Before The Colors Fade: The Return Of The Exiles

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At this time—1945—there was another remarkable man on my staff, another Warren discovery. Bob Powers had been police chief of Bakersfield for a number of years. He was a sort of white blackbird, as the French put it. An unformally educated intellectual. Powers could talk cop talk with cops and sociology with sociologists. When we got our chance to set up the first program of special education in race relations for policemen, Powers bridged the gap. He was what was called in those days a “discussion leader,” a natural.

In September of 1945 the city manager of Richmond felt there was a real threat of “civil disturbance” in his area and called our office for help. Maybe he’d been reading his copy of our little blue pamphlet.

It was decided to run a sort of pilot project in training police officers in race relations. You must keep in mind that nothing like this had yet taken place in California—probably not anywhere in the country at this time. There was no precedent to follow. At my suggestion Powers got hold of the regional representative of the American Council on Race Relations, Davis Mclntire. He had the kind of expertise we needed.

Powers and Mclntire were delegated by the city manager to plan and carry out a course for a selected group of about fifteen policemen. What they finally decided to do was to go to the root of the problem, try to change the basic attitudes of these policemen, attack their prejudices head-on, and let the problem of tactics take care of itself. What they were after was an encounter group. Open-end, round-table, no holds barred.

They made a few phone calls and turned up some consultants, representatives of various minorities. One was Walter Gordon, who was later a federal judge in the Virgin Islands. He was, in those days, a rarity—a Negro policeman. And there was Joe Grant Masaoka, one of that set of Nisei brothers who collected an average of over five medals per man for bravery. There was another Nisei who’d served with the Marines on Guadalcanal. And there was E. W. Lester, who was former deputy police chief of Los Angeles.

What minority did he represent?

The policemen! That was the genius of Powers’ approach. He made the parallel between stereotyped thinking about Negroes and Jews and Japanese—and the stereotyping of cops. He talked about the popular image of the policeman as an ignorant, brutal, flatfooted fellow who could be outwitted by any private detective or layman. And they got it! These Richmond policemen got the parallel between terms like “nigger” and “Jap” and “kike” and “flatfoot.”

There were some ten of these sessions. The general subject would be stated—something like “The Nature of Prejudice” or “Facts About Minority Groups”—and then anything could happen. There were some pretty frank questions asked. One of the policemen wanted to know why so many of the internees up at TuIe Lake had elected to renounce their American citizenship and accept deportation to Japan.

Well, that gave Joe Grant Masaoka a chance to tell the story of the evacuation from a viewpoint none of these policemen had ever considered. The loss of everything a whole generation of hard-working men and women had managed to acquire. The loss of dignity in being herded into camps. The separation of families, like the one that had to move on while the mother was on her deathbed. The fact was, Joe Grant Masaoka’s mother was confined to that hell-hole up in the Owens Valley while her sons were fighting and dying for the country that had put her there.

Was there any way to evaluate the effect of the Richmond seminars?

I suppose the real test of it is what happened next. Or rather, what didn’t. It looked as if things were ripe for just the sort of outbreak the city manager had been afraid of. But it didn’t come. Apparently we had produced, with our encounter group, enough enlightened neace officers to step in and cool it.

Was the course given again?

No, and that was a great disappointment to me. Oh, I’m sure there have been courses in race relations for police officers—many of them. But I’ve never heard of one that used this approach—the encounter. We were ahead of our time, I guess.

Do you think the approach would be useful if applied to today’s ghetto hot spots?

Our police today are a good deal more sophisticated than they were twenty years ago. They know more. Or ought to. But sometimes you wonder. …

One thing I’m convinced of is that you don’t change people much by lecturing them on abstractions. I can’t make myself read that stuff any more. Puts me to sleep. It’s when you get down to specifics—that’s what Powers was able to do: to start people on opposite sides talking to each other about concrete, practical problems; asking embarrassing questions and getting frank answers. Maybe if this sort of program were an ongoing thing between police departments and minority communities, there might not be so many hot spots in need of cooling.