This week, we bring you our Sense of Community series, Conversations on Race and Racism. These conversations feature first-person perspectives, memories, and opinions of people in our community whose lives have been impacted by race and racism. You can hear the audio below.
Crista: My name is Crista Hogan, I live in Springfield. I am white, and I am the wife to the person I am interviewing.
Abe: My name is Abe McGull. I live in Springfield, and I am Black, and my wife is interviewing me about race.
Crista: So, start by telling us what you do professionally.
Abe: I'm an assistant United States attorney. I'm a federal prosecutor, is the term I guess most people are familiar with, and I prosecute those who commit federal crimes.
Crista: And, how long have you done that?
Abe: I've done that for about 21 years.
Crista: And what's your side gig?
Abe: Oh, well, I'm on the City Council of Springfield, but I'm also involved with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. I'm a board member there.
Crista: And I understand you also are an adjunct faculty member at Missouri State University.
Abe: Yes. How can I forget about that?
Crista: So, how often do you interact with people of different racial identities and in what way?
Abe: I do it frequently every day. I spend a lot of time--I am also retired from the United States Navy. So, I have been all over the world. I've interacted with people from different races, cultures. I just think when you do that, you find the richness in people, the richness in life.
Crista: So, I know that you grew up in New Orleans, you know, in a very predominantly Black area of New Orleans and the schools you went to and that you lived in Baton Rouge. Everybody who knows you knows you're an LSU grad.
Abe: That's right. Go Tigers!
Crista: (Louisiana) Southern University, which is a historically black college or university. And then in law school, you came to Kansas City and started your career there. And then, you know, you've lived in Iraq courtesy of the United States Navy. So, you have lived in places where there's majority Black and brown people, and you've lived in places that it's a minority. So, how did that impact you?
Abe: You know what? I experience it--when you said I lived over in Iraq and in my travels overseas. There's a difference in terms of, I guess, the way people interact, and it seems to me that people in foreign countries, the Middle East or even over in Europe, race doesn't seem to matter. And it's not an issue that is up front as it does here in America. And that's a sad thing to think that in our nation that we focus so much on the color of a person's skin rather than the content of their character.
Crista: I know that you were the first black prosecutor in Clay County, Missouri, and that you were the first black mayor of Pleasant Valley, Missouri, in a very predominantly white community. What's it like to be a first? I mean, is that awesome or is it, I mean, to me it's kind of sad that in 2020 we're still having firsts.
Abe: It's bittersweet. It's bittersweet in the sense that, as you remarked, that this is just happening. But, it's sweet in a way because when I campaigned to be mayor of Pleasant Valley, I remember my boss, who was the prosecuting attorney of Clay County. I said, 'I'm thinking about running for mayor in Pleasant Valley.' He said, 'there's no way those rednecks would ever elect a black man mayor.' Well, that became a challenge for me. I wanted to see if he was right or is see if we actually live in a country where people don't care about the color of your skin. They were more interested in what you bring to the table. So I went door to door. I campaigned. I washed dishes with the senior citizens at a potluck dinner and, you know, I got to meet everybody, and I won. And it was very gratifying to me.
Crista: But I know that you didn't do that just to win a bet. You genuinely like talking to people.
Abe: I'm a sucker for talking with people. You know, I like government. I see where government can play a role to enhance the everyday life of the individual. I mean, it doesn't matter. I concern myself with the people in the northwest section of this city as well as the people in the south section of the city. And I've always thought that government is a good vehicle for promoting people and promoting the general welfare. So, I enjoy it. I really do. I enjoy listening to people complain about wearing a mask (laughs). I really do.
Crista: I think that that might be why we have such a great marriage is because I'm a great talker and you're a really great listener.
Abe: And that's true.
Crista: So, a question that was posed to me recently as part of some implicit bias training was this. How often are you asked to speak for your race? And the answer as a white person is 'never.' And, the question itself seems absurd to me. I mean, how could anybody ever expect me to speak for all the white people? I know without question that the black leaders in this community are asked frequently. And I have never--I've never seen anyone offended by that. But, arguably, it's a little offensive. So, frame that for us.
Abe: Well, in a sense, it is kind of telling about the person who is asking you to speak on behalf of an entire race of people. It tells you that we have created stovepipes in our lives, in our relationships. And that day to day living. We don't branch out. We look at, you know, someone who lives in the northwest section of the city as somebody different. But they're not. They're Americans. And the more we interact with each other and break down those barriers and break down those walls, I think we come to a common denominator that says we're all human beings, all looking for the same thing. That is a decent wage, a decent living, a good place to stay in a safe community and the best for our next generation. I mean, so we have to step out, I guess, step out of our skin and walk in someone else's shoes or invite somebody or talk with somebody who doesn't look like us or talk like us.
Crista: I know a lot of very well-meaning people have been the ones who ask those questions. Who, you know, who ask you to speak or want your input. So, is it OK? I mean, what advice would you have if people are really seeking to understand?
