The Story of Everybody

How a story makes us feel should not be the measure of its historical worth.

America’s Interstate Highway System, constructed from the 1950’s through the 1970s, saw massive multi-lane middle fingers run through poor neighborhoods and communities of color. These were districts lacking tourism, valuable land, and political power. In many instances, like in Oak Park, Alabama, they had targets on their backs.

Obliterated in the late 1950s to make way for Interstate 94, Rondo was the backbone of the Black community in St. Paul, Minnesota. By the time I-94 opened in ’68, Rondo had lost “homes, churches, schools, neighbors, and valued social contracts.” With 15% of its population displaced, 300-400 Black-owned homes destroyed, and the loss of its chapter of the NAACP, Rondo would never see its diverse and thriving trajectory fulfilled as it might have. 

Alabama’s Highway Director Sam Engelhardt, whose State Senate campaign cards read, “I STAND FOR WHITE SUPREMACY SEGREGATION,” ensured that Interstate 85 would wipe Oak Park, a neighborhood of Black civil rights leaders and its active voters, right off the map

In other states, transportation infrastructure indiscriminately zigzags where it could have continued along a straight path, flattening Black neighborhoods despite the availability of alternate routes. So went the golden age of American road building.

Yet today, “Remember Rondo!” hardly has the same ring of social acceptance as other historical reminiscences about harm caused, like “Remember Pearl Harbor” or even “Remember the Alamo.”

And why should Remember Rondo —despite its grounding in historical fact—be considered by so many these days to be anti-American blasphemy? Does its viability make you hate America, as The Heritage Foundation, Turning Point Academy, and GOP Senator Ted Cruz all insist it will? Is it really an “attack on white people,” such that teaching history of this sort is, in the words of radio talk show host Michael Savage, “exactly what was done to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s…the road to the death camps”?

Yikes! Here I thought it might inspire someone to help protect us from future historical offenses.

Critical Race Theory and culturally responsive education aren’t the same, but they are under attack by those intent on misrepresenting them. And enemies of either would have you reject unheard voices and believe that racial equity is anti-American. It’s not.

Cruz’s recent claim that Critical Race Theory, originally conceived as a framework for understanding the relationship between race and American law*, “is every bit as racist as the Klansmen in white sheets,” is idiotic. Lawyer Cruz well knows this. In its broader conception (also never shamefully hidden behind white robes) CRT provides a path to addressing the inequalities that are historically embedded in our political, social, economic systems—because only by acknowledging them can we work to change them.

Former economics professor Michael Harriot puts it this way: “A complete understanding of economics includes the laws of supply and demand, why certain metals are considered ‘precious,’ or why paper money has value. But we can’t do that without critically interrogating who made these constructs and who benefited from them.” And he’s not even talking about changing those constructs. Neither, for that matter, is enlightening students about the literally structural racism found in the Interstate Highway System a) a statement about individual racism or b) necessarily a demand for change. It’s really just an acknowledgement of a more complete historical truth.

But for the record, it’s highly unlikely that Critical Race Theory is being taught to your precious child: it’s rarely even taught to undergraduates for all its complexity. What is hopefully part of junior’s upbringing is culturally responsive education, which is less a thing than an overdue recognition that kids learn best when they have ways to connect what they learn to their own lived experiences. Brown University calls culturally responsive education, which was conceived in 1994, BTW, “a pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental cultures [to] offer full, equitable access to education for students from all cultures.”

Equitable access is muy anti-Americano, no?

And again, neither Critical Race Theory nor culturally responsive education explicitly advocate for, for example, calling out a Texas Legislature that threatens to withhold state funding to state universities refusing to “Remember the Alamo” the ‘right’ way, though it turns out, according to a consensus of historians, that the 13-day siege wasn’t about the mean old Mexican army after all. The Texians defending the Alamo—alongside their Tejano brethren, who have since been written out of the story—were fighting to preserve the slavery they depended upon for their cotton trade. When the Mexican government told ‘em to pay up in taxes and/or free their slaves, the ranchers turned to a carpetbagging former congressmen, a Louisiana con artist and knife-welding crackpot named Jim Bowie, for help. And they were defeated handily by the army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna.

Despite this defeat, and despite the widespread theory that Davy Crockett might have actually surrendered before he was executed, Texas lore demands fealty to the false narrative of white heroes who single handedly took on those dirty Mexicans and fought valiantly to the death.

