Systemic racism.

It is a term we have heard a lot since the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers last month.

But what does the term actually mean in real time?

Here is a real time personal experience I had with systemic racism.

In 1973, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as “Angola,” was under immense pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to integrate the prison. At the time Angola was known as “the bloodiest prison in America.” 

Irvin “Life” Breaux, a New Orleans African American inmate serving a life sentence, and myself were chosen by fellow inmates—and accepted by Justice Department and prison officials—to lead the integration of the prison, beginning with the “Big Yard” complex where most of the violence was taking place. We were given one week to integrate the Big Yard on a voluntary basis or face the forced integration of the prison by an armed National Guard if necessary.

 Life and I picked four other inmates, two white and two black, to help us with the one week grace period we had to complete the integration.

Although the overwhelming white, redneck guard staff opposed the integration process, the prison warden, at the encouragement of DOJ attorneys, gave me and Life unrestricted access to all the 60-man dormitories on the Big Yard. We met with the inmate population, cajoling, convincing, pressuring, negotiating with them, and even bribing white and black inmate power brokers to accept the integration deal we were proposing.

Life and I spent 18 to 20 hours a day in this negotiation process, sometimes in heated, near-violent confrontations. We had to quell rumors, allay paranoia, and constantly appeal to the power brokers’ vested interests. It was no easy task.

But our efforts paid off. We successfully integrated the Big Yard without a single fist fight, without one drop of blood being shed, and even with black and white power brokers coming together to make it work. It was one of the greatest achievements in my life.

But then systemic racism reared its ugly head.

The redneck guard staff, enraged by the unprecedented way we had integrated the prison, set me up by planting three tabs of LSD in my personal property. A redneck disciplinary tribunal placed me in solitary confinement where I spent the next two years. It was the only major disciplinary infraction I would receive during my 40-year confinement.

Several days after I was placed in solitary, Life was brutally stabbed to death by two brothers in a knife fight engineered and orchestrated by the same redneck staff that framed me.

Systemic racism led to the two setups.

I was placed in lockdown and Life was murdered. Life was killed because the redneck guards wanted to send a racist, violent message to the black inmate population: “you live only if we let you live.”

Years later as an award-winning co-editor of the prison newsmagazine, The Angolite, I was the recipient of the 1980 American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, the ABA’s highest honor, for an article I wrote about Life’s killing.

In real time, Life gave me one of the best friendships I’ve ever had; and in death he gave me the honor of being able to write about the horrible wrong done to him and for both of us to be nationally recognized for it.

Together, Life and I bridged systemic racism under the worst of conditions for a brief period and paid dearly for it—he so much more than I. Life to this day, with his indomitable will and incredible courage, remains a hero from the darkest period of my life.

I am alive and well in the Texas Hill Country because I am white while Life is buried in a lonely New Orleans cemetery because he was black.

That is systemic racism in real time.


America Lost

On June 21, 1788, the United States Constitution became the official governing document of this nation. The Preamble of that document reads: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Two hundred and thirty-two years later those ideals have not been realized.


Because the seeds of racial hatred are inexorably planted in the soul of this nation.

This was evidenced recently when I posted a piece about what former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin could expect in prison for the callous and intentional killing of George Floyd on May 25.

Two individuals, both female, posted comments in response to the piece.

One is a Nazi-worshipping lunatic who was particularly incensed that George Floyd’s death is being recognized across the nation as a travesty; and the other is a non-degree, layperson who called me a “sick man” for writing the piece.

Both comments have fueled a firestorm of different reactions. I just let those fires simmer and burn themselves out.

But that some lunatic in the backwoods of Arkansas would use a Facebook post to express her empathy for Nazism and publicly discharge the sewage of her hatred for the Jewish faith is undeniable evidence that America has never found a way to live up to the ideals its Founders sought to form in a “more perfect Union.”

Fires of racial discontent smolder in dozens of American cities this day as people express their outrage over George Floyd’s death. Already, white people are trying to put a black face to the looting and destruction by invoking slogans (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”) from notorious racists from the 1960s.

But just weeks before Derek Chauvin suffocated the life out of George Floyd white protestors stood on the capitol steps in Michigan with AR-15s slung over their shoulders, waving Nazi and Confederate flags, praising far right-wing violent militias, threatening lawmakers, and promising violence while some white public officials called them “fine people” and encouraged their lawless behavior with “liberate Michigan” chants..

That’s what racism does. It allows the voice of the worst Americans to be heard over the best Americans.

What do you think would have been the response if followers of the Nation of Islam stood quietly and peacefully on the capitol steps in Michigan with AR-15s, lawfully licensed and purchased, slung over their shoulders and holding the Nation of Islam flag?

Most white folks would have called them “thugs” or “radical terrorists”—the same people who called those waving the symbol of treason (the Confederate flag) “fine people.”

The seeds of racism inevitably produce an infected harvest of violence, regardless of the color of the racism.

The final tragedy is this: America today is as lost as it was in 1788 when some of the very Framers of the Constitution bought and sold human beings in the slave market.

The proverbial bite Eve reportedly took out of the apple is not mankind’s “original sin.” The original sin is the hatred one man has for another based on their color, culture, and origin—hatred that spans the entire history of mankind.


Angry, and alone.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is angry. His recently released police mug shot reveals as much.

Chauvin is angry that he went from a police uniform to a jail jumpsuit.

