Transcription of Living History #299

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Douglas Rooks: I think that’s the sense that I wish we all need to be a little more involved, and not figure as we often do, that voting is enough, and if the wrong persons gets elected, we’ll just try it again next time. I think we have to all become a little more involved in our communities, and really in ultimately the political system to make it work better again.
Dr. Petrella: Can we think about how both of these parties in a lot of ways have their roots in whiteness, and have their roots in white supremacy? Abraham Lincoln did not think that black people and white people were equal by any stretch of the imagination. He articulated that very proudly actually. In one of the early, Lincoln-Douglass debates I think in 1857, and the Democratic Party has its roots in the KKK, in the Dixiecrats out. I think we need more white folk to shift the conversation.
Dr. Lisa: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 299, “Living History,” airing for the first time on a Sunday, June 11th, 2017. Philosopher George Santayana is remembered for having said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” During times of turmoil we do will to recall how we got to be where we are. Today we speak with career journalist Douglas Rooks, about his book Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible, and with Dr. Christopher Petrella, whose academic career has explored questions of the intersection of race, criminality, and citizenship. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle, a lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port, where everybody is seen as a work of art and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person or online at
Dr. Lisa: My next guest is Douglas Rooks who is a career journalist who worked at weekly and daily newspapers for 25 years. His first book, Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible, was published last year. Thanks so much for coming in.
Douglas Rooks: Glad to be here.
Dr. Lisa: I enjoyed reading Statesman, and I was really impressed with just the sort of the breadth of information that you had to go through to actually create this book, and the fact that you probably left a lot out in the end.
Douglas Rooks: It’s amazing how much you have to leave out when you write a book.
Dr. Lisa: Why did you get involved… If you were someone who has been a journalist for all of these years, why did you decide that writing a book was something you wanted to pursue?
Douglas Rooks: I’d always wanted to write a book, several books probably. Now I hope maybe that I published one, I will get the chance to write more. Book writing is very different than short form journalism, which is what I’ve done for newspapers and magazines nationally and in Maine for many years. Writing a book just requires a level of commitment and focus that I think is pretty liberating for a journalist, because you never really get to spend that much time on any one thing if you work for a newspaper as I did for many years, and really being able to dig into a subject like George Mitchell was… Turned out to be a very wonderful thing for me.
Dr. Lisa: Why did you decide to go into journalism in the first place?
Douglas Rooks: It was kind of accidental. I thought I would be… I loved to read, I was a great reader throughout high school and college, and I studied English literature, graduated from Colby. I really felt something to do with words was, but I had no idea really, in those days it was amazing, we didn’t track ourselves into careers when we were 13 years old. I really graduated from college not knowing exactly what I wanted to do.
I built a house in New Hampshire, that was the first thing I did for my family, and I discovered that there was this newspaper job, fairly nearby in New Hampshire. You wouldn’t think this would ever happen but I called up and they interviewed me and they hired me. That’s how I got into newspapers. It wasn’t a very intentional thing.
Dr. Lisa: If you’ve been doing this for 25 years, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the field of journalism.
Douglas Rooks: Enormous changes.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about, I’m thinking obviously we didn’t have… We didn’t even have personal computers in all of the homes at that time.
Douglas Rooks: Yes. We definitely didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have Google. Obviously we had phones, but they were still landlines. These are just like kind of mechanical things. Yeah, I started writing on a manual typewriters. My first stories were worked out on that thing. I haven’t used a typewriter in years, but I could probably go back if I had to.
Dr. Lisa: You also had, you were doing journalism at a time where it was really like on the streets journalism, you actually had to go, look at primary sources, you had to go do the interviews, probably a lot of them in person.
Douglas Rooks: Yeah, we did a lot of work on the phone but I love that part of it. I happened to be in a small town, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, during the presidential primaries in 1980. New Hampshire as the first primary was a bigger deal then than it is today. People like Ronald Reagan, George Bush the elder, Howard Baker were coming through, I got to talk to all of them. I was like 25 years old. Something like that. I was talking to all these amazing politicians that normally you never get to meet as a journalist. Today you are kept a mile away from politicians. That was a really good thing. I actually miss that part of journalism.
Dr. Lisa: There’s been a lot of conversation lately about what’s being called fake news. What’s your response to that?
Douglas Rooks: I have no idea. I think it’s an absurd concept. There is no such thing as fake news except that people sometimes fake the news, but fake news in my day was in the National Enquirer. Everybody knew that the National Enquirer made up all their stories. They weren’t real. You just figured people reading it didn’t care. The idea that you would get fake news on national networks, and people would be debating this is absolutely ridiculous.