Now look, I know everyone and their mother omits things from and/or embellishes their favorite personal stories. But when it’s a matter of a historical record on which the future gets built and funds get allocated, it’s not okay for the “natural” or “patriotic” way of seeing things to minimize the contributions of one group while inflating and celebrating the contributions of another. And if you care about truth in history, you’ll want to correct that record. Do we really want a government that deliberately stands in the way of that?  

Of course, not everyone is interested in complex truths, which both CRT and culturally responsive education enable. Us-versus-them is much easier of a narrative to create, promote, and consume. The worst part is that recent politics, fake news, and American social trends all demonstrate that truth itself is beside the point these days.

But once more, how a story makes us feel shouldn’t be the measure of its historical worth.



*Should you take issue with the contention that race and American law are intertwined, may I direct you to: Dred Scott v Sanford, Plessy v Ferguson, Brown v Board of Education, and many, many other cases illustrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolving thoughts on that very matter.

The completed 10-405 interchange in 1964. Courtesy of the
Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

It’s the Abuse, Stupid.

Increased benefits or not, the past 15 months have exposed what little regard Americans have for waitstaff and retail help.

The entitlement of the Paid Not to Work narrative pales in comparison to clip after clip of retail and restaurant employees being yelled at and assaulted. Whether due to COVID protocols or the public’s general lack of coping skills, no wonder strip mall manpower isn’t rushing back to fill these domestic abuse scenarios disguised as employment.

I know a few hireable candidates who couldn’t care less about their old gigs, and it isn’t because Biden bought ’em a piece of Easy Street.

Relocation and career changes play a part, as do schooling, childcare, eldercare, and job applicants who remain unvaccinated. Clips of customer tantrums are the new Cops!, and all that viral phone footage plays an arguably bigger part in why 42% of restaurants and small businesses report an inability to fill job openings. Tik-Toks showing rage and verbal harassment reinforced the service-business dread of countless grocery workers. Infrared depictions of how our sneezes end up in Alaska don’t help.

From fast food to gourmet and everything in between, no food service employee is free from questioning whether or not it’s worth going back.

According to a server-friend at a popular LA eatery, neither do efforts to match pre-COVID efficiency while being met with insults and accusations of laziness — including from one’s own employer or corporate overlord. 

Even the energy of those thrilled to finally be out and about can contribute to a lack of awareness about the many new obstacles to rapid service waitstaff now face. With a longer journey from grill to street table, this includes taking steps to ensure dishes remain piping hot for as long as possible. Says my friend, “If the food’s not hot, forget a decent tip.”

Ditto when a customer whose starting pointing is mask resistance instructs you to “go tell the chef to,” and you try to explain why you’re no longer allowed to do that.

There was also the post-Covid discovery that waitstaff had been assigned additional duties like busing their own tables (this was once the job of a bus staff). Wiping down the walls was a new one, and in between seatings, it’s now mandatory. So far the employees agree: this new “side work” eats up the time it would take to serve a full table, effectively eliminating at least one potential tip. “And when you don’t have a lot, you count on your tips – a lot.”

Welcome to Restauranting, post-COVID. For my friend and colleagues, being spoken to contemptuously has been yet another bonus, especially when managing the line of patrons waiting to enter an establishment. All staffers now get to help with this cattle call. “And out there,” I was told, “the insults are quicker, louder, and fueled by a mob.”

Further fun add-on expectations include: 

  • Filling to-go orders, which have exploded in number for most restaurants
  • Prepping to-go condiment and utensil packets with all the usual landfill waste; never to exclude card-stock event promos and specials
  • Preparing bins of pre-wrapped table settings 
  • Napkin folding and the resetting of street tables and fake plants
  • Answering phones using approved post-COVID etiquette
  • Navigating client demands related to food allergies and the substitutions the restaurant is no longer willing to make (all while car exhaust wafts across the “patio”).

It’s a post-COVID world, after all, and if the “undeserving poor” would just put down the Netflix and get back into their low wage boxes, everything would be so much better for everyone else’s 401k. Besides, some employers are even paying more than minimum wage, you greedy shirkers, and others are offering a handful of benefits. Not, like, sick days or paid family leave, but beggars can’t be choosers!

Or can they?? Can even underpaid people dare to dream that the supply and demand magic of capitalism might one day work for them, too? That the high demand for their labor might command a higher price paid in the form of livable wages and better working conditions?

Veteran waiters learn to take a lot in stride, like patrons who leave their dentures on the table, or a full diaper. Stuck ay home at the height of the pandemic, they may have even begun miss cranky regulars known for sending orders back, but that will sure disappear fast!

