Author: Pedro Perez
This unique memoir narrates the author’s journey from the poverty of New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1950s and 1960s to earning the highest leadership civil-service position in the New York State Police – First Deputy Superintendent with the paramilitary rank of Brigadier General.
Driving Pedro Perez, a Nuyorican, were two motivations: to achieve a better life for himself and his family and to use his position in law enforcement to advance social justice and socioeconomic equity and combat systemic racism.
Perez knew first-hand the devastating effects of poverty, homelessness, and racism-infused policing on people of Color. Hence his goal was to change policing from within by rising through the ranks to positions of authority and influence within the force he chose to join, opening the way for others.
Perez applied to the NYSP in 1981 at an opportune moment; in 1979, a Federal District Court judge had ruled following a Department of Justice investigation that the NYSP had been practicing systematic employment discrimination against “Negroes, Spanish-surnamed Americans, and women.” However, reluctantly, the NYSP engaged in a campaign to recruit members of these groups. Perez, at the time, knew nothing about the affirmative action mandate. He struggled to support his wife and baby daughter, working in a butcher shop while earning extra money as a conga drummer and karate instructor. But he saw an ad, applied, and seized the opportunity to become a Recruit Trooper.
Perez was immediately aware of racial hostility from some Troopers and potential recruits taking the civil service test. He passed the written test and advanced through the additional steps of physical agility, medical tests, thorough background investigation, and integrity tests at the State Police Academy in the state capital of Albany. He became a recruit and began his training at the Academy that Fall.
At the Academy and after graduation, Perez struggled with racism from some of his fellow troopers and the citizens he served. Because of this experience, he realized he needed to change these attitudes. Perez decided to pursue advancement as soon as possible. He sought and earned an assignment to a region of the state with more opportunities for promotion in the rural western upstate New York area. Part of New York’s population was almost exclusively white and primarily low-income.
Perez describes with humor and pathos the profound social ignorance of the whites around him and relates some of the cases, tragic or brutal; he found himself handling while on patrol. It was his first encounter with many poor white people. He learned about the intersectionality of class and race vis a vis structural racism and the governmental policies’ impact on crime and other social problems. He saw how his fellow troopers attached much of the same contemptuous stigma to the poor whites upstate as he had seen police apply to poor Black and Brown people in his native NYC.
Perez recognized he had to learn and become comfortable with the people and culture of western New York if he was to be a good trooper, despite the bigotry he met. Perez began to push for greater social justice. Upon reading on the local county map issued by the local government, he fought to change an outrageous racial slur and succeeded.
Gradually, his troop mates got used to him, him to them, and the new culture. Perez continued to confront and challenge racist attitudes and beliefs as he journeyed across the state as he advanced within the ranks of the state police. After passing rigorous physical tests, Perez earned a slot on the NYSP’s new special tactical force, the Mobile Response Team (MRT), becoming the first trooper of Color to be part of this elite team. Soon, this 18-member team searched for an escaped cop killer, who was found and brought in alive.
Perez ascended through the ranks rapidly. His first promotion in the State Police was to “Technical Sergeant” in the Affirmative Action Office. He kept an eye on the recruitment numbers for Black and Latino males and females regardless of ethnicity and intervened in hiring and promotion disputes while still a member of the MRT. (He remarks wryly that his primary qualification for this position was “an accident of birth.”) After intensive study, he earned the rank of full Sergeant, and not long afterward, after passing the written examination, he returned to the Wellsville station near his family.
As he did when seeking regions of the state with more significant promotional opportunities, Perez realized he had to join the NYSP Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) to enhance his chances of an assignment nearer his home once he earned the rank of lieutenant. After being appointed to the BCI, he investigated major crimes and drug cases. He worked as an undercover operative in stings to catch mid-level drug dealers there, risking his life. Those drug cases often led to inquiries involving the execution of eavesdropping warrants gathering prosecutable evidence against high-level drug dealers in Buffalo, NY. Perez comments humorously on the complexities of wiretapping law at the time and the parallel intricacies of interpreting slang in various Spanish dialects.