We can find out what the facts of a situation are. They are sometimes a little muddled. Sometimes you have to go three or four different stories. As a journalist I’ve had this happen to me. It’s not clear what happened at first, but you can’t get there. The whole idea that there is something fake about the news, we just can’t really have that. We can’t. As a society and as a political system, we can’t have that concept constantly intruding with our thinking. Let’s get over it. That’s my take on it.
Dr. Lisa: Do you think that part of what happens is, because there is such an immediacy to news these days. It’s not a six o’clock news cast on television or a twice daily newspaper. There is such an immediacy of that. Sometimes people maybe get a little, I don’t want to use the word lazy in a derogatory way, but maybe aren’t as thorough as they could be with their fact checking.
Douglas Rooks: I do worry about that because the 24-hour news cycle, which was just coming into being when I left my newspaper jobs behind, I was worried about it then, and I’m more worried about it now, because I do think people absolutely, they tend to go to the first place and their reactions are often very emotional, visceral and wrong as it turns out. You can get any number of examples of things, when you go back and look at them more carefully you realize it was more complicated than I thought. Journalism at one time had a kind of a filtering process in it that it largely lacks today.
I don’t have any magical answer to this but I think each of us as Americans, as Mainers, as citizens of our own towns, need to be a little more critical about what we read, and also self-critical and realize that our own biases and our own tendencies, sort of steer us in certain directions. We have to be citizens, I’m preaching this in my next book, which is about Maine politics, that we all have to become citizens again, and take that responsibility seriously. Nobody else is going to do the job of being a citizen for us. We have to do it.
Dr. Lisa: When did we stop being citizens?
Douglas Rooks: I don’t think we’ve stopped being citizens, but I think the concept of citizenship needs some reevaluation. My subject, George Mitchell has wonderful, he gave many speeches about his experiences when he was a federal judge. He was only a federal judge for about seven months. He was right here in Portland, at the courthouse there and he did naturalization ceremonies. The punchline to his, when he asked new people why they became Americans, why do they want to become Americans? I think there was a young man from the Philippines who told him, he said, “In America, everyone has a chance.”
That was his summation of what it was like to be in this country. Mitchell’s other comment on that was that Americans who were born here, tend not to appreciate what a wonderful privilege they’ve been given to live in this great country. I think that’s the sense that I wish we all need to be a little more involved, and not figure as we often do, that voting is enough, and if the wrong persons gets elected, we’ll just try it again next time. I think we have to all become a little more involved in our communities, and really in ultimately the political system to make it work better again.
Dr. Lisa: Why did you choose George Mitchell?
Douglas Rooks: That was an easy choice actually because George Mitchell came into the Kennebec Journal newsroom in 1985 and I met him for the first time. He was a US senator who just kind of showed up. They said, “George Mitchell is here, you might want to talk to him.” I was really fascinated by him because he was so unusual as a politician in those days or this one, where he knew tremendous amounts about history. I was amazed, I can’t remember the country I asked him about, some fairly obscure country in Europe. It was probably in the Balkans or somewhere like that.
He not only answered the question brilliantly, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting him to know. He wasn’t on the relevant committees, but he told me the background, the history, and I had no idea that he originally aspired to be a history professor. He was amazingly good at understanding and knowing things that very few people in a lot of politics know. That was his strength, because he just knew more than anyone else. Naturally as somebody who was always as a journalist seeking to know more I said, after he left the center particularly about 10 years later, I had just this thought that really he would make a good book. It took a long time to get there, but I finally made it.
Dr. Lisa: I’m not sure that everybody remembers, and maybe some people weren’t alive, that’s why they don’t remember this, but he ran for governor and he lost.
Douglas Rooks: He did, and it was a very, it was one of the great learning experiences of George Mitchell’s life. He did, he was, he lived in Portland at the time, and ironically given that he grew up amid really severe poverty in Waterville, his grandfather lived right on the river at the time that Kennebec River in Waterville was a sewer. Absolutely was a sewer. It stunk to high heavens all summer longs. It was the lowest you could go. George Mitchell and his siblings went to college. He went to law school and became incredibly successful. It was ironic because he was a very serious young man and a very serious lawyer, very good in one to one context, but he didn’t project well in large groups.
I think that was what happened in 1974. He didn’t make that connection to the broader collection of people you need to do to be successful at a statewide level. He learned an enormous amount through that, and I said it was ironic that he was perceived almost as like this buttoned-down lawyer, because he came from nowhere, but he had succeeded in becoming a different person and now he had to learn how to connect with Mainers. By the time he ran again, which was eight years later for the US senate, he had learned those lessons very well.
He not only could connect with people on a personal basis, but he was able to hold just a couple of a major issues at the time. One was social security, because Ronald Reagan had been talking about reducing benefits. One was acid rain, which was the prelude to what we know as global warming. He had a couple of things that he could get people’s attention with, and then he could make relationships with them. We’ve had a lot of good politicians in Maine, but if you just measure it by the box office. His 81% of the vote in his 1988 reelection race is still the record for any statewide race in Maine. He became very, very good at his job.