He is angry that his former fellow police officers are angry at him because he killed George Floyd with a knee on the slain man’s neck. Chauvin knows his fellow officers are not angry because he killed Floyd but that he did it with the whole world watching as Floyd begged for his life. He knows that many of his fellow officers have done the same thing but “were not caught.”

Chauvin is angry that family and friends have turned against him. His wife told him that she is divorcing him. There is no rational way to explain his actions. You either accept those actions or you reject them. Most of the former officer’s family and friends rejected the actions. It has brought them untold shame and grief.

Chauvin is angry that fellow officers placed him in handcuffs, escorted him through the jail booking process, and placed him in a jail cell.

Derek Chauvin is alone now in a cell with only dark thoughts, and the crippling fear they produce, as companions through a mind-altering sense of powerlessness. The fall from privileged grace into what Jack Abbott once called “the belly of the beast” is a journey of nightmares.

And, indeed, jail and the prison cell that will most likely follow is a beast, especially for a white cop convicted of killing a black man pleading for his life. The “white boys”—not even the Aryan Brotherhood—will touch him and the “brothers” will do everything they can to get their hands on him. Even a deep protection lockdown cell will pose risks and dangers for him. A rogue prison guard could always leave his cell unlocked (as was probably the case with Jeffery Epstein) where he would later be found hung by his own jumpsuit.

Bad things happen in prison.

If Chauvin is placed in a barred cell rather than a solid door cell, he will constantly have feces and urine thrown on him by inmates out on the tier during shower time.

Chauvin will be alone, every minute of every day. Perpetual fear will overwhelm the anger. No one will help him. No one will hear his pleas, “I can’t breathe” as the knee of prison applies its pressure.

It was once reported—and I do not remember where—that Jack Ruby’s screams of “they’re killing me in here” could be heard at night by passersby on street below the Dallas County Jail.

No one will hear Derek Chauvin’s screams of “I can’t breathe” in here.

Some former cops can make it in prison, but not one as infamous as Derek Chauvin. He is on his own, and dark times await him in a world where his knees will only tremble.

And whatever bad things that may be visited upon this former cop, no one will really care—and if he should somehow manage to survive prison, the only life for him in the “free world” will be with some lunatic Nazi-saluting right wing militia group in the mountains of Utah.


Tyrant of the moment

A tyrant is a person who rules with absolute power.

My wife has asked me several times what would make a police putd the full weight of his body through a knee on the neck of a handcuffed suspect.

Police officers, and to a much greater extent prison guards, are geared to being tyrants of the moment. Their profession—if it can truly be called that—vest with them an absolute power to do what they feel is necessary to control the moment.

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally suffocated the life out of Charles Floyd on May 25, 2020 because he believed he had the absolute power to not only restrain but to kill Floyd to control the moment of Floyd’s arrest.

That sense of absolute power made Chauvin tone deaf (or at the very least indifferent) to Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe”—just as the officer was oblivious to the crowd urging him to stop while someone in the crowd filmed the entire episode.

Floyd may have said or did something that would be insignificant to a reasonable, rational thinking person but “pissed off” Chauvin because it offended his sense of absolute power. He automatically went into that tyrant mode of, “alright mother….r, I’ll show you.”

I’ve heard those tyrant utterances a thousand times by prison guards with, “what did you say, what was that bitch, you got an attitude with me?”

Most police officers do not join the force to “protect and serve” the community anymore than a prison guard goes to work in corrections to “rehabilitate” inmates. Both groups of people chose law enforcement and corrections because they are given absolute power and receive fairly good benefits with the job.

Cops and prison guards are instilled with one basic duty: control of the situation, regardless of the harm or damage that may be done in the process.

A prison warden once told me that if the inmates rebelled in his prison: “the first thing I would do is unplug my telephone, quash the rebellion by any means necessary, and then answer all the post-riot investigation questions that will come. Control, and I mean absolute control, is the primary responsibility of people running a prison.”

Policing has pretty much the same mindset. It was not Floyd’s suspected offense—an attempt to pass a counterfeit twenty dollar bill—but something Floyd may have said that triggered officer Chauvin’s need to quash the rebellion behind the words spoken.

But regardless of what Floyd may have said leading up to his being handcuffed, that perceived rebellion was quashed the moment the handcuffs were locked. Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck was purposely designed to suffocate the life out of the man because he had the temerity to even indicate rebellion. That perceived rebellion made Chauvin tyrant of the moment.

Police and prison guards are an “essential service” to protect and serve an organized society—and, yes, there are good cops that do “protect and serve” the community just as there are good prison guards that maintain order and discipline in a prison setting in a measured lawful way.

But there are too many bad cops and prison guards to trust either force. This is especially true for people of color.

My advice, for whatever it is worth, is this:

When stopped by the police, say as little as possible. Respond to questions without smile or attitude. Try to get the “stop” over with as quickly as possible.

Understand this one premise: the police are not your friend, even when you call them in time of need. I say that because of this: a cop responding to a sexual assault claim in a rich neighborhood is going to have a much more deferential attitude than he would have responding to the same claim in a subsidized housing complex.

There are probably a hundred thousand inmates serving life sentences without the benefit of parole in the nation’s prison system whose crimes of violence were not as intentional, methodical, or callous as the crime committed by Derek Chauvin.

But Chauvin will never receive a life without parole sentence.


Because he was a white police officer who killed a “black criminal suspect,” albeit unarmed and handcuffed.

That is the tragic nature of our criminal justice system today.