Inside Colliding Worlds with Historian Robert Samuel Smith

By Patricia Obletz

Summer 2019

The remarkable Robert Samuel Smith is the Harry G. John Professor at the Marquette University History Department; MU director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching & Outreach. He also MCs events, moderates public panel discussions, facilitates community activist meetings; he serves on boards and committees, writes columns for local media and his first book is published; he single-parents his young son. He’s as easy-going and intriguing in the classroom and on the stage as he was one on one for this interview. He is a constructive influence on the march to justice, particularly in this State of Wisconsin hotbed of institutionalized racism. How did Robert S. Smith get from birth in 1969 to 2019?

Rob’s parents were born into different worlds, though their ancestors were imported from Africa as slaves. His mother’s roots were in North Carolina. His father’s roots were in Alabama.

His mother’s family became lawyers, judges and engineers. His father’s family became cotton sharecroppers until, according to Rob’s paternal grandmother, her husband Samuel, who was an overseer, did “something” that precipitated their sudden departure from the Tuskegee area for Indianapolis in the late1950s, early ‘60s. By the time Rob was old enough to ask questions, his father’s family was untraceable.

Rob said, “My dad was a two-time felon, yet he was able to get a job as a garbage man; he was promoted to troubleshooter before he retired from his 20-year career with the City of Indianapolis.
Of course, this was before employers inserted ‘The Box’ on job applications to be checked yes or no regarding criminal history. The creation of that kind of background check and that system of thinking also is part of the buildup of the carceral state.

“Others who had been incarcerated with him had pretty good paying jobs with local government in various ways. This was also before systems could be so hyper-
connected by computers.

“In the 70s, they were just enacting the drug laws and there were far more rehabilitative programs in prisons then than now. My dad gained skills while incarcerated. Once out of prison, he became an ordained minister and got a real estate license while working on sanitation trucks.”

Rob and his father spent a lot of time together before his parents divorced. His father admitted to committing the first crime that got him convicted, but said he was framed for the second one. “Both were violent crimes committed with or by his community of hustlers.

“The Smith side of my family had a range of experiences with law enforcement. Some of that was domestic violence. In fact, one of my older cousins protected his mother and grandmother from his father’s abuse.

“That cousin’s father had some form of schizophrenia — he’s better now, but in the 70s and 80s, he was suffering dramatically. He’d been in an institution that was suddenly closed, stranding him without support. When he became violent and the police came, even though my cousin assaulted them when they got between him and his dad, they never took him to jail — They could have shot him on multiple occasions, but they did not. They just took his father to jail. This is a significant change from today’s mindset, where the first inclination seems to be extreme violence and shooting. In the 70s, the police were more familiar with community members.”

The word criminal becomes synonymous with Black.

“I think militarizing the police changed the culture. When the word criminal becomes synonymous with Black, which converged over a generation, you have this build-up of the carceral state: the criminalization of activism, the criminalization of poverty and the criminalization of mental illnesses.”

When asked about his first experience with racism, Rob said, “A lot of scholars talk about racial baptism. I became aware of my race when I was about four and said that my mother was white – she was very fair-skinned and had an Afro like Angela Davis’. She quickly adjusted my understanding of race by making it clear that Black people of varying hues would always be Black.

“But, in terms of facing racism, I was about 10 years old when a white kid referred to me as the N word after I tackled him during a football practice. I was surprised, but I wasn’t offended, because I didn’t know the full scope of it. That moment remains vivid. It was a weekday evening at the church that supported recreational sports, but I don’t remember there being a racial imbalance in the field.

“I was also part of the school busing movement, so I remember protests, but not all of the details. Busing when white children are discouraged from harassing Black children had its benefits. But there were so many cases of vicious, hostile resistance from parents and kids that black children had to face when bused to white schools — we almost never saw it with white kids being bused to Black schools.

“I think that was part of the local strategies to make busing fail. But by the 1980s, when I experienced busing in middle school and high school, I just don’t remember having problems.

“In junior high, I learned to always keep ID on me. My step-father used to tell me, “You’re a big kid, so police officers are not going to know that you’re only 13. They’re
going to treat you like an adult.’ He taught me how to manage those situations.”