On February 27, 1992, Perez became the first Nuyorican Taino Afro-Indian commissioned officer in the history of the NYSP. He became the first at each commissioned officer’s rank as he rose through the ranks from this point until his retirement. Perez, at every opportunity, encouraged other members of Color to join him on his journey to make the upper echelons of the state police more diverse.
Building on his experience in narcotics investigations and his time on the MRT; made Perez uniquely ready to design and lead a massive collaborative effort to curtail the crack cocaine epidemic in Buffalo’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods, bringing together city police and county sheriffs, the DEA, and local community-based organizations. “Operation Crackdown,” as Perez dubbed it, was a vast but temporary success, and its success was short-lived. Perez believes that narcotics are fundamentally a public health problem and (he notes) are now being treated as such because of the opioid addiction crisis, primarily affecting whites rather than African Americans and Latinx communities.
His experiences severely tested his ability to balance his commitment as an officer of the law and his determination to perform his duties in a just, equitable, and compassionate way was severely tested. The struggle with his duty as a state law enforcement officer and his commitment to social justice became acute when he responded to the Native American territories of western New York. He understood they were protesting what they saw as treaty violations by the imposition of an excise tax by the state of New York. But he disagreed with their methods when these protests devolved into violent riots. His ethnic position and experience gave him unique insight into an untold story of social struggle—the conflicts over the legal rights of Native people in New York State.
Perez outlines the various issues driving these conflicts, from treaty violations to the dire poverty of many on the Indian territories in the area, pitted against the new wealth some of these community members gained. Some of these entrepreneurs chose not to follow the traditions of communal property. These and other factors led to the internal struggles ending in an armed civil war on the Seneca Nation of Indians Territories. These problems added to complex and frankly unresolved contradictions between Native American sovereignty and New York state law. During this protest, Perez was temporarily reassigned from “Operation Crackdown” to help with clearing state highways running through Seneca land of burning-tire blockades in demonstrations against the imposition of state taxes on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products on the reservation. As the only Nuyorican Taino Afro-Indian commissioned officer, Perez joined forces with a state police captain to represent the NYSP in negotiations with the Seneca Nation of Indian’s legislative council, which was an extremely frustrating and often tense process.
Years later, as a Major, Perez had to respond and help mitigate the violence on the Seneca Nation’s territories resulting from a conflict within the Seneca Nation over the contested election of their nation’s president. These factional struggles resulted in numerous injuries and at least one homicide. At the memoir’s conclusion, in something of a cliff-hanger, Perez describes his promotion to serve as an Inspector within the Bureau of Internal Affairs, where he would face being viewed as a “cheese eater” by his fellow officers because he was a member of the colorfully insulting moniker of the “rat squad.”
Today, amid the ongoing mass movements for social, racial, and environmental justice and the outrage regarding police misconduct, Pedro Perez’s extraordinary story and unique perspective provide a needed voice for change—calm, courageous, committed, and compassionate.
The manuscript has approximately 107,574 words. The genre is about a personal journey out of poverty and social justice, and its subgenre focuses on police reform.
MY DAUGHTER’S EYES
My heart pounded in my chest as I held my newborn daughter on my forearm and saw her look at me with a beautiful, toothless smile. But while her smile filled me with joy, it also nearly paralyzed me with fear. Could I provide for my young family and get us out of poverty? It was 1980, and autumn was just beginning. I stared intensely into her smiling brown eyes in our Brooklyn apartment and worried about the future. As I gazed at her, the fear turned into determination and a joyful urgency. I would put all my energy into creating a good life for her and my growing family. I would move us out of poverty and into a life filled with opportunities for her and my unborn son, still nestled in his mother’s womb.
I did not want my daughter to feel about me the way I felt about my own father, who had not been a part of my life when I was a child. My father was a proud yet troubled Afro-Taíno Puerto Rican who was abusive and who struggled with alcoholism. His deep anger, which grew from years of discrimination and poverty, led to domestic violence. Eventually, he abandoned my mother, my brother, and me, a decision that left us in dire poverty. At the end of each month, my mother had only enough money to feed us white rice with ketchup. Those terrible days filled her with despair. I knew she went hungry so my brother and I could eat. I remember walking to a building in our low-income housing project to pick up cartons of powdered milk and bricks of government cheese. This food subsidy, supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the predecessor of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It is one of my favorite memories of those difficult days. Biting into the hot and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches…they were so filling and delicious. Or at least that is what I told myself.