Abe: Well, I think that's a positive thing. If someone is coming to you and saying, 'hey, I really want to hear how you feel about this and what you think.' I think engagement, human engagement of any sort, as long as we're not yelling and screaming at each other, human engagement and trying to get and peel away all those layers. And I guess those, I guess, prejudices that we have--peeling away at that--all begins with a communication or with a conversation. And, if somebody wants to stop and say, you know, 'can I touch your hair?' I say, 'no, you can't touch my hair. My hair is my hair. The texture is different from your hair. But I'm glad you asked about my hair.' Can we talk about--can we have a cup of coffee and talk about other things?
Crista: Seriously, has somebody asked to touch your hair?
Abe: No, no one has asked to touch my hair.
Crista: As your wife, I'm kind of glad to hear that. Ok, so how often do you think about your racial identity?
Abe: You know, I'm so busy with all my other jobs I have I really--but, you know, you see the things that are happening in our country and our neighborhoods and our community, you know, the police and the inaction, the frequency of stops of African-American by police, all those things makes me acutely aware. I mean, I live in a sort of a different bubble, so to speak, as a federal prosecutor. But those things happening tells me that we have a lot of work to do in this country. We have to start thinking in terms of those ideas that we have in our Constitution, that all persons are created equal by Almighty God and that we should seek justice for all. Because an injustice to one of us is an injustice to all of us. And that's just not a cliche. I mean, we live in the greatest country in the world. I know that because I've been all around the world. I've been to the countries that people were trying to get out of when I was going in in the military. We do. And we could be so much better if we just break down those barriers, forget about race and treat each other as human beings.
Crista: So, with regard to, I think what you're talking a little bit about, is systemic racism and, you know, specifically--and maybe law enforcement issues. We're both lawyers. We're both very much immersed and concerned about problems and solutions. So, you've spoken a lot about relationships and, you know, relationships are everything. Where do we start with regard to racial disparity and the administration of justice?
Abe: Well, that's, I mean, that's a tough one.
Crista: I'm going to answer for you. I think we start in early childhood education. I mean, I feel like we all need to make sure everyone has all the tools that they need to be successful, productive human beings. And we need to make sure that any sort of socioeconomic disparities, any educational deficits are eliminated to the degree possible so that, you know, we all have similar opportunities. Can you improve on my answer?
Abe: Well, you're right. I mean, I agree with that because 99 percent or 80 to 90 percent of the people I put in prison for long periods of time dropped out of school. I mean, education is the key. The more educated you are and the more enlightened you are, the more self aware you are, as well as understanding and willing to understand people that look different than you do. And, I think the more emphasis we can put on early childhood education, the more emphasis that we can put on education itself--if we can keep the people that I'm prosecuting graduating from high school, then I think we have a good chance of those persons becoming productive citizens. And that's all we all want. We want people to be productive citizens and enjoy life and enjoy all the freedoms that we all have as Americans in this country.
Crista: So, what do you like about Springfield?
Abe: Springfield, I think, is on this cusp of something great.
Crista: For those of us who lived here most of their 57 years, that could be perceived a little offensively (laughs).
Abe: Well, you know, sometimes it takes somebody who wasn't raised here and born here to see the potential that exists in this city. I mean, all the things in development that's taking place. That's kind of one of the reasons why I like being in government and that kind of stuff, because I can see the development, the growth, the things that are coming down the road. And, it's just remarkable. And, one of the things I think that makes Springfield unique is this deliberate inclusion. I've never seen anything like it in all the years of my life. There is such an emphasis here by individuals in this community, pillars of this community, that really believe in diversity and inclusion.
Crista: Like in your work with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and other organizations.
Abe: Yes. MSU, Cliff Smart, Brian Fogel, numerous people in this community really are urging us to be inclusive, to not be ashamed of our past. You know, we regret it, the things that happened. But, how can we make it better? I see that energy in this city every day. And it’s growing.
Crista: Something that--kind of building on that question and your answer--something that I know that you and I really enjoy about the growth of the community is our Greenway trails and our parks system. And that's something, you know, during COVID times, we've really been enjoying riding our bikes on the new trails. So that's a really roundabout way to ask a question about like, do you ever feel uncomfortable or conspicuous? I mean, I can tell you, being an interracial couple in Springfield where that's fairly unusual is I've never felt--I've never felt uncomfortable, and I've never really felt uncomfortable anywhere. However, there have been more metropolitan areas where I've felt more conspicuous than I do right here. So, I don't know. How do you feel?
Abe: Well, how do you feel when you go to New Orleans where it’s reversed—it’s not predominantly white. It’s predominantly black?
Crista: Honestly, I mean, I guess I can't say I don't notice, but I feel completely comfortable. I mean, I'll tell you, the first time I was ever the only white person in a really large room, hundreds of people, was at your brother's funeral. And I learned a lot that day. But when I look back on, the impressions were not anything along the lines of race. It was the fact that that was the longest funeral I have ever been to. It was like five hours.
Abe: My brother had a great life. They wanted to celebrate a long time.
Crista: You needed to probably prepare me for that cultural phenomenon. But, I mean, it was interesting to me because it was unique, but I was not uncomfortable.
