One of the first things I learned in life is that the most interesting stories in the country usually go unreported on the nightly news.  Not that I didn’t find the balloon boy saga fascinating, but I figure something a little more substantial is sometimes required.  To reach this goal, I regularly post on Craigslist.  The premise is simple enough: I ask my anonymous public to send me their stories of race relations in America.  I want everything, and I get everything.  I usually receive everything from the stupid stories such as “police pulled me over and arrested me for drug possession because I’m black. Oh, and I had eight pounds of crack cocaine in the trunk and I was smoking a joint,” to the slightly nutty stories such as “Barack Obama has the secret service monitoring me,” to the downright insane such as “my neighbor is black and is trying to poison me through his cat.”

But one story caught my attention.  I received an email from a young black man in Englewood.  His name is Charles Burden, and he’s a senior at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, double majoring in Political Science and Psychology.  He was recently voted president of the fencing club and performs in local theatre.   His email said he had worked for Denver Public School’s Online High School, and thought he may have a story for me.  I politely emailed him back to ask what happened.  I have received too many false leads to get excited yet.  He replied with a long list of stories about discrimination and racism from his time at the school.  Feeling I may have hit something worthwhile, I arranged to meet with him.  At a local coffee shop, he told me a sobering story about how deeply race can still impact our interactions with others.  While sipping his hot chocolate (“I can’t stand coffee”) he told me about how his experience during the 2008/2009 school year.  “It was miserable” he said, “I was the only black staff member and some people never treated me as anything more than an uppity kid who needed to be put in his place.  I was regularly talked down to and ignored, but the worst was the counselor Casey (to protect privacy, I will not be listing last names for the staff or names of any kind for the students mentioned).

“Casey was raised Mormon I think” Charles said with a laugh, “I know he has Mormon family members and we all know how well Mormons and black people get along” referring to the numerous restrictions The LDS church had African-American believers (although to their credit, the Mormon Church has reversed these policies and in modern times welcome active memberships for Black America).  Charles told me that Casey always seemed to treat black students to a different standard and gave them harsher punishments.  When asked for a specific example, he was quick to respond: “Oh yeah, we had this one black student who was expelled from campus for being under the influence of marijuana.  But a few weeks later I go across the hall to the teacher’s office, and Keith (science teacher) is talking about the joys of smoking weed with one of our white students.  On top of that, we had this one kid who would show up to every school function high off his ass.  Even though all the teachers knew about it and even joked about it, he never seemed to be called in for discipline.”  I can’t vouch for the truth behind this, but I do hear those Focus on the Family nuts asking if this is the kind of education we want our kids receiving.

Drawn in by the stories Charles was sharing, we ordered another round (Latte for me, Cocoa for him) and dove back in.  I asked him about the rest of the staff.  “It’s a shame that he (Casey) is such a train wreck.  It brings down the whole institution.  Most of the staff was great to me.  Andrea, the secretary, was a great gal and even helped me with my Spanish.  Mike, the history teacher, runs the fantasy football league I play in.  The list goes on, Gilberto and Sue (math teachers), Rita (English), they were all great to me, but Casey just couldn’t get over his distrust… of black people.  Whether it was something intentional or not, I don’t know.”  Finding all this amazing, I asked him where the principal of the school was in all this.  “Oh Jeanne, she’s all right, but she is in charge of two schools, so she had to split her time, which pretty much made Casey the de facto leader most days.  She pretty much accepts everything he says, which is why she was so quick to fire my black ass.” 

Charles seemed like he could keep going all day, but in the interest of keeping this to one post, I steered the conversation to the end of his employment with DPS.  “Well that is a funny story, if you have a sick sense of humor.  I got a patronizing email from one of the teachers.  I was pretty upset about that when Casey came in.  Maybe it was his fundamental distrust, or his fear of the “angry black man” stereotype, but he decided I was out of control and told me go home.  The conversation broke down with a lot of four letters words thrown about.”  Charles laughed for a second and then continued: “Oh yeah, I remember one thing that was pretty funny.  He actually called security on me.  I could’ve beat the hell out of him in the office easy, but I left peacefully and started packing my desk.  You have to know, security for this building consisted of one guy, about 70 years old, with a bad hip.  I found it hilarious.  Here’s this fit, 30-something guy, and he has to call in the septuagenarian security guard for backup.”  I must admit, although I try to stay neutral during interviews of this nature (something I learned during those oh-so-useful college days) but this made me laugh.  “Anyway,” Charles continued, “I leave.  Then, after about two months of runaround, I get a termination letter from DPS.  I went through the post-termination hearing process, but it was a total joke.  Complete CYA from the district.  I told my mother at the time, they might as well have punched a ticket and led me to the club car, cause I got railroaded.  I looked into legal action, but my legal counsel advised me against trying.”