I remember wanting to help my mother as a boy by not asking for money or complaining about hunger. My mother did not have enough money for all our needs and certainly not for any of the frivolous things I wanted to do, like go to the local Winston Theater to see a double feature and a cartoon with my brother. On Saturday mornings in the early 1960s, between the ages of eight and twelve years old, I walked around our neighborhood with my mother’s shopping cart rummaging through garbage cans for empty glass bottles. One Saturday I was so hungry I ate half a packet of chocolate cake I found in the trash. Fortunately, I did not get sick. I took the bottles I found to the supermarket on Grand Street for the deposit refund, two or three cents depending on the bottle’s size. Then I would stand outside the store and ask folks if they needed help carrying their groceries home. It was usually older White women who would accept my offer and give me a nickel or two for helping them. After several trips, I had enough to enjoy the treat of taking my younger brother to the movies.
I promised myself I would not pass this trauma on to my children. I swore I would never leave my kids. No matter how difficult it might be, I would be there for them into adulthood. Today, I understand that my father’s desertion caused significant emotional damage to me, my brother, and my mother. I would break the cycle of our family history of violence and abandonment; my father’s father had treated him abusively, causing my father emotional trauma, which he passed on to my brother and me. This sad birthright would stop with me. Gazing into my daughter’s eyes, I made that vow.
Later, in a psychology course at LaGuardia Community College, I read about Erik Erikson’s work on the epigenetic principle. It reinforced my intuitive understanding of emotional inheritance and its potentially harmful effect on families generationally. When my kids were a little older, I reached out to my father and had a frank and highly charged discussion about our failed relationship. I told him I wanted him to have a chance to be a better abuelo, grandfather, than he was a father. He said he would try, and he succeeded. My children remember him as a loving grandfather with mischievous humor. We traveled together to the island of Boriquén (the Taino name for Puerto Rico) to visit our extended family so that my children could learn about their heritage. During that trip, while we were all at the beach, my father pretended to be the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He walked out of the Caribbean covered in seaweed and howling, at first scaring the kids before their fear turned into cackles of delight.
My father may have been in and out of my life, but I am also the son of a diminutive Puerto Rican woman who arrived in this country at 14, not having completed high school nor able to speak English. By the time she was 17, she was the mother of two boys. Soon after turning 19, she divorced my father. His behavior had been terrible, and he abandoned us frequently. One afternoon, he had left my younger brother and me alone. I opened the apartment door and went out to play with the other children in the hallway. When I pulled on the apartment door to get back inside, it was locked. The neighbor’s kids took me into their apartment and left a note on my door. My father returned drunk and went into a rage when he found out I was not in the apartment. He went to the neighbors’ apartment, banged on the door, and dragged me back home. Once we were inside, he began beating me with a garrison belt. I only remember the first few blows and him screaming. The next day my mother took me to her aunt’s house and had me stand on the toilet so she could show her aunt all the welts and bruises on my little body. These swollen welts hurt, yet I was distracted by the glass bowl full of beautiful marbles in the bathroom, and I paid no attention to my aunt and mother except when they started to apply salve to prevent scarring. I remember my mother saying she was leaving him. When it happened, I cried. For several years after that, whenever I thought, he was coming to see my brother and me, I sat at the window of the sixth-floor apartment waiting, and I would cry when he did not show up. Eventually, I stopped waiting and crying.
My mother was determined to get beyond the circumstances in which she found herself. Her mother died in Puerto Rico when she was only two, and because her father was at sea a lot as a merchant mariner, she was passed from one relative to another, all of whom were poor. Her father remarried and sent for her when she was 14. She was excited, but when she arrived in the U.S., it became clear he only wanted her to care for her new half-siblings, which she resented.