Abe: You know, I'm not uncomfortable because I've been in a society where I was always one of one whether I was in the military or a law school. There weren’t that many minorities. And that's unfortunate because there are thousands and thousands of Abe McGulls out there who bring so much to the table. And I think this country and business owners miss out on that opportunity. The great idea, the next big idea, you don't know where is it going to come from. It could be that little kid in the Lower Ninth Ward who wants to be a doctor who could cure cancer. So, when we deprive people or segment people because of their race, we may be stifling our own potential and opportunity. And there’s greatness in all of us.
Crista: So, let me ask you about that. Because I know that you went all through elementary, middle school and high school with, you know, almost entirely black students. You have some of the most accomplished people. I mean, like internationally famous people in your Rolodex who you grew up with. Do you think there's anything to that? Do you think that that because you had black instructors, they didn't compartmentalise people, they didn't have expectations, and so they built on the strengths of everyone?
Abe: I may have been in a predominantly black neighborhood, but my teachers were Black and white, and they really cared about us. They wanted to see us--we never looked at ourselves as being second class citizens.
CristaL: And the teachers didn’t either.
Abe: The teachers didn't either. We just always thought, well, you could be that doctor, that lawyer, that president or whatever. And our potential was only limited by our dreams. And throughout my grade school, high school, my teachers were a mix. And I know, I don't know why, I never was able to look at people and judge them by the color of skin. Maybe that's the way I was raised. My mother was that way. She raised me that way. But if I didn't like you, I didn’t like you because you were a mean person or a difficult person but not because of the color of your skin.
Crista: This is a question that you and I have discussed before, but other people have asked, and that is terminology. Because the terminology changes and the self referencing. So, you know, people of color, Black and brown, African-American. Do you have a preference? And how do we navigate that? I mean, people who are genuinely trying to be inclusive and, you know, accessible to others in conversations and relationships. I know I almost I always refer to you if, you know, race is part of the conversation, is Black and myself as white. Do you have a preferred term? And if so, why?
Abe: No, I don't have a particular preference in terms. I mean, some of those terms, Black and white, is just terms that I think has to do with your generation that you grew up in. And the generation I grew up in was Black. And as time went on, that terminology went to African-American because you also want to celebrate your heritage where you came from, whether you're, I guess, I mean, people don't refer to whites as Caucasians. They probably refer to them as either European Americans or something of that nature. But I don't think there's necessarily a preference. Now, if you ever make--you know, you can ask people, ‘how would you prefer to be recognized as an African-American, as Black?’ when I'm introducing you as a speaker or something like that.
Crista: When we first started dating, I think you kind of helped me figure this out or frame it just with regard to our context. And that is that you don't necessarily know if your heritage is from Africa. I mean, there are black people from islands. And so you never particularly kind of identified with that.
Abe: I always thought of all of us, whether we came from Europe, Germany and all different places, that we should always think of ourselves as Americans first. I'm an American that happens to be black. I'm an American who happens to be white. Once we start thinking of all of us as being part of one team, then we can probably have better conversations about race because we are all part of one team. I mean, what about you? I mean, do you feel that you've been discriminated against because your husband is Black?
Crista: No, no, I don't. I see opportunity and I see, you know, I mean, I, I don't really see—being a woman in the legal profession, I have not felt discriminated against. I've felt like there's opportunity to be a leader and, you know, to pave the way. You know, and I'm not exactly a pioneer. There were plenty of women in the legal profession but only like 25 percent when I entered, so, you know, a minority. That's my very limited experience as a minority. Well, I think the last question I want to ask you is, what's our anniversary date?
Abe: Wow, hmmm. June 12th?
Crista: What year?
Abe: Oh, God.
Crista: Every man who is listening to this is going like, ‘wow. You are so relatable.’
Crista: So, can you tell us why?
Abe: That was the fiftieth anniversary of Loving versus Virginia, which is the Supreme Court decision that did away with state laws that prevented interracial marriages.
Crista: So, I wanted to end with that. Both to prove that there isn't a man out there who probably knows their anniversary. And that goes across all races, but also because to me, this is really about loving and that if you care enough, and good things come from love.
Abe: It does. It really does. And I've never looked at you in terms of you being a white woman or this or that. I look at you as a human being, as a woman--a woman with a good heart, who's loving and caring not only to me, but to other people. So, those are the things--the character of an individual that draws you to them, not the color of their skin or none of those other things. And that's what we should be about, our friendships and our relationships with people. I wish we would just--you know, it hurts me to see our nation divided in terms of race after so many years of the abolishment of slavery that we're still talking about this. We could be so much further along as a nation if we put this beside us and put it behind us and just start evaluating people on their individual merit. And what happened to good old competition? That's the American way. Let us compete. I think Frederick Douglass said it once when, I think, he had a conversation with Abraham Lincoln. And he asked him, ‘well, what are we going to do with the American Negro when we free them?’ And Frederick Douglass said, ‘you don't have to do anything, just get out of his way and let him do what he or she wants to do.’ And that's what we need to do.