James Causey is the go-to guy on race issues for the Journal Sentinel. And he’s not one to bury his dreads in the sand.
Are you a newspaper columnist or an African-American first?
You can’t ignore the race factor even if you tried. I just want to tell good stories. No one tells me what to write, and I focus on things that I see. I never take the same way home every night.
Where do you live?
39th and Capitol. My parents bought a duplex when I was 7 or 8. I live upstairs. I’m the only child. They are getting older, so it makes sense for me to be nearby. I love the area.
Do any Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editors live close by?
I have no idea.
What do you say to young people considering journalism?
You need to brand yourself. You can’t just be a reporter, or the person who wants to interview people and write a story. You have to have a niche and figure out what makes you valuable.
So what’s James Causey’s brand?
I am more than a journalist. I’m a man about town who lives in the central city, a dad and a son. These experiences make me who I am. I consider myself a griot for the community. I tell the truth about what is going on, about what people ignore.
What book is on the nightstand?
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
What about magazines?
I read sports magazines. But overall, I don’t have time. I get up at 6 a.m., I go to the gym, I’m at work by 8:30 or 9 and stay until late at night. I’m a workaholic.
You have a 10-year-old daughter.
My daughter lives with her mom, who’s wonderful. My daughter was born premature, 1 pound, 2 ounces, one of the smallest babies ever born at Children’s Hospital. If you saw her today, you wouldn’t know.
Were you ever married?
Some have targeted the low marriage rate in the black community as a dire problem.
If only life were that easy. I know a lot of people who are married but in abusive relationships, and they argue all the time around their kids. What’s important is to co-parent the best way you can and to show your kid that you love them.
Milwaukee has a reputation as one of the most hypersegregated cities.
Because it is.
What will it take to change that?
It’s not going to change.
But other cities are not as hypersegregated.
Milwaukee has this perception problem. People are afraid of our city. They think it’s crime-ridden, out of control, with shootings and stabbings and beatings all the time.
What do you tell people with that perception?
I tell them, “Come see for themselves.” Look at some of the comments on the columns I write. Look at the hatred. This is coming from people who’ve probably never set foot in the central city. I was told a long time ago that it’s like three or four people making these comments, so don’t worry about it. I disagree. I think the comments are made by a lot of people who believe what they’re saying.
You wrote about a homeless man and how he fit into “the developing community narrative.” What is that narrative?
I see more and more men homeless, or sitting on their porches during the middle of the day, or carrying cans on their backs to take the cans to recycling. How come unemployment is still at an all-time high here, especially for men of color?
Are you criticized for writing about Milwaukee’s problems and downplaying the positives?
You can have the happy conversation all you want, but I like to deal with reality. When you deal with a reality of more than 40 percent of the kids living in poverty, we need to talk about it. When you have 10 black men in this city, and five have been incarcerated, that’s a problem.
Don’t those men need to take personal responsibility for ending up in jail?
That conversation focusing just on personal responsibility, that conversation is dead. We have to move beyond that.
What are your aspirations? Writing for The New York Times? The Chicago Tribune?
I love what I do now. Think about it. I started working at the paper, at the Milwaukee Sentinel, at the age of 14 and a half. I went from the person who used to go around asking people “Do you want a soda from the vending machine?” to becoming an editorial writer and columnist.
Never worked anywhere else?
I had one other job. I was a busboy at Sizzler steakhouse.