Dr. Lisa: It’s interesting the way you are describing because I think people are inclined to believe that there is something they are good at, by virtue of I guess their birth. If they are not good at it, then maybe they don’t need to get good at it. You are saying, he didn’t necessarily project himself well to large groups, but he learned how to do this. He taught himself how to do this.
Douglas Rooks: You don’t see it that often. Most political careers frankly, either you have it or you don’t, because there are not that many chances. Mitchell would be the first, in fact, he got a second chance when he didn’t expect it. He was appointed to the US senate in 1980 when his mentor, a guy he’d worked for years earlier, Ed Muskie, decided to step down and become secretary of state.
It’s the only time in Maine in the entire history that we’ve had a vacant senate seat in the last century. George Mitchell was the guy who got the job. He’d be the first to admit, he would never have probably run for office otherwise, but having been given that gift by Governor Joe Brennan, another great Portland guy, he made the most of it. He did have that second chance. He was able to go on to his remarkable career after that.
Dr. Lisa: One of the things that I thought about as I was reading your book is, it’s interesting to be writing about a person who is kind of an icon, but is still alive, is very much going to read this book hopefully and collaborate with you presumably.
Douglas Rooks: I’ve thought an awful lot about that. Fortunately, we had done a lot of interviews some years earlier, because the book, I really wanted to write it back in the early years of the century. For whatever reason it just quite penned up. I had a lot of material from Mitchell himself, and he had been very helpful really in trying to steer me in the right direction. This is just the way he is. He’s very helpful. He helped me, we were trying to find a publisher, and he was helping me. Not in a pushy way.
One of the remarkable things about George Mitchell, yes he is alive, there is a tremendous amount in the book, I’m sure some of it is wrong, or at least from his perspective, there are some problems with it, and yet he never tried to interfere in any way, he’s only been extremely complimentary since the book came out. You do get nervous about that because I’ve known… I’ve had other friends who’ve written biographies of people that have not turned out nearly as well.
Dr. Lisa: It seems like there could be a lot of potential problems and not from person you are writing about, but from the people around that person.
Douglas Rooks: Of course. I realized in retrospect I had to pass a bunch of tests. For instance, I interviewed all of his surviving siblings. I knew they all talked to George a number of times probably before they consented to do that, because the Mitchell family like most families is very protective of their members. I had to pass some sort of test but as far as I can tell, he never told anyone, “Don’t talk to him.” It was almost always the opposite. There are many people I interviewed at great length for the book that I didn’t know going in and really George was the only connection. I have to say, it went rather well. I don’t think I’ve had anyone yet coming up and waving a book at me and saying, “This isn’t the truth so far.”
Dr. Lisa: One of the things that struck me was just how difficult being a politician was on his personal life and the fact that he was previously married and he has a daughter from his first marriage. It doesn’t seem as though at least according to what I read, that there is a lot of acrimony but still it’s divorce, and it’s very, very hard.
Douglas Rooks: I think it was one of the hardest things that George Mitchell and Sally Mitchell, his first wife ever went through. They were a very devoted couple. They met outside of the Catholic Church in Georgetown in Washington, at a time when George Mitchell had no intention of having a political career. Their agreement, she had actually worked for a couple of political offices in New Hampshire and I think she was at the federal aviation administration at the time he met her, and she did not like politics. It was too bad in a way that he was married to someone who really didn’t like politics, because that just became a bigger and bigger strain.
I think it was the moment when he realized that he would be running for the senate for a full six year term that it really wasn’t going to work. I think she did try briefly moving to Washington, because senators mostly lived in Washington in those days. It just didn’t work for them. He really looked after him. There is amazing little stories there. His accountant became her accountant and his daughter’s accountant, and George paid for them all, even though he obviously wouldn’t have to after a divorce. They just seemed like a very well matched couple who ended up being driven apart. Much the way, somebody wants to live in California, and they love it there, and you want to live in Maine. Guess what? It’s probably not going to work long term. It didn’t for them, but it did not lead to any acrimony within the family.
Dr. Lisa: He seems to have people that he becomes friend with or acquainted with and carries those relationships forward really for a long, long time.
Douglas Rooks: Remarkable. His friend Shep Lee who is an auto dealer, his son Adam lee, as many people are getting to know better in this area. Shep was, said about George Mitchell, he said, “He never forgot his friends, he never forgot where he came from.” That’s very unusual because most of the time when you ascend to the levels that George Mitchell did, not just in politics, but in law and in business and in a whole lot of other areas, he became a very eminent person. He’s known around the world. Yet, he always had time for his old friends. I think that is kind of remarkable, but it shows how well grounded in Maine George Mitchell really is.
