Eugene Kane believes in calling things the way he sees them.
“I don’t see myself writing about race. I write about issues such as poverty, crime, government, education,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist said Saturday, Oct. 30.
He spoke at the Clubhouse Restaurant in a program sponsored by Winchester Academy.
Kane, who in 1981 joined the staff of the then Milwaukee Journal, said, “I seek out stories and issues personal to me. That is what a columnist does. I don’t consider myself an expert on race, but I write from the perspective of who I am. That fuels my journalism.”
A columnist since 1994, Kane described himself as a “voracious reader” when he was a young boy growing up in North Philadelphia 40-some years ago.
“Philadelphia had four or five daily newspapers. I read all the time, and I read all the newspapers,” he said.
He remembers reading stories about his neighborhood and feeling that his neighborhood was being portrayed in a negative way – as if it was a bad place in which to live.
Kane studied journalism at Temple University and worked as a general assignment reporter and feature writer before being named a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1992.
He admitted that when he first began working at the Milwaukee Journal, he intended to work there a couple of years and then move back to either Philadelphia or the West Coast.
“What do you know. I blinked, and it’s been like 27 years,” he said.
While Kane had offers to work elsewhere, the one thing he had always wanted to do was to write columns.
Upon returning from Stanford, Kane’s boss told him that he wanted him to be a columnist.
“At that point, I had the job I always wanted to have,” he said. “It’s a challenging job.”
His columns focus on issues about African-Americans.
For that, he has earned the nickname “that angry black guy in the newspaper.”
Kane has both the expertise and the sources that help him to write about the issues that are in his columns.
He said poverty affects African-Americans in Milwaukee more than it affects anyone else and that in the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system, three out of four ninth-graders will not graduate.
“When I’m writing about that, I’m writing about education, but I am also writing about African-Americans and Hispanics,” he said.
Kane said the media influences what people think.
People believe that in central Milwaukee, there are crack dealers everywhere, gunshots all the time and people getting attacked.
He saw his own Philadelphia neighborhood portrayed negatively in spite of the fact that he felt safe living there.
In MPS, there are many forces at work, Kane said. There are more than 80,000 students in the system, and he said the majority of those students are black and brown.
When he goes into the schools, he asks why there are no books or why some students are in hallways instead of rooms.
“But then, you go to other schools that look like mini universities,” he said.
Kane said he gets the sense that the children are not being taught by teachers that value them.
“They like to put it all on the households and parents,” he said. “To a degree, there are children of parents who were not taught well themselves.”
A friend of Kane’s who is a teacher asked him how they can get the students to be inquisitive when they go home and there are no new books.
“My dad was a construction worker, but he loved to read,” Kane said.
His parents pushed him to do well in school.
MPS has been failing for a number of years, and parents and teachers need to accept responsibility for it, he said.
Parents should take responsibility for the education of their children. However, some children come from such dysfunctional families where the parents cannot be expected to become “Clair and Cliff Huxtable,” he said.
Kane also writes columns about crime.
There are areas of Milwaukee that are dangerous, he said.
But, what he finds as a journalist is that when shootings are reported from particular neighborhoods, race is not part of the story because reporters assume the race of those involved based on the area in which the shooting took place.
“When someone white is killed, it becomes a bigger deal,” he said.
For example, when a young girl from Whitefish Bay recently died of a drug overdose, Kane said people in the black community said, “We have people dying from drugs all the time. Why is she getting more publicity?”
Kane is often asked whether society is now post-racial since the election of Barack Obama as president of the U.S.
“It’s been very exciting to be an African-American journalist writing about a black president,” Kane said. “It’s clear to me that what is good about having a black president is that it has forced lots of attitudes out into the open.”
And, in spite of all the controversy surrounding Obama, Kane is glad to see it happen.
“I’m convinced that now there will be another black president. There will be a woman president, a Latino president. That is how we will get through all of this,” he said.