The late 1980s marked Rob’s first two encounters with the police. Both times, he was in his junior year and on the way home from his white neighborhood high school with two different friends. The first time, neither student had a license; they admitted to taking the car without permission. The police followed them home. Rob said, “Before we put the car in the garage, they went through our stuff and found a copy of Othello in my book bag. I’m a performing arts school student, so I know Shakespeare and explained the play to the police –

“We also had a joint in the ashtray, but they never looked in the ashtray. They left. We took the joint out and smoked it — they were clearly just harassing us. I don’t remember in that moment being afraid that we would get shot. I remember feeling like, if they find that marijuana, we’re both going be in a lot of trouble at home.“

The second time, as a snowstorm gathered speed after school, he and a friend were pulled over by a white police officer. She demanded to know why they were in that neighborhood. When told they went to school nearby and had just visited a schoolmate on their way home, “the officer said, ‘Does she want you here? Do her parents want you here?’ That was a striking moment. She let us go.

“I was pissed off and told my mom I wanted to file a complaint. She said, ‘You can file a complaint, but nothing’s going to happen. And they’ll be on the lookout for you.’ She wasn’t dismissive, but she was communicating that, ‘this is what we’ve been telling you, this is not going to be the last time.’

“Yet, around the same time,” Rob said, “a young man named Michael Taylor was handcuffed behind his back and in the back of a police car, yet ended up with a bullet in his head. And the officers went free. That scenario in the late 1980s exposes the murky almost unbelievable arguments about why a teenager has to be killed while in handcuffs in police custody in so many cities — it’s so absurd that he died and the story that we were given was so absurd that it sticks out,” Rob said.

“You deal with that kind of stuff somewhat, but once it becomes expected, you don’t think too much about it, you just deal with it and move on . . . .

“My dad died at 50 when I was 25 years old, but during those formative teenage years, we were able to establish a relationship, which didn’t go as deep as father-son interaction today. There was no vernacular for healthy ideas around manhood and masculinity back then. The first time I explored questions of gender-based identity was in the psychology of women course I took freshman year at Purdue University. Which transitions me to my mom’s side of the family.

“My mom’s grandfather was a WWII veteran who worked as a postman for 30 years with the GI Bill. He worked a double shift before they had those little trucks, and he paid off his home in 10 years. He was the youngest in a number of very successful African Americans who were middle and upper class, a small number, but they had been part of the Indianapolis Black elite community for some time.

“We also had a great uncle who was a judge dealing with Indiana’s deep south Jim Crow mindset. The long-standing Black community might be small, but it has made inroads in economic and even political security in some ways that, in northern cities, the migration experience muddies up.

“When large numbers of southerners move, that changes things. My father’s side of the family from Alabama are part of that migration experience. I think the struggles that that side of the family experienced were because, as migrants, they were trying to anchor themselves, but they didn’t have the education or generations of stability to help them by the late 50s, 60s.”

Affirmative Action Initiation

Rob’s mother was the first Affirmative Action director for City of Indianapolis Mayor Mayor Richard Lugar, “before those HR-related positions became hyper-professionalized and required a college degree. She was responsible for hiring as many Black people as possible – there were few Latinos back then. My mother, Sharon Russell Smith, was also in charge of the youth work program – I spent a couple summers cleaning up parks with other Black students.

“Someone jokingly said that, when Sharon was the Affirmative Action director, everybody got blue collar jobs,” Rob said. “But, deep cuts to that infrastructure have made people forget how much city and state government employees were part of that build-up of the United States today. Indiana then employed far more people than it does today due to state and local government jobs being downsized, cut and outsourced.”

As he grew, Rob’s mother would say he was acting like the Russells; at other times, she’d say he was acting like the Smiths. “Those two worlds colliding in my upbringing, I think, is a very useful way of understanding the Black experience, and coming together in this urban landscape where you're dealing with economic transformations, busing, schools — and where this criminalization of the Black community is very pronounced,” Rob said.

“I was always a pretty good student. My parents prepared me effectively with their expectations and extracurricular opportunities.” Rob’s mother sent him to a magnet school for fifth and sixth grades, and then on to schools for advanced students. In high school, Rob pursued engineering; he was selected to join 40 Indiana students at a free two-week engineering summer camp.