Dr. Lisa: As I was reading back through the book, one of the things that I kept coming back to was, I lived through a lot of this. I’ve lived Maine for a big chunk of my life. I think as I was going through it, probably because I was too young to really know. There were things that were happening that, I was kind of surprised to go back and have the retrospective on. I’m, I guess some people would say middle age, I’m in my forties. Did you find things as you were going through that you had lived through once or you had reported on once that surprised you looking backward?
Douglas Rooks: Yes, it’s just amazing, the impressions you have. I was a journalist, so I was always reading the news, I was always getting EP news-feeds, all throughout the day I was reading editorials on every subject known to editorial pages. Yet I missed a lot in researching my next book, which is more focused on Maine politics. There were certain key episodes at state government history that I had either, I didn’t really miss them but I misevaluated their significance. I didn’t understand the full significance of what was going on at the time. I think this is why I was talking earlier about being a citizen. It’s really important for everybody to know their own story. To understand it in all these complexities, and let’s face it, life is a very complicated thing. We need to simplify it for the sake of getting through it.
We also need to look back occasionally at least and saying, “That event seems very different to me now, that I understand more about it.” I think that’s … It’s a wonderful process really for research, because I had not done any significant amount of research on the scale anyway since I was in college. I spent like 13 months in the Bowdoin College library to research this book.
In fact, the only reason I stopped was I realized I’ll never get the book written if I didn’t just wind it up. It would be fun to go back and find out how many more things there are there that are interesting to know that I could find out.
Dr. Lisa: Knowing all of this about George Mitchell and knowing how he’s been such a part of the fabric on not only main but the country and really the world in many ways, do some of the recent things that have happened in politics surprise you?
Douglas Rooks: They don’t surprise me because again I’ve been following politics for a long time and I can see, it will not come as a big surprise to your listeners that I think politics is kind of in a bad way these days. I just think the level of conflict has gotten out of hand. There is always a lot of conflict in politics. People have to understand that politics is not pretty to watch. Somebody is always trying to get the jump on someone else. Someone is always trying to pull off a deal that is going to inconvenience someone else.
This is part of the nature of public life because we have difficult issues to settle, and nobody gets a 100% of what they want. I think the lack of civility, which Mitchell himself has talked about repeatedly recently is very concerning, because it used to be that George Mitchell and Bob Doyle, two of really of the great senate leaders of our day would go at it, you’d listen to them on the senate floor, they’d just be hammering away on each other and saying, “That’s not true, senator. You said earlier that this is the case and now you are…” it was a real debate. At the end of the day they went out and had a drink together and sat down and talked about their families.
That is so important to a good political system. I suspect it is very, very rare in Washington today, and we miss that. You have to have those connections that go beyond, when I was saying earlier, do your job well, you need to be able to do your job well, but also still remain human beings to each other. Unless we can do that and start getting serious about that again, bite your tongue, maybe you don’t want to say that even though it’s a great zinger, and it would look great on Twitter or whatever.
If we can’t do that then I suspect we are kind of doomed to keep repeating this, the turn that keeps going on there. One election comes, and another election comes, but it doesn’t really seem to make much difference in terms of how we live or what the government is able to do for its people.
Dr. Lisa: How did we get to this place? How did we get to the place where we don’t mind being civil to one another?
Douglas Rooks: I don’t think anybody really knows. We can see it happening, and we can deplore it, but what do we actually do about it. I think for each of us we have to think about that. I’m trying to think a lot about myself and I’m getting a little more politically active myself. For instance, I plan to testify on two bills up with legislature, not because I used to… When I was at the Maine Press Association I would represent them. I worked for some clients that required not lobbying per se but just testimony to committees of the legislature. I’ve done that, but this is just for me. I’m going to be up there tomorrow and I’m going to say, “I’m testifying as a citizen, and I’m willing to take the risks that go along with that.”
I’m stepping up my own professional corporate zone here, because I think certain issues are so important that we all need to make special effort to play a part to the degree that we can. I guess my part is, I feel like I’ve stayed in this stuff for so long and I know a lot about Maine politics, maybe I could help at a difficult moment with some legislators. I may be completely wrong about that but I’m going to try anyway. I think we all need to just try a little bit. Talk to our neighbors, it’s very important, we know a lot of families in which people are very divided by the last presidential race.
You have to talk to those people and find out what did this… And don’t just say, “Oh my God. They voted for the wrong person. How could they do that?” That’s not going to help. Talking to them on a more human level may help. We’ve got to try it. That’s where I start anyway.
