and-effect analysis. So what do we do as a community? How do we find solutions when we can’t identify the problem?
The short answer is that I don’t know. Maybe none of us do, and maybe many of us do and we just don’t realize it.
If I were to back up a step and tell you something else Karma Chavez said during our interview, something that breezed right past me because it wasn’t the quote I was looking for, it might illuminate another side of Madison.
“One thing I’ve been impressed with is the incredibly strong community of activists Madison has,” she said. It was a simple statement, but I think an accurate one.
Madison is saturated with non-profits, grassroots organizations, and social justice advocates. Madison-area Urban Ministry, for example, is the faith-based organization that put a hat and scarf on John Miller when he was so fresh from prison that his hands were shaking from sensory overload. MUM later employed John, and he works with them today.
Organizations like MUM are staffed by people who care, people who work tirelessly to advocate for our city’s most marginalized. If I’m telling the story of Madison, it isn’t fair to discount this side.
The question is how to harness advocates’ energy and create the social changes that so many people call for. If you’re bracing for the “we need to work together” spiel, you can breathe easy. I’m not here to rally the troops.
While I don’t have any conclusions to the story I set out to write, it’s been refreshing to meet a man like John—a guy who says he’s too busy to worry about failure. You can either call him oblivious or indestructible—I doubt it will matter to him.
“Before I came here, I saw Madison as a racist, segregated place,” says John, as he places a freshly pressed shirt on a hanger. “But, really, since I got out, white people have done nothing but help me.”
As John looks for a place to hang his shirt, he changes the topic. “You know I lost my mother when I was in prison? That hits you in your gut, man. And you know the worst part about it? She never got a chance to be proud of me,” he said.
John circled the room, couldn’t find a hook, then improvised–he hung his shirt above the doorway.
“But I know she’s looking down right now,” he said. “And I hope she’s proud. Everything I do now is for my family. Every second of my day is planned.”