Editor's Note: This column contains racial slurs and strong language. The descriptions are included to provide an unfiltered view of letters and feedback sent to the author. Some readers may find this language offensive or triggering.
After covering business and working as an editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 30 years, I became a columnist in 2008. It was a dream.
As a youth, I always read a newspaper. My parents subscribed to the Milwaukee Sentinel, which I loved reading so I could be an expert on the news quiz at Jackie Robinson Middle School. In high school, I became an intern at the Sentinel. Sometimes, I had to catch a ride to assignments. I never left.
I took on the columnist role after I returned from a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, following in the footsteps of two mentors – Greg Stanford and Eugene Kane, both accomplished Black journalists at the paper. I wanted to write about issues that affected the community in the spirit of Greg, and I wanted to address inequity and class like Eugene.
My boss on the editorial page, Ricardo Pimentel, started me out writing a column every other week.
As you might imagine, readers reacted to my writing. We’d get emails and sometimes phone calls, but it was still a time when we’d regularly get letters in the mail – usually handwritten, sometimes typed out.
Most were positive. A few were uncomplimentary, but one stood out after I wrote a piece critical of Milwaukee Public Schools’ poor reading scores and the lack of urgency to change it.
It was the first time I opened a letter to see myself called the N-word.
From executive editor Greg Borowski: Journalists expect scrutiny. They shouldn't endure racism, misogyny or threats.
It wasn’t the first time being called that in my life, of course. But there was something about it, seeing that word written down, and used so readily in others that followed – Black parents were lazy N-words, and I was called an enabling N-word for not calling out the lazy N-words.
It cut me like a knife.
Fifteen years later, it still angers me. After years of staying silent about the pain it caused, and from the other slurs that followed to this day, I came to a realization. This behavior cannot and should not be tolerated.
Constant stream of racist vitriol takes a toll over time
I put the letter in my desk drawer and didn’t tell anyone about it for weeks.
A similar letter followed, and another, and a hundred others, all littered with the same inflammatory language African Americans have been called for hundreds of years. Sometimes, they were mailed to my house, which freaked me out and scared my wife.
On these letters, there was rarely a return address, but the postmarks were from all over – Waukesha, Wausau, some places so small you’d need a map and a magnifying glass to find them.
Sometimes, the sender even left his name. I say “his” because it was almost always a man.
When did the paper start hiring coons?
If you hate it here so much, why don’t you return to Africa and swing from a tree? I will pay for your one-way plane ticket.
The only thing worse than an N-word is another N-word.
How many (Eugene) Kane wannabees do they need?
In my years as a columnist, not much has changed, just the means of delivery. Sometimes, the hatred comes in via a voicemail, but usually, it’s email.
A few months ago, I received an old-school mailed letter with a cut-out copy of my column on the annual Daddy-Daughter dance. I talked about the great times I had with my daughter at this event until she aged out. The sender, presumably a subscriber since it was a paper copy, crossed out the word Black, replacing it with the N-word repeatedly.
Ask any Black journalist if they have a similar story, I’ll bet the answer is yes. We don’t discuss it, but it’s time to change that. If anything, the hatred has become more overt (remember the Milwaukee TV reporter called the N-word at County Thunder last summer?), more persistent and, thanks to social media, easier to spew from the shadows.
I’ve long kept the scale of the racist hatred I receive to myself, often not telling my editors about it. But I have come to realize how corrosive that is. Picture an old house weathered by decades of rain, snow, hail and other harsh elements. You don’t notice the changes month to month or even year to year, but when you look at an old photo, you realize how worn it has become.
It’s like that for me. I have become weathered and worn.
I am tired.
I hesitate to even write that because it could mean the racists are getting what they want. They’re not. But we can’t put an end to something if we don’t call it out.
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'You can’t always hammer people over the head with racism'
Early on, I shared some of the racist letters with my parents and friends. They couldn’t believe it.
My mother prayed for me. My father said things will never change. My friends told me to quit.
I didn’t quit because it’s nothing compared with what my parents, grandparents and great-great-grandparents went through.
When I talked to my mentors, Greg Stanford was far more comforting than Eugene Kane. Greg was retired, and I’d walk down every week to the mall, where he was running a fine arts gallery with his partner.
I first met Greg when he came to speak at Jackie Robinson when I was in the seventh grade. I went up to him afterward and told him I no longer wanted to be a boxer. I wanted to be a journalist instead. On my first day at the Sentinel, I tracked down his office and told him I made it.
