BOOM!!!! The front door to our modest home burst open suddenly. Within seconds, dozens of police officers in vests labeled “DEA” were surrounding my family in our living room with their guns drawn. I was about seven years old. That was the first time I remember my mother, Barbara, going to jail. It is also my first memory of any type of engagement with the police. I was traumatized and have been terrified of police officers ever since. They treated us like trash – even the children who had no clue what was happening.
Formally uneducated past high school but incredibly street smart and business savvy, my mother was a powerhouse of a woman in the male-dominated world of street pharmaceuticals. It is interesting to note how racial inequality was institutionalized by Nixon and Reagan who influenced the drug policies of the 1970s and 1980s. Crack and cocaine are essentially the same drug just in different forms, and are nearly identical on a molecular level. Black people were more likely to use crack because it was cheaper. In a video narrated by uber-successful entrepreneur (and former drug dealer) Jay-Z for drugpolicy.org, Jay notes that – in his home state of New York – Manhattan bankers in the 80s and 90s openly used cocaine with impunity while black citizens in Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens were jailed and had their lives turned upside down for using crack. People charged with possession of 1 gram of crack are given the same prison sentence as those found in possession of 18 grams of cocaine. Interestingly, black dealers who bore the brunt of these unfair prison sentences had little to no influence or resources to import cocaine/crack into the United States from Latin American countries like Panama and Colombia.
I was born in 1986 and grew up in Racine, a small town in Southeastern Wisconsin that experienced high rates of unemployment after factory jobs began to disappear due to outsourcing overseas. Automation and improved operational efficiency processes replaced people like my uncle who used to earn $40 per hour on an assembly line in the 1970s but saw his employment prospects dwindle just 10 years later. He later became addicted to crack and has painfully struggled with his sobriety for the last 30 years in between multiple stints in jail.
As the first in my family to attend a prestigious institution like Wharton, I now understand the mindset of the business executives who made these cost-cutting decisions. But as a child being raised by a single mother who saw drug dealing as the most viable way to provide for her 3 kids, I felt the sting of how the choices of high-powered CEOs negatively impacted unskilled, under-educated workers and their families. Faced with financial hardship and hopelessness, I saw good, hard-working people in my life turn to illegal drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Or, on the flip side, they became dealers who sold and distributed these same substances.
From an early age, I witnessed my mother take calculated risks that resulted in very negative interactions with the police. I saw my mom manage street dealers that reported to her as she orchestrated the distribution of narcotics from Chicago to connections in places like Detroit, another Midwestern town that has suffered high unemployment, drug addiction, violence and incarceration rates that disproportionately affect black citizens.
I had no frame of reference that this lifestyle of fast money, violence and drugs all around me was wrong or different until I won a scholarship to The Prairie School, an elite college prep institution founded by the late Sam Johnson, the namesake of consumer packaged-goods company SC Johnson and Cornell’s Johnson School of Management. SCJ’s headquarters is in my hometown, and my first real job was through a summer training program for minorities in the company’s marketing department. The Johnson family became my benefactors and I was blessed to attend Prairie tuition-free from 9-12th grade in 2000-2004.
While my classmates at Prairie took weekend trips to Disney World in Florida, I would spend weekends with my family driving up to remote parts of Wisconsin and Illinois to visit another uncle who was in prison for a gang-related shooting that left a pregnant woman dead in the mid-nineties. I remember our home being robbed by rival dealers – we could not call the police because what would we tell them? Our house got shot up one time and one of the bullet holes came through the bedroom I shared with my sister. All these crimes were perpetrated by black people against other black people. We survived each of these incidents but I knew the police could not help us and I hated never feeling safe or secure.
Around the age of 16, I began to resent my family and became distant from my mother. It was increasingly difficult for me to understand why she continued to live a lifestyle that put us at risk while the parents at Prairie were successful doctors, lawyers and corporate execs. I was one of 5 black students at the school, and as I was exposed to the lifestyles of my majority-white classmates and even my black peers whose parents had “made it,” I became ashamed of my mother and blamed her for our poverty.
My home state is the birthplace of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and is currently home to Scott Walker – Wisconsin’s governor and an early Presidential hopeful. In my view, these powerful men and their policies have resulted in Wisconsin being the worst place in America to be black. Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries (the second largest privately held company in the US) have spent more than $44mm since 2010 to fund the rise of political leaders like Walker and Ryan from Wisconsin, according to fact checkers at Politico.
- The unemployment rate for black Wisconsinites is 11.1% compared to the national average of approximately 5%. Interestingly, the jobless rate for white Wisconsinites is 4.1%.
- According to data from the Economic Policy Institute which was detailed in a recent HuffPo article, compared to white people in the US:
- black citizens are less likely to be homeowners
- 2x as likely to be unemployed
- 3x as likely to live in poverty and
- 5x more likely to go to prison
- The rate of homeownership for white families is 71% compared to 41.2% for black families.
OSU Professor Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow (2010)” provides compelling data finding that “there are more black citizens in jails, prisons, or on probation or parole than there were enslaved in 1850.”
Seeing very little opportunity, I left Wisconsin when I was 18 to distance myself from the poverty and hopelessness that surrounded my family. When I left for college at the University of Southern California, I did not speak to my mother for nearly two years. In retrospect, I was harsh and unforgiving. Our estrangement continued throughout my twenties. We would speak occasionally but it was always strained and uncomfortable. On the day of my college graduation from USC, we argued because I refused to let my mom use my credit card. If you look closely at the photo, our smiles are forced.
I turned 30 on April 1, 2015. My mother died on April 25, 2015 at the age of 47. I started business school in August 2015.
I’ve never viewed the police as my protectors. I’ve only ever had negative interactions with the police which resulted in people I loved being targeted, assaulted, and imprisoned. Thankfully, no one I know has been killed by the police but the families of Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott, Korryn Gaines, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Renisha McBride, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and many others cannot say the same. I experience anxiety when I pass a police officer on the street (no matter their race or gender), and I fear for my life when being pulled over at a routine traffic stop.
My mother was a natural leader and a charismatic, savvy salesperson. She was beautiful, stylish and a trendsetter. She was the ultimate hustler and she loved me and my siblings. I now realize that much of my entrepreneurial spirit was inspired by my mom.
There are historical, systemic, institutional forces much bigger than my mother that influenced the trajectory of her life choices. She did her best with the education and resources she had, and I never got the chance to tell her that I was sorry for judging her and excluding her from my life before she died. It is worth noting that, due to my bad experiences with the police over the years, I eventually gave up on investigating her death which was ruled a suicide.
Perhaps I am in denial, but I believe my mother was murdered. The investigators did not seem to care about my mom’s case even though there were many inconsistencies that did not make sense about her death. The investigators claimed that my mother had been struggling with mental health issues and had made an attempt on her life the year before – information that I was not aware of and found difficult to believe. As a newly minted (and income-less) MBA student, I did not have the financial resources to hire a private investigator. After six months of unreturned phone calls and refusals from the detectives to pursue leads that I uncovered about my mom’s case, I just gave up. I sometimes wonder if the detectives would have worked more diligently on my mom’s case if she had been more educated, wealthier, and perhaps even white.