Undaunted, she found success through arduous work, education, and self-sacrifice. She got her GED, her associate degree, and her bachelor’s degree, all while raising my brother and me. She became a licensed practical nurse, then a registered nurse, and later a nursing administrator in a large New York City hospital after earning a master’s degree. I was extremely proud of my mother and have tried to emulate her refusal to let others determine what her life would be. She was a feminist before that word was fashionable, and she instilled in me a feminist fervor. She died from COVID-19 in November 2020. Like other U.S. nursing homes during the height of the pandemic, my mother’s facility did not allow in-person family visits. I said my final goodbye to her via a Zoom call; she took her last breaths as I watched with tears streaming.
Despite how proud I am of my mother; we all paid a price as she strove to improve our station in life. She worked long hours, usually at more than one job, and she went to school at night. This meant my brother and I were “latchkey kids” from an early age. I had no choice but to care for my little brother, mainly while we were in grade school. I learned to cook, wash and mend clothes, and do many other things to help my mother. Because we were poor and lived in one of the most impoverished areas of New York City, there weren’t many resources we could access to improve our circumstances. In addition to redeeming bottles and carrying groceries, I kept a constant eye on the gutter while walking around the city, hoping to find spare change. I jabbed a finger into the coin return slot of every payphone and vending machine I passed to see if any coins were there. This habit stuck with me, and I kept doing it even when I was old enough to get part-time jobs during the summer. The family always needed more money at the end of the month.
I spent a lot of time on the streets unsupervised, including commuting to Haaren High School six miles away in Midtown. A social worker had labeled me “incorrigible” in middle school because I was bored and got into mischief to entertain myself. Haaren High School had a unique program for gifted children identified as incorrigible. I had to ride a bus and then a train to get there. When I attended this former vocational high school, it had become an all-boys school. With the Urban Coalition’s help, Haaren began using smaller class sizes with more personalized instruction, in line with the 1970s trend toward modernizing public education. I was part of the so-called “College Bound” program, but the school was rife with violence. At the start of each school year, I had to prove myself by fighting. And it wasn’t just at school. I had to defend myself against all the dangers found in communities like the one I grew up in: bullies, child predators, gangs, and sometimes cops. Fortunately, I was fast on my feet and started learning karate around age eight. Karate saved my life, literally and figuratively.
I first discovered karate when I was very young, before I started kindergarten. My mother and her friend were going for a girls’ night out, and my younger brother and me were to sleep over with the friend’s children, who were also young. My mother jokingly told me I was in charge and should watch my brother and the other woman’s kids. She would often say to me that I was the man of the house. This admonition meant nothing to me when I was five years old, but as I got older, I began to resent it because the responsibility it implied was overwhelming.
On this night they had placed us down to sleep, but I did not sleep. When they left, I got up and found a book on the bookshelf with incredible photos of a man fighting a bull using only his hands and feet. I could not read it, but I was transfixed by the pictures. I finally fell asleep with the book open across my chest. In the morning, my mother’s friend said, “How much should I pay you for babysitting?”
“No thanks,” I said.
She said, “Okay, what do you want?”
I told her I wanted the karate book. She said I could have that book along with all the rest of her ex-husband’s books, but I only wanted the karate book.
I learned years later that the book, “What Is Karate?” was Masutatsu Oyama’s first book. “Mas” Oyama was a skilled martial artist whose story of resiliency as a Korean raised in Japan inspired me, given Japan’s turbulent and oppressive relationship with Korea. I have the book to this day. The book made me eager to start learning karate, but my mother could not afford the training fees. She finally found a brown belt at a YMCA in Brooklyn who would teach me for $5 a month. I kept up my training all through my childhood and teen years and eventually earned a black belt and began teaching. The American Shotokan Dojo on Grand Street was a storefront converted into a martial arts gym; headed at the time by Sensei Hector Martinez. It had an open loft but no shower. I used to sleep there sometimes in my late teens and early twenties when I became homeless because I couldn’t afford an apartment.