He jumped up from behind the mounds of newspapers on the cluttered desk in his office and said, “I see the writing bug has got you, too.”
When he counseled me on dealing with bigots, he told me to take the high road and not let racists deter me from doing my job. He told me to balance my columns.
“You can’t always hammer people over the head with racism, especially when they don’t think they're racist,” he said, adding: “Never forget your mission. Tell good stories and inform. Don’t let racists distract you from your mission.”
Kane told me racism comes with the position. When I visited him at home one time, he showed me a stack of hate-filled letters he’d kept. He joked that I had a long way to go before I caught up to him.
Of the two, Kane took more of a lightning-rod approach to his columns, while Stanford used a more reserved tone. I was trending more toward Eugene – and the response was similar.
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After the editorial board moved into the Journal building, I decorated my cubicle with people I admired. I had a photo of author James Baldwin, several framed pictures and action figures of Muhammad Ali, as well as photos of the founders of my Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, and a large poster of Malcolm X.
The hate letters came along with the move. Instead of keeping the letters a secret, I gave them prominence. I took a stack of them and pinned them on the wall beside my Malcolm X poster.
I still didn’t reach out to my editors to ask them for advice or help, or just to let them know what I was facing. But when people stepped into my cubicle and asked about the pinned-up stack of letters, I told them it was my “Wall of Hate.”
To make the wall, the letters needed to be handwritten or typed. They needed to call me or people in the Black community the N-word more than once or use other loaded racial terms like “coon,” “porch monkey,” “you people,” “ape” and, my favorite, “race baiter.”
I put the letters on the wall because of a quote from Malcolm X: “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
I wanted people to know what I was going through, but I didn’t want to seem weak or unable to take the heat of the job. Hanging up the hate I received was my way of tapping into that same strength that carried people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and those who fought so someone like me could even have this job.
Looking back, it was me silently protesting racism.
It worked for a while.
But the weathering continued.
When we moved to our new offices, I threw the letters away.
Newsrooms should be leading the race conversation
Being a journalist is difficult, but being a Black journalist means there is an extra load to carry. Because of that weight, the industry loses many people and struggles to maintain a workforce reflective of the communities it covers, depriving it of the ability to give readers a full picture of what’s happening.
We are expected to know about everything happening in the Black community, a burden white journalists do not face. Our numbers are few, at least fewer than they should be. And, like Latino or LGBTQ+ journalists, we’re often called on to represent the views of our entire group.
As a columnist, I frequently am admonished by predominately white readers to “get my people in line” or asked questions like: “James, what are you doing to stop Black people from …” You can fill in the blank: Stealing cars. Driving recklessly. Dealing drugs. Having babies as teenagers. Shooting people. Dropping out.
For a long time, I thought it was best to stay silent. Complaining or writing about what I was experiencing could make me more of a target. Or it would give those spewing the vitriol the satisfaction of knowing they had gotten a rise from me.
But when we are silent, we allow hate to fester.
It's rare when a reporter does speak out. That’s what happened earlier this year when Taylor Lumpkin, a journalist for WTMJ-TV (Channel 4), sent this tweet out after the opening night of the Country Thunder music festival in Twin Lakes:
“Went to cover this event tonight for a news story. Left humiliated after a guy ran up and yelled at me (unprovoked) and called me a N***** twice. No one helped. Everyone stared at me, and laughed. Do better people.”
Her tweet went viral, getting more than 1.3 million views. Many offered her encouragement, but many questioned if it had even happened or demanded video proof.
Lumpkin, 30, didn’t speak out publicly after her tweet. But it turned out to be the last straw for her. She resigned from TMJ4 in September. She told me she would not seek another industry job because the job stressors were not good for her mental health.
It wasn’t the first time Lumpkin experienced racism. When she worked for a Maine television station, she endured some microaggressions, like when she overheard her peers refer to her as “the colored girl.” She also felt that when covering stories on minorities, she had to explain in detail why she was doing the story and its importance. Nor did she have managers who looked like or understood her.
“We have a voice and know how to use it, and most of us will not tolerate racism and disrespect. More journalists of color will continue to leave the industry if these issues are not addressed,” Lumpkin said.