Of course some of these realities were present before the pandemic, but c’mon. After a year away from waiting tables and given the current climate, wouldn’t you be looking elsewhere, looking higher, or cozying up to connected friends and family? Wouldn’t you be digging at the dirt for a better environment to work in than a slop-trough with 16 televisions and a bunch of sniping customers?

So some are slow to go back. Duh. Many others are hesitant to put a target on their backs as first-timer restaurant employees. People do request interviews and then don’t show up. Is that because they’re on the white water rafting trip Congress gifted them, or did something better become possible?

Sure, there are those out there collecting and coasting on the government’s dime, middle fingers held high at this nation of chokehold apologists, oligarchs, sex-crime politicians, and groveling, racist swine. But it’s not the free ride the American way of life is paying for that’s keeping you from your bacon burger: in no small part, it’s the abuse, stupid.

Shaming someone back to your sports bar isn’t gonna work. But if you think it will, bring that burger over here so I can lift the lettuce myself and hock one for my friend.


In Each Other’s Shoes

Walking in each other’s shoes is not about how you would feel dealing with their circumstances. It’s about seeing how the other person feels dealing with their own circumstances.

Inmates and guards betray their respective roles more often than one might imagine, and more often than custody comportment will allow either to admit.

In fact, even aside from 12-step support stuff, so-called emotional safes zones do exist on maximum security prison yards. They feel as odd as they are accidental, and God help the fool who utters a phrase like “emotional safe zone” out loud.

Capitalizing on this all too human need to be heard and understood is a program modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which places college students in classrooms with inmates for semester-long, full-credit courses. Today more than 150 institutions of higher education have successfully sponsored courses in more than 200 correctional institutions. Even more notable, since 2016, Police Training Inside-Out (PTI-O) has been explored as a way to better train cops

A partnership between Duquesne University (and founder Norman Conti), the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, PTI-O was designed to bring cadets and cons together once a week in an academic seminar held behind prison walls. The idea was to supplement traditional police academy training with a way for law enforcement officers to develop a more nuanced professional vision than “us versus them.” Based on the depth of the interaction, a similar mindset shift is expected to occur among participating inmates as well.

During my own incarceration, one particular Corrections Officer worked our unit’s lonely “lights out shift” quite frequently. He was a schlub who basically listened to the fellas snore, pray, and turn the pages of books. The warning about him went, “Pretend you’re asleep when Officer X does his rounds: that dude’ll talk your ear off.”

Guys shuffling to and from the toilets during the night would report his conversations with various inmates, but it was less a matter of, “What’s that rat-snitch blabbing to the badge about?” and more, “Ha! That dummy forgot to tip-toe!” I was that dummy once or twice myself. Returning from the can, I’d been waved over to his desk, only to endure mindless blather about his crappy vacation or doc-ordered dietary changes.

And this guy wasn’t alone. I encountered or heard about several prison guards who took psychic hostages this way, though most of us were at least begrudgingly charitable. They’d roll their eyes when we talked about our big post-custody plans, and we’d roll our eyes when they trotted out the obligatory (though likely part-true): “Believe me: I could just as well have wound up in your shoes.” Never mind the similarities of our breathing the same prison air, burying much of the same PTSD, or the burdens of secrets and stereotypes.

There was relief and humanity found in such truces, and I know many of the men on both sides of those exchanges felt it. Sometimes those fleeting moments –mundane as they may have been– were even slightly charming. But the very best were the exchanges in which we got into each other’s heads just a little, and then disclosed our findings.

For a few days I repeatedly dropped, “The sergeant with the missing finger told me how he lost it!” I hadn’t been the only person he told, but for a minute I proudly thought otherwise.

A typical PTI-O class puts police and inmates in small groups, discussing questions like: “What are prisons for?”; “Why do people commit crimes?”; “What are some things that prisons do well/poorly?”; and “What would you say to the assertion that prisons are now our country’s principal government program for the poor?”

Conti, the program’s founder, says he still deals with reluctance on both sides. To get them to sign up, some inmates have to be reminded that it’s better for their communities back home to deal with a cop who knows how to do more than divide the world into “citizens” and “predators.”

On all fronts, the police training version of Inside-Out represents cutting edge criminal justice reform and offers a true hand in reversing mass incarceration. It validates a small but valuable prison souvenir/takeaway of my own: “Sometimes you have to get in the box to think outside of it.”

Check out Officer Training Behind Prison Walls to learn more about how the program works. Maybe bring it up to cop you know and see if they roll their eyes.