Those periods of homelessness ended when I started working at a butcher-shop in the Essex Street market, six days a week, 10 hours a day. It was hard work, and I kept thinking that my experience teaching karate could help me become a schoolteacher. With this goal in mind, I enrolled at La Guardia Community College and earned an associate degree in human services with a concentration in child development. One of the courses I took included an internship at a local daycare center that gave me a chance to apply what I had learned. I played with the toddlers, helping them satisfy their curiosity and gain a love for learning. After this internship, and having taught karate for several years, I knew I enjoyed teaching and wanted to pursue it as a career.
I wanted to earn a bachelor’s in early childhood education through a federal program that offered jobs and tuition waivers. However, the newly elected president, Ronald Reagan, was a fiscal conservative opposed to “big government.” Unfortunately, reducing the “size” of the government meant cuts to consumer and environmental protections and public education at all levels (and the public was expected to look the other way as the Cold War military budget grew). Among the many changes it brought, Reagan’s election meant the end of the program that would have funded my education and placed me in a teaching job. Instead, I continued my back-breaking work as a non-union butcher.
Spurred on by the needs of my growing family, I redirected my ambition toward finding a job that paid a sustainable income, provided medical benefits, and had opportunities to make a career. Upon learning Pamela and I would have another child, I asked my boss for a raise to help pay for health insurance. Because I was a hard worker, he granted the increase, though somewhat reluctantly. I was very appreciative, but I knew it might not last. The boss periodically laid workers off for vague reasons. He even fired me once for arguing with his son who occasionally worked at the butcher shop as a laborer but acted like he was in charge because his father owned the shop. On the day of the argument, he ordered the workers to change how we did our work and started yelling at us. Some of the workers did not speak English well and couldn’t understand what he was saying. When I told him his new system went against what his father had taught us to do, he got in my face and yelled, “When my father is not here, I’m the fucking boss.”
“I work for your father, not you. Go fuck yourself!” I shouted as I took off my apron and headed for the door. Not a smart move on my part, even if I was right, and while it felt good in the moment, I returned to the shop a few days later and asked for my job back. I got it, but I knew I had to find a better and more stable career.
I had always had a passion for Afro-Caribbean music, and I began supplementing my modest income as a percussionist for Afro-Caribbean folk dance troupes. I also taught karate at the Pitts Street Boys Club and started my own karate dojo. But none of these jobs offered health insurance, opportunities for advancement, or a retirement plan.
I was determined to find a way out of poverty. I searched for a job that would be my passage into the life I wanted for my family. I bought the Chief Leader, a local paper, from the newsstand at the corner of Essex and Delancey and scoured the job postings for career opportunities. I applied for every government job but one. I would not work for the New York City Police Department because of the way some of its officers mistreated people of color and the poor, mistreatment I had experienced firsthand. I could not see myself serving in the NYPD.
While I was on the job search, my sister-in-law showed me a job posting that showed men in broad-brimmed hats that reminded me of Smokey the Bear and preventing forest fires. I had lived all my life in low-income housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and had never even seen the New York State Park Rangers I assumed wore those hats. But I completed the application anyway with little understanding of how it would change my life and my family. Because the application was not for the park rangers but for the New York State Police, a very different organization with a complicated history and culture. At the time I didn’t know anything about the organization’s history, so I laughed to myself, thinking that if I got the job, I would not be chasing Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo when they stole picnic baskets after all.
The laughter hid my doubt about whether this was the right move or not. I had never seen a trooper and knew nothing about the agency. But at this point I felt desperate to make a career move, so I steeled myself for what my life would be like if the police hired me. I did not know whether the state police were as racist in their policies as I knew the NYPD was, but if they were, I told myself I would find ways to deal with that. I would also have to pass their written exam and a battery of physical tests before I entered the six-month training academy far away from my family’s home in New York City. My heart raced, but I laughed it off again and thought to myself that at least chasing bad guys will be more exciting than chasing Yogi and Boo-Boo.