Newsroom leaders should be having conversations about race and racism and checking in on their reporters and editors of color often, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a training institute and innovation think tank for news professionals covering violence and trauma.
Why? Because today’s journalists of color won’t tolerate hate like I did. They will call it out. They will use their social media platforms to address it, and if things don’t change or newsroom leaders fail to address it, they will leave.
“What you encountered as a journalist, a reporter in their 20s will not take that kind of abuse,” Shapiro said. “Nor should they.”
Some people won't change, but it hasn't stopped me from trying
For years, an elderly man from Genesee Depot would call me weekly to “talk about your people.”
He was so racist that he didn’t know any other way. Some of his questions would start: “Why don’t Negros have more respect for themselves?” Or: “You ever think about writing a column telling Black women to stop having all these babies we have to take care of?”
He got most of his “news” from conservative talk radio. I guess I was his only connection to Black people. I spent years correcting him on issues of race, and while many of our conversations were painful, I think he started to understand.
While I know some people will never change, it has not stopped me from trying.
Earlier this year, a man critical of a violent weekend of shootings sent me a hate-filled email.
I messaged him back, telling him if he wanted to talk about solutions, we could do lunch, my treat. He said he needed to think about it. He agreed when I told him we could meet at Coffee Makes You Black, a Black-owned establishment on Milwaukee’s north side.
The day before we were supposed to meet, I asked him if we were still on. His response:
“No thanks; you will probably sneak out the back and leave me stuck with the bill.”
You are their voice and hope for better or worse
There have been many times I thought about quitting.
I choose to stay because this is what I love. And I know my purpose is to provide a platform and context to marginalized people's stories. And what story do I know better than my own?
While at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Birmingham, Alabama, last summer, I attended workshops and talked with other journalists about how race impacted them in their work.
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Terry Collins, a breaking news reporter with USA TODAY, said being a Black reporter can be a gift and a curse because you are doing the work and carrying the weight of an entire community.
A reporter for three decades, Collins said he has also received racist calls, emails and letters.
“At times, it's tough to do your job because everyone has expectations for you,” Collins told me. “And when you are covering your community, like it or not, you are their voice and hope for better or worse.”
Ken Lemon, the newly elected NABJ president, said racism against journalists is a topic the nation’s largest organization of Black journalists will continue to address aggressively.
When I told Lemon what I faced, he told me this situation should have been addressed years ago.
“No other place would allow for their employees to endure racism from the public like this, and you should not have to deal with it, either,” Lemon said.
I told him I never brought it up to my supervisors, but Lemon didn’t change his stance: “You still should not have gone through that.”
During an NABJ panel entitled, “Dear Brother: What You Need to Know About Your Job,” other Black men and a few women shared stories about how they not only face racism from the public but also from those they work with. They also talked about a lack of support from their employers.
Some suggested exposing racists who choose to send emails, letters and phone calls by making their information public.
Others talked about taking the “high road” and blocking them or just ignoring their words. One man suggested we form a mentorship tree so we have someone to talk to when we go through things. That was the best suggestion. I have been talking with more of my friends about what I face as a journalist and how staying silent may be partially to blame for our failure to break down racism within our communities.
I thought of that when I received this email from a Waukesha resident:
“Dear Mr. Causey,
I feel that if you folks can get your crime under control, racism would pretty much disappear. Day after day, in the news and on TV, we see smash and grabbings, muggings, carjackings and car stealings, rapes, thefts, traffic accidents, vandalism, aggressive behavior, etc. Frankly, your race scares us…I know you’re offended by DWB, but the police are being proactive which in the long run reduces crime… If youths were thrown in the slammer, many would learn their lessons, which would reduce future crime…
Are you aware that 35% of the bad guys in the Waukesha County jail are from Milwaukee County?
If you had any testosterone, you would print this in your paper.” – Earl Orlebeke, Waukesha.
When you receive emails like this constantly, you need support.
I tried this years ago with Eugene and Greg, and we had our mini-support group. But it was a different time then. I have much different advice today for anyone who asks:
Stay strong, yes.
But don’t stay silent.
James E. Causey started reporting on life in his city while still at Marshall High School through a Milwaukee Sentinel high school internship. He's been covering his hometown ever since, writing and editing news stories, projects and opinion pieces on urban youth, mental health, employment, housing and incarceration. This column first published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at email@example.com; follow him on X @jecausey.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Racism and slurs shouldn't come with job for Black journalists