Dr. Lisa: I agree with you. I have patients that come in to see me as a family doctor. They are on both sides… I don’t want to say both sides. They are on the political spectrum. Some of them are kind of left leaning republications and some of them are right leaning democrats. Some of them are in one camp or another. If you can actually have a conversation, you realize that you are probably closer together on a lot of the issues than you realize.
Douglas Rooks: I think that there are really more attempts to divide us than really needed. If I look at, George Mitchell is a great example of this. He said that, of course this may seem old dated now that we have a new president who is constantly on the airwaves with talking about what he think is a problem. Mitchell was using the example of World War II. His figure I believe was that 78,000,000 people were killed in World War II, either as a result of combat or actually in fighting. It’s just a number that none of us can even imagine how big it is. His comment was, “If a bomb blows up in an airport in Germany or wherever, and 30 people are killed, it’s worldwide news, and we are all like, “Oh my goodness, this huge problem.””
That’s where the perspective has to come in, we may not be as unsafe and insecure as we actually think. I happen to believe that. I feel very safe in Maine. I really do. Yes I’m an older guy and all that, but if I were a kid I’d still feel very safe. A lot of people come here to be safe, and they feel safe here. Frankly, in most parts of this great country, we are very safe.
We might just want to, when somebody is trying to alarm us about something, particularly about another group of people or another religion or whatever, we might just stop for a minute and say, “Really,” because most of the time you find that as Mitchell talks about often is, these people are like us in many ways. They all want their kids to succeed in life. They all want them to get a good education and good healthcare, which is a big problem in this state and this country now to get everyone access to healthcare.
If we approach it from this perspective yes, there is a lot of agreement. You rarely get disagreement on people saying, “Kids should have access to healthcare. Then the question becomes how do we do that? Naturally there are going to be divisions about how, but if you look at the goal, and you focus on that, it really changes the conversation. I really think it does.
Dr. Lisa: Doug, when should we expect your next book?
Douglas Rooks: It’s now scheduled for spring of 2018, the reason I have to get it out, we are going to have some big political contest in Maine. I figured a book about politics will probably do best in that year. Also, I just would like to get it out by then because I have a lot of ideas that I’ve kind of been circulating about my brain over the years, and this is a great opportunity to put it together into something, a little bit like a political program. We see very much of that these days, I read party platforms and they don’t really say anything. I like party platforms from the old days. They say, “We are going to do this, this and this.” They were elected and they did it, or at least they tried. That’s kind of the politics I want to see.
Dr. Lisa: I’ve been speaking with Douglas Rooks who was a career journalist who worked at weekly and daily newspapers for 25 years. His first book, Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible was published last year. Congratulations on a great book, and I look forward to the next one.
Douglas Rooks: Thank you so much.
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Dr. Lisa: In the studio with me today I have Christopher Petrella who teachers at Bates College, and explores question about the intersection of race, criminality and citizenship. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Harper’s magazine, Boston Review and The New Yorker. His research has appeared on ESPN and NPR and has been debated in the US House of Representatives. Great to have you here today.
Dr. Petrella: Thanks so much. Happy to be here.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about this US House of Representatives debate. It’s very interesting that what you are doing has made it all the way over there.
Dr. Petrella: Yeah, a few years ago in 2013, 2014, one of my colleagues, we are working on questions of prison privatization. It turns out that there’s a very deep amount of secrecy and lack of transparency when it comes to private prison companies in the United States. We endeavored to representative Sheila Jackson Lee out of Houston, a democrat, draft a bill that would require private prison companies like Core-Civic and the GO Group, which are these monstrosities of publicly traded for-profit prison companies, to disclose the very same information that their public counterpart agencies already have to disclose.
In simpler terms. If you are a journalist and you want to access information about the California department of corrections and rehabilitation, you can file a foyer request. If it’s reasonable you’ll be able to obtain that information. If you try to find similar information on privately, publicly held private prisons, you can’t. They generally claim a proprietary exemption clause, and say that the disclosure of such information would generally put them at a competitive market disadvantage. We found this … We among many other people found this particularly problematic of course since we as private citizens ultimately pay for private prison companies to exist to large degree.
The act was called the private prison information act. It was introduced in 2014, 2015. It hasn’t made it out of committee, my understanding is that it will be reintroduced very shortly. We are looking forward to hopefully some fruitful results from that debate.
Dr. Lisa: This seems like a very specific field that you’ve chosen to go into. I know that you have degrees from Bates College, Harvard University, University of California, Berkeley, what sent you down this path, and what was your educational background?
Dr. Petrella: I’m very much generally interested in questions of justice and how we can expand the wee of an involving democracy. I was… I lived… My family and I lived in the Hartford area until I was about four, at which point we moved to this tiny, tiny sort of bucolic rural community called Summers, which is in north central Connecticut. Summers has more prisons than stop lights. I grew up in a town with three prisons, which included the maximum security facility. At the time it also included death row, Connecticut has since gotten rid of capital punishment. Questions of containment, punishment were in my backyard.