The camp in 1986 was an introductory engineering program for minority students at Purdue University. Many of the kids ended up going on to Purdue with Rob. “At that camp, we made robots, we did computer programming, we visited different industries, we partied and had fun. We were crazy, hormonal teenagers, 17, getting ready for college — most of my really good friends prior to Purdue were there. Today, that camp costs $2,500 to attend, an indication of the receding state and federal support for these kinds of efforts.”

By his high school junior year, Rob had taken all the advanced placement classes possible, in addition to being elected student council vice president, and then senior class president.

Rob was still in high school when his mother lost her position in Mayor Lugar’s office for lack of a college education. They fell on tough economic times. “But the family held together. Barely.” His mother’s future husband lived with them, but battled alcoholism. Occasionally, he was emotionally violent, but hit Rob’s mom only after he left for college. His father lived around the corner, “which kept the physical violence at a minimum.”

His father lived with another woman and their children. Rob’s two stepbrothers were incarcerated. The elder, James Jr., had significant mental health challenges, which Rob and his mother attributed to the fact his father had traces of dormant syphilis in his blood. She thought this fact somehow was impacted in a fringe way by the Tuskegee experiments. Another contributing factor was the genetic tie to PTSD triggered by slavery that continued even after the family left Alabama in the 50s and 60s.

“My mother was very astute. My grandfather, her dad, was angry that she didn’t maximize her brain. He imagined her being a doctor or — But she was an activist and ran for local office, on the ground, meeting everyone. Even though she didn’t win, she ended up managing the advertising accounts for the black newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder. She was still connected to all the church leaders and all the business leaders.”

Hundreds of people came to Rob’s mother’s funeral. Many of them had helped her create the Indiana Black Expo. Rob said what began as a festival in the park became a two or three-week celebration of community organizing with artists, musicians, health screenings, college fairs, resume building workshops, and more.

“Richard Lugar, the mayor, continued to send her hand-written holiday cards after my mother left his administration as the Affirmative Action director. And she would always talk about politics. She told me to stay away from it, and that she didn’t think Republicans and Democrats were very different because Richard Lugar was a centrist Republican. He went on to be a US Senator — the Tea party ousted him in 2013. I remember thinking, okay: the tides have turned.”

The Unpremeditated Path of Professor Smith

Rob Smith was inspired to teach higher education in his first class at Purdue University the moment the professor entered, stopped at the podium and turned on the overhead. Experience, environment, education, genes and his own genius and spirit bathed by love made him select a course on the psychology of women to add to his engineering classwork.

Nothing to do with growing up without his father from age two to 13, or having a sister 10 years younger at home and a girlfriend at Purdue? He wasn’t “that sophisticated back then,” he said.

Rob’s second psych class sealed his switch from engineering to psychology, unwittingly studying the essence of history: human nature. The social psychologist professor Janice Kelly at Purdue invited him to join her research team and study group think, looking at other relationship-like variables within same sex groups, examining the way people communicate, charting interactions within naturally-occurring scenarios. He found the brain, human behavior and human interaction fascinating, but he stopped wanting to teach psychology. He’d discovered that the field was inherently racist and sexist.

Rob said that, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, too many studies excluded women and people of color, and they were over-generalized. He said that significant disciplines and subdisciplines were beginning to critique the traditional approaches: “I became a student of some folks that were working on gender related topics or race related topics. I remember conversations where it was clear that the academy was under critique.

“I was already pissed off about a textbook telling me that Black people riot because it’s hot outside — That book then suggested factors that lead to aggression in terms of big groups and populations, such as limited resources and overcrowding. These statements are not all fully conclusive or fully supported; then the book made some statement to the effect that the weather does seem to be a predictor for African Americans because urban disturbances occur in the summertime. I argued with that professor, and I’m sure it hurt my grade, but it became clear to me then that a very knowledgeable person can also be woefully ignorant.

“One day, walking through the library, I saw a table with books on Black psychology. I had never even heard of this subdiscipline, or that there was this whole research agenda that looked into the Black experience specifically on its own merits. Alvin Poussaint’s books were new to me – Purdue had no course on this discipline.

