Joseph Collum has been the recipient of more than 100 major journalism awards during his career as an investigative reporter, including the DuPont-Columbia Award, two George Polk Awards, and five Investigative Reporters & Editors Awards. He was the first reporter in America to expose the widespread practice of racial profiling (the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with coining the term “racial profiling”).
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Growing up a white child in the South – the South being Fort Lauderdale, Florida – during the late 1950s and 1960s, I wasn’t directly impacted by racism. But I saw it with my own eyes. I recall realizing at a young age that there was something inherently wrong with the fact that ‘Coloreds’ or Negroes, as black-skinned people were commonly referred to then, were prohibited from bathing at the city beaches where I swam, or drinking from the water fountains in the supermarket where my mother shopped, or eating at most restaurants that my family and I were free to enter as we pleased. I remember being horrified at the images on television of black civil rights marchers attacked by dogs and fire hoses in Selma and Birmingham. Of adults vilifying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “communist” for his non-violent protests. Of King being murdered. And a country in flames. It’s hard to explain to young people today how raw and bitter relations between the races were when I was young.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
The 1960s and early 1970s was such a volatile time. It actually makes the turmoil we live in today seem almost tame. We had Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and later Watergate. For me, those factors coalesced to create a genuine lack of faith in authority. In time Vietnam and Watergate passed and, to a certain degree, so did the civil rights movement. But as an investigative reporter, the issue of race remained very central to my thinking and the kind of stories I went after. I conducted investigations of private companies preying on blacks in the wards of Houston, Texas, of prisoners – most of whom were black – dying in the Harris County, Texas, jail due to lack of medical care, of a corrupt school system in a New Jersey city – Flunk City, we called it, the city that failed it’s children – where most white children went to private schools while white city fathers used the public schools as a political pork barrel to reward cronies, and of State Troopers targeting blacks on the highway and the practice that has become known as racial profiling.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
As a journalist, I’ve always believed that wrongs and abuses continue until they are confronted and exposed. The dark side of human nature and human activity cannot thrive when it is exposed to the light of day. In Houston, the businessman I exposed preying on poor black and Hispanics ended up in prison. After my stories on its jail, Harris County pumped millions of dollars into medical care for prisoners. After we aired Flunk City, the State of New Jersey moved in and took over the school system we exposed. And racial profiling effectively ended on the Jersey Turnpike after my report – although it returned years later, chiefly because no one, including me, was looking anymore. Literature and journalism have the ability to shine a light on racism, without which it would continue to thrive.
Collum’s final assignment was at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 and the days immediately following the collapse of the World Trade Towers . His account of the tragedy is excerpted in the book, Covering Catastrophe. Collum’s novel Brady’s Run was published in 2009 and is currently available at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com. His non-fiction book The Black Dragon: The Battle to Expose Racial Profiling The Black Dragon: Racial Profiling Exposed is due for publication in September 2010. (And my review of Joseph’s latest book is coming soon…)