That generally served as an entry into beginning to ask questions about the relationship between race and democracy or sort of more capaciously, race, democracy, and incarceration. I discovered as a fairly young person, I think I was around 16 when the 2000 US census came out, and discovered that somewhere between 12 to 15% of my community was what the US census would classify as black and or African-American, despite the fact that I went to school with very few black peers.
This raised some questions. Where are these folks being counted and why? With the help of a progressive teacher we looked into this matter and he helped me to understand that for the purposes of census designation, resource allocation, sometimes legislative apportionment, prisoners are counted in the census tract in which the facility is located, as opposed to from where they came. That struck me as particularly problematic. For a whole holster of reasons it sort of perverts the democratic process.
I later came to understand this as prison gerrymandering, which is unofficial practice that a lot of states utilize. What it essentially does is resegregate particular communities and then in conjunction redistribute wealth. I knew that being a white family in this particular space where in many ways we were benefiting directly, and complicit with these prisons, housing, many black and brown folk in my community called me to think through what that complicity looked like and began to ask questions, what does it mean to be white in the United States? I’ve sort of carried those questions with me since.
Dr. Lisa: It’s a complicated conversation, and I think it’s one that not everybody feels comfortable having.
Dr. Petrella: I think that’s right.
Dr. Lisa: Questions of race. It seems as though we’ve kind of in some ways come very far and in other ways they may be stalled out to a pretty significant degree. How do you get comfortable as a self-identified white male talking about these really sticky issues?
Dr. Petrella: I don’t know that that I’ll ever be comfortable. I think I’m very much a work in progress but I would say it begins with the recognition that maybe we don’t know as much as we thought we knew about who we are. I say we as white folk. James Baldwin has a fantastic quote from the mid 60s in which he writes, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” I think that’s very much an accurate diagnosis of the American dilemma. A question I often ask my students, my white students, self-identified white students is, when did you know you were white? That process of becoming white, that process of American socialization as white is one that’s complex and one that means different things to different people.
I began to explore that through the prison question in a lot of ways is why I think it’s impossible to ask questions about what punishment looks like in this country without thinking through questions of race, without thinking through questions of democracy, especially because quite frankly, the prison system in the United States, or more accurately prison systems came up with the birth of the republic. They were cousins. If we are going to diagnose questions of power, questions of access, questions of freedom and democracy, it would be incomplete not to include questions of punishment.
Dr. Lisa: How do students that you teach respond? I know that Bates actually has a history of trying to be as inclusive as possible over the decades. It still has a fairly high percentage I believe of white students as do all the smaller real arts and university schools in our state. How do people respond that you are teaching now?
Dr. Petrella: I think generally the response has been fairly favorable I think if you need… I think this is sort of a general pedagogical good practice. When you are meeting students where they are with where you are it’s very difficult to have an inauthentic encounter and conversation. I try to open myself up to being uncomfortable. In every syllabus that I construct there is always a line that suggests we are trying to make a safer space for dangerous conversations. If we can’t have those dangerous conversations, I don’t actually know that we are particularly capable of moving the needle forward on these seemingly intractable social issues.
I would say that Bates’ genealogy I think makes the institution very favorable to having these conversations, both at the classroom level and at the institutional level. Something that not everyone… Many people know that Bates was founded by Oren Cheney, who was a freewill Baptist abolitionist.
What folks don’t know is that he was great friends with Frederick Douglass. He was right in the mix, he was right in the thick of it. There were several instances in which Frederick Douglass came to Maine to visit with Cheney. Here in Portland in fact, Douglass spoke at least twice that I know. When City Hall used to be in Monument Square, he made a few stops there. He also made a stop or two up to Louis and Bates. The institution, the State of Maine in a lot of ways has a very rich history and legacy vis-a-vis abolition. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the state is where it needs to be. I certainly think we can draw on those histories to influence the present.
Dr. Lisa: Having now had one child whose graduated from college and another who is currently in school, one of the things that I’m very aware of is this kind of culture of micro-regressions, and this culture of, I think you kind of addressed it, of fear around even having a conversation because if you say something that’s outside of what might be considered politically correct, you are really putting yourself at risk. How do we get to a place of conversation, and how do we get to a place of conversation without having people feel threatened?
Dr. Petrella: This is a complicated question. I think it depends who you are. It depends on one’s embodied identity. I can only speak as a white person what that means to me. I would say it means approaching questions of potential sort of racial tension or just more generally tension related to social power with a certain radical openness. Particularly if we can’t have these conversations that are institutional at our educational institutions, then I’m not quite sure where we can have them.