“At the same time, I was taking a couple of history classes studying cultural anthropology and the ways in which it informed race and racist ideologies. History gives you the latitude to study law, study economics, study politics, (which) helped me think better as a historian. That helped me (realize that studying) history would show me how all the different parts fit.”

Beyond the classroom

Rob’s friends from 1987 to ’92 considered themselves radicals. “One of the most ardent of our radical crew was a white guy, Tony. He drove through the night from Purdue to the University of Kansas to go copy every edition of the Black Panther newsletter in 48 hours. We were just trying to figure it out. But we wanted to have a powerful voice.”

They met at the Black Cultural Center infrequently because their studies took most of their time. They asked fellow students to be more aware of their own history and culture, and held conversations about the centrality of Africa and the history of politics. “We weren’t trying to shut anything down,” Rob said. “At best, we were trying to enlighten others about something that we probably still were learning. This was around the time of Rodney King.. We led some of those conversations, as well as ones on affirmative action and higher ed.”

Clarifying the Future

The class Rob chose that decided his Masters and PhD concentration on history looked at the ways that law and legal systems inform understanding of race and actually shape definitions of race. He realized that he could use this social science background to understand the impact and the role of law on history.

While earning his Masters from Central Michigan University, he turned down lucrative corporate job offers to manage a university residence hall, avoiding any distraction from becoming a faculty member. While studying for his PhD from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he was an employed research assistant for the American Society of Legal Historians, meeting other scholars a law club members who clerked for impressive judges. He also met his wife there; both received teaching offers in Milwaukee.

At Bowling Green, he studied with Donald Nieman. Prof. Nieman focuses on law, race, and civil rights in U.S. history, emphasizing the role that African Americans have played in using law and the Constitution. His influence is evidenced by Rob’s deep dive into the 14th Amendment of 1868 (guaranteed equal protection under the law unless due process of the law finds otherwise) and JFK’s 1961 executive order creating Affirmative Action, which requires government employers to”not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Rob studies mostly 14th Amendment cases. He thinks about the plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers in terms of how socio-cultural components might drive their cases in trial. He reads the tenor of the country at the time because, “while judges or justices of the Supreme Court generally do what we expect, they don't always do what we expect, and they are impacted by things like social activism. Experts matter. Law professors talk about what it takes to win a case; I want to talk about the unintended and intended consequences of each decision.”

Rob’s first book, Race, Labor, and Civil Rights: Griggs versus Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity examines “whether the attorneys are trained conservatively or from a corporate approach. This case opens up the door for affirmative action. The Supreme Court said it didn’t matter if somebody was treated the same if the impact created a racially bifurcated workplace, or a workplace didn’t promote women, that workplace had to meet the muster of Title 7. Something is wrong with your practices even if they look racially neutral. This puts companies in the place of having to carry the burden of proof. And what pissed off the corporate community is that these class action suits were actually starting to have an impact.

“In the late 60s or early 70s, the federal courts started to tell companies to change their practices because they’re still impacting folks negatively. That test is actually biased. Just because you used the same room and the same lighting and the same testing instrument doesn’t mean that there aren’t some biases there. The idea of this affecting a standard was one of the key things that the conservative counter-revolution sought to overturn. Now folks clearly say, we can’t prove that you were treated differently. People stand on that because, if you can’t prove that I’m a racist, then the system is preserved.

And that’s a very different jurisprudence than saying, ‘but this doesn’t look right, so fix it anyway.

“African Americans know that issues with race are not going anywhere. The history of the Black Freedom Struggle shows there will always be efforts to challenge racism from a broad set of perspectives and tactics. The future will see more and more sophisticated tactics,” he said.

“Affirmative action,” Rob continued, “and higher ed have differing interpretations that sometimes can get the court to revisit something that they’ve decided on in the last five years or so. That’s rare, but at least it’s there. But not once you start having these conservative majorities like today. And with the Supreme Court weighted far right, the end of America as we once knew it is in sight.

“Teaching history has been rewarding, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s useful in understanding what’s going on in the world today. I begin my classes with today’s extraordinary events and work backwards to see how we got here.”

Please note: Rob Smith and I met a few years ago serving on the same criminal justice board. We spoke twice on the record for this interview in late summer 2018.

Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Courtney.  Page last modified on August 27, 2019

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