Winding down the interview, I asked Mr. Burden what he thinks of the situation, now that he’s five months removed from it (he was let go in May, even though it took a few months to get an official letter of termination, which Mr. Burden points out is a violation of DPS policy).  He told me that he wasn’t too worried about it.  “In hindsight, it was probably a good thing.  It made me realize that education is not the life for me.  I mean, it showed me how bad the politics were and what kind of self-important jackasses I’d be dealing with everyday.  It pushed me into law school, where I can protect people in my same situation, and I got some dynamite stand up material from it.” (Charles is an aspiring stand up comedian, and I promised him a quick plug.  See the video at the bottom of the post).  Continuing that train of thought, Charles told me that the school was still using pictures he took (with his own camera) and edited (on his computer) for their staff page on the school website. (I looked it up and he is correct.  He showed me the raw pictures and the finals on his laptop, and the exact pictures are available on the website.)  “It was great, I was (suspended) on May 6th.  By May 8th, Casey had me taken off the website.  It was like ‘we don’t want you around here nigger, but we’ll keep your work.  Oh yeah, he deleted me as Facebook friend too.  Gotta love the maturity there.'”

Before saying goodbye, I asked Charles to give me an overview of the whole process.  “Well… If I was in charge, I’d get rid of (Casey).  He’s a total liability to the district and it’s only a matter of time before somebody who has the ability to hire a lawyer gets a nice fat settlement check.”  With that, we said goodbye and parted ways.  On my way home, I pondered the story I had just been given, even reviewed some of the comments on my digital recorder.  I was amazed that this kind of event could be taking place in (relatively) liberal Denver.  As the saying goes, if the story sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  I couldn’t run with a story like this without giving a fair opportunity for rebuttal.  So, having a name and a school, I emailed Casey, the Counselor in question for a response.  He replied quickly, and his tone and demeanor made it pretty obvious that, even though he hadn’t actually heard any of the accusations made, he considered them false.  Here is his response, verbatim (emphasis mine): 

Mr. Davidson, I very much appreciate your e-mail allowing me the opportunity to defend myself against Mr. Burden’s spurious allegations against me and our school. I will refrain from making any comments about his employment with us and the cause of his termination (done at the district level, schools can only recommend termination). Before I make any further comment however, I would like to know what, exactly, Mr. Burden is accusing me of. I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with the web address to your blog. Once you have sent me Mr Burden’s comments, I will consult the DPS legal department to determine my ability to respond and/or bring suit for defamation of character, slander, and libel. I will close by saying that, once again, I do appreciate you allowing me to rebut Mr. Burden’s accusations, and that your instincts are quite correct in assuming that Mr. Burden is only telling his version of the ‘truth.’ Thank you again and I look forward to hearing more from you about this matter.

It was clear to me that what I had on my hands was a basic case of perspective.  I am convinced that Mr. Burden was not making things up for the sake of harming the school (let’s be honest, I’m not gonna change the world here).  But the school is just as adamant in its defense, even though they didn’t even have specific quotations to defend themselves against.  I couldn’t help but smile at my good fortune.  My first post on a brand new blog and my first big story is something right out of a pulp fiction novel.  I love it.  On one hand, I have Charles telling fantastic tales of bias and racism in a public institution.  On the other hand, I have a strongly worded reply from the counselor in question who makes it quite clear that Charles is full of (as my father  used to say in mixed company) digestive by-product.

After thinking this over for several days, I finally came to my conclusion.  In the case of the public school (I need to stop reading mystery stories before bedtime).  Anyway, in this case, neither side is right.  A weak judgment statement I know, but I can’t accept either side as being correct.  I am sure that the DPS Online High could not function with a Klan member at the reins.  There is no way this would be tolerated by the Denver Taxpayers who support the school.  Someone as blatantly racist as the picture Charles paints would not be employed in public education, not for long anyway.  However, I am just as certain that Charles is not some punk kid making this stuff up to dig a former employer.  I think this is a great example of the new danger of modern American race relations.  The days of blatant racism may be over in this country, but the subtle and hidden racism is still there.  This subtle racism is easily the more dangerous of the two.  Whenever something happens, you can’t help but wonder if race played a role.  You can never be sure without those blatant signs, so while there is always the possibility that our unconscious bias is sneaking into our interactions with other races, there’s also the danger of allowing our past racial experiences affect our lives.  It’s very easy to let the racism of the world color our perceptions (no pun intended). 

I would really love to sit down with Casey and Charles and talk this thing out (my own version of the Obama “Beer Summit” between Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley).  I think that two intelligent people can really communicate and help us move one step closer to living together without ill will and feelings.  However, I don’t see this happening any time soon, so all I can really do is put the story out there, let the chips fall where they may, and hope I don’t get sued for my first post.

Last note: If anyone has any good stories to tell, email me through the site.  I’m always on the lookout for great new material.  Now, to close this post (a rather depressing one) I give you Mr. Burden’s stand up debut from this past July at the world-famous Denver Improv Comedy Club (I better get a check for this):