Micro-regressions are certainly, I think an issue on every college campus around the country, and in part of my role at Bates over the next four to five months, we are actually putting together an anti-bias bi-center intervention training program, hopefully to equip students better to intervene in real time in these type of incidents, which thankfully are paltry but nonetheless problematic.
We are looking at ways for students to build literacies when it comes to identifying incidents of bias, intervening in incidents of bias, caring for oneself and the target in the aftermath of an incident of bias. Then more generally from a higher altitude perspective living one’s principles. How do we sort of transmogrify a lot of the values we have into direct action, into a political engagement, into community conversation and dialogue? I think that’s an involving process. We are certainly happy with what we have in store in terms of our pallet of offerings but you are right, it’s a thorny issue and one that needs to be addressed around the country.
Dr. Lisa: As a white male, have you ever experienced kind of I guess reversed bias?
Dr. Petrella: No. I have not.
Dr. Lisa: You are fortunate.
Dr. Petrella: I would say that… My PhD is in African-American studies, more precisely African Diaspora Studies from UC Berkeley. I would say I was one of maybe three or four white students in that PhD program. There was not a single time that I felt unwelcome. There were times that I felt intellectually and politically challenged. Again, I think that the recipe for evolution and growth anyway. My sense has always been almost all people of color that I ever encountered, when they know a white person is deeply invested in the cause and has proven themselves to be a co-conspirator over many years, one will welcome you with an open hand. That’s generally been my experience.
Dr. Lisa: It also seems, the way you are describing it, as if it comes from the way that you frame it as well where what you just talked about was that you have felt challenged. You didn’t feel as if it was a bias against you.
Dr. Petrella: Not at all, because I think once you recognize all of the accumulated privileges that you’ve had, that I’ve had, despite growing up in a working class family. I think partly sometimes the issue with white people is that we think that privilege is absolute. The common argument is, “I’m white, but I grew up in a working class household.” You have racial privilege and you don’t have economic privilege. That’s okay. It doesn’t invalidate the fact that race is still a salient organizing principle in society, and we need to contend with that.
I think in some senses you are very right to say that it’s a matter of framing. It’s a matter of having enough sort of historical literacy and historical sense to understand the problem correctly. I’m also lucky because through a lot of my research and work I’ve been able to meet other staunchly anti-racist white people who I can look to as an example, there aren’t many, I will say, and some days are obviously harder than other to find those examples, but they are out there. They certainly are out there and they are a whole host of folk. John Brown, Howard Zinn, I could go on.
Dr. Lisa: What’s your criteria for a staunchly anti-racist white person?
Dr. Petrella: I think the most important ingredient is someone who has a structural or systemic analysis of white supremacy, which is to say that racism is not exclusively transactional. It’s not necessarily fully based in discrimination but it’s based in how we choose to organize society. I think perhaps a powerful example could be one of the first pieces of legislation that was passed after the ratification of the US constitution, which was the US immigration and naturalization act of 1790.
The act expressly prohibited nonwhite people from naturalizing as US citizens. That’s something we have to contend with, but I think that because in most circles this history hasn’t been exhumed, we don’t always have… As white folk, we don’t always have the best analysis of how deep white supremacy goes in our history, in our politics, in our policies, until a piece of legislation was passed in 1952, there was still a racial restriction on immigration. My dad was born in 1952, that’s recent history.
I could go on and on, but there are many examples that bring this history very much up to the present. There is a ground swell of evidence to suggest, particularly in the US, south, that the origin of municipal police department were in slave patrols. Having that type of historical literacy, I think, forces a different analysis and forces a different confrontation.
Dr. Lisa: I’m finding this also interesting because obviously as a medical doctor, my background was educationally more science-based. I did have history classes but they were far fewer than the ones you had and far less extensive, obviously, given your educational background. However, my daughter is a history major.
Dr. Petrella: That’s awesome.
Dr. Lisa: Of course. That’s actually something that I kind of wanted to talk about a little bit too. That is the… You talk about the value of education, and how do you quantify it? If you go out and you are a doctor, obviously there is a job for you on the other side. If you are a history major, then there is a few different paths you can go but it seems like it’s less certain. What you are describing is extremely important to have people who actually understand the background of our culture and society. When you were deciding to get your PhD, what did that calculation look like for you?
Dr. Petrella: I’ve never been… My calculus and calculation has never particularly been sort of economystic. I have to say I very much think there are sort of differences between vocations and professions. I’m lucky that I was able to sort of meet at the intersection of those two fields. My thinking as a person in their mid-twenties when I started the PhD program was that quite simply we needed more white people who understood their history. If we begin with that proposition and sort of build a critical mass, I think we certainly can sort of move the bar forward.
I’m very fortunate. I’ll also say that good people doing good work find each other. That’s always been my experience. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to link up with other folks doing the work. I’m actually… I just got back on Sunday from doing a Know Your Rights training camp in Chicago at the DuSable Museum, which is the museum for African-American history, which was story-sponsored by Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. That’s the sort of work I’m talking about. I think there are real people doing real work. It’s inspiring to be a part of those conversations and hopefully a part of the solution.
Dr. Lisa: What you are saying to potentially history majors out there and current history majors is do what feels important to you and don’t necessarily assume that there won’t be a job on the other side.
Dr. Petrella: Yeah. I think… I’ll say this. I think my sort of vocational orientation has always come from the words of this educator Howard Thurman, who wrote “Do what makes you come alive because the world needs people to come alive.” I think we need to be awake and vigilante and conscious and conscientious in order to improve our collective lot. My sense is, if you are doing what you are doing pretty well, hopefully over time there will be opportunities for you. If you don’t like what you are doing, you are not going to do it well. I think there are certainly calculations that people will make that are different than mine. I’m a staunch supporter of the humanities, a staunch supporter of interdisciplinary programs, and I’ve been very disappointed to know that many of these programs, disciplines are on the chop and block.
I don’t think it’s particularly where we need to go as a society. I think we are losing opportunities to ask questions that matter very deeply. That’s also, I’d want to be super clear. That’s not to suggest that the natural sciences do not matter, because I think very much so in my field there are connections that can be made between the natural sciences and questions of power.
Dr. Lisa: What do you hope to see happen over the trajectory of your career and really of the field that you are working in?
Dr. Petrella: Two separate questions. I’ve always felt like the traditional academic route was not particularly made, tailor-made for someone like me. I love writing, I love being able to give talks around the country, but I’m aware of the limitations of for instance publishing exclusively in academic journals, speaking to other folks who use the same language and have the same units of analysis and in the same discipline. I’m sure that in some way, shape or form, my career will be one characterized by hybridization, I very much plan to remain in the academy in some capacity. I think that’s an important grounding. I do think the degree is important, I do think scholarships are important. My question is always, who is seeing it, who is able to access it. Are we as scholars and academics making ourselves clear and relevant?
I think this is part of, sort of my working class genealogy bubbling over the surface here because if I couldn’t understand something, it wasn’t relevant to me, not to hop too much on Dr. King but he also later in his life, in the late 60s said, “If you can’t understand something I’ve said, it’s a failure of my education not yours.” I think as academics it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we are adding to the conversation not alienating and marginalizing people who may not have the same pedigree, who may not have the same sort of life experiences, and quite frankly privileges and opportunities.
Having said that, I very much want to make sure that I also have one foot that is either outside of the academy or able to pivot sort of in agile ways. It really has been a pleasure linking up with the Know Your Rights initiative because it’s provided an opportunity to bring some of the sort of rigorous scholarly work to a community that’s just vastly underserved by their institutions. I see that in a lot of ways as sort of the way to sort of redistribute knowledge. I think that’s generally been a guiding principle. How can we ensure that people, all people have access to the sort of knowledge sources and various literacies that I as an instructor at Bates with a PhD have?
If we can do that then I think we’ve, we are onto something. To your question about where I’d like to see the discipline and the field go. I very much would like to see, and I think we are getting there, but I would very much like to see more self-identified white people investing themselves of questions of not only race but really just questions of sort of critical social literacies, power, politics. I think that’s what we solely need. For instance, I think we need more self-identified white folk to be asking questions like, “Should we vote for the Democrat or should we vote for the Republican?” As opposed to, can we think about how both of these parties in a lot of ways have their roots in whiteness and have their roots in white supremacy?
Abraham Lincoln did not think that black people and white people were equal, by any stretch of the imagination. He articulated that very proudly actually in one of the early Lincoln-Douglas debates, I think in 1857. The democratic party has its roots in the KKK and the Dixiecrat South.
I think we need more white folk to shift the conversation. I think we need new frameworks, better questions, and that’s where I’d really like to see sort of generally the field go. Also, just education more generally. I know that not every course can engage in questions of race in the way that I’m describing, but I think every course certainly can engage questions of power. If we are not doing that then I think we are offering our young people an incomplete education.
Dr. Lisa: I appreciate the work that you are doing. I hope that what you have asked for will materialize within the course of the next few years.
Dr. Petrella: We plan on making that so.
Dr. Lisa: I’ve been speaking with Christopher Petrella who teaches at Bates College and explores questions about the intersection of race, criminality, and citizenship. Thank you so much for all that you are doing and for coming in today.
Dr. Petrella: Thank you so much.
Dr. Lisa: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 299, “Living history.” Our guests have included Douglas Rooks and Dr. Christopher Petrella. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio, is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as @drlisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram.
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