My family and I began our journey out of poverty more than eighty years ago on the Island of Boricua. My mother’s trauma began when she was two years old; her mother died from tuberculosis during the 1930s tuberculosis outbreak in Puerto Rico. This loss would have crippled a less formidable spirit. This experience severely tested her inner strength as she “couch-surfed” from family to family. Her father worked on merchant vessels and was nearly always at sea, making my mother’s situation all the worse. No one recognized the depth of her resilience and resourcefulness, yet her inner voice knew. She is not alone. Millions of women, mothers, daughters, and sons worldwide have shown the same determination to change their lives for themselves and their families. She passed that strength, resilience, and resourcefulness not just to me; she shared it with anyone who needed it and would listen. My mother and the millions of female-headed households struggle every day to cross that bridge out of poverty. In the United States, over 21 million women are in poverty, sadly outpacing men. This means that if they have children, their children are experiencing poverty too. That is over 11 million children under 18 years old.
According to their analysis, “in 2019, there were 34.0 million people in poverty, approximately 4.2 million fewer people than in 2018.” Many families in the Black, Brown, Native American and other marginalized communities based on their population are still poor and overrepresented in these statistics.
The global pandemic has made this reality worse in those communities. The crucial public-health strategy to save lives caused an unprecedented economic downturn globally and nationally, forcing many businesses to reduce hours of operations or close entirely. In turn, these businesses reduced employee hours or laid off their employees. This impact has been felt most severely in communities mentioned above, specifically, women and the children of these communities.
If there is a “silver lining” in this pandemic, it sheds an even brighter light on the structural inequities existing before COVID-19’s emergence as a global catastrophe. The preexisting healthcare access and affordability gaps, education, employment, career, and entrepreneurial opportunities have devastated poor communities. Even middle-class families, who may have been “living from check to check,” were battered by the downturn. Chairman Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, at a symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on August 28, 1998, said this about income inequity:
The study of income inequality–its causes, its consequences, and its potential policy implications–has a long history in economics, although it has not always had a high profile among researchers and policymakers…” “…One particularly notable change was an apparent rise in the share of wealth held by the wealthiest families at the expense of other wealthy families; most of the change occurred within the top 10 percent of the distribution…”.
The pandemic has revealed the fragility and vulnerability of individual, national, and global economies. My children were both laid off from their jobs while I helped them during this period. Had they not found other jobs, they could have fallen from the upward socioeconomic mobility ladder we had worked hard to access. People worldwide and millions of Americans journeying to a better life were on their bridges out of poverty that began crumbling beneath them. Increased homelessness and food insecurity among already marginalized communities is evidence of this collapse.
My mother’s experience as a child I believe yielded the incredible woman who was determined not to allow her children to experience the instability she did. Her unyielding devotion and her love for her two boys. Had she remained with my abusive father, we might not have survived, let alone thrived. Her example of hard work and education was the path I followed. She was the person who modeled the behavior I needed to engage in if I wanted to be successful.
My mother’s lessons encouraged me to pursue a career that would provide me with a living wage, healthcare, and a pension. Joining the New York State Police was serendipitous in many ways. My family and I experienced fear, joy, and many other emotions on our trek out of poverty. We gained access to a better life because I became a trooper and forged a career in the New York State Police; whose trajectory many people including myself would not have predicted. I succeeded in the state police despite the organization’s history of discriminatory culture and practices. I had the help of mentors and others who performed their jobs justly and with integrity. They stood by their convictions while holding steadfast to the central vision of the New York State Police: “To serve, protect and defend the people of New York, while preserving the rights and dignity of all.” I also served beside some colleagues who were bigoted toward men of color, women in general, and those experiencing poverty—even though some of those troopers came from poverty themselves.
The New York State Police championed itself as a leading law enforcement agency that was recognized throughout the nation and the world. There were, and still are, many good reasons to celebrate the institution. But it is also an agency stained by bigotry and sexism. In my story there are triumphs and failures, moments of joy and pain. Some may applaud my telling of it, and others will resent some of the things I want to bring to light. I offer my story not from a place of bitterness about the New York State Police and the criminal legal system but from a place of hope. In the state police I met many bigots, but fortunately, I also met many individuals in the state police who treated me and other members of marginalized groups with respect. Most of the troopers I met were helpful, welcoming, and focused on serving their community with integrity and honor. Some state police members saw themselves as “colorblind” but remained silent in the face of discriminatory police practices. The idea of racial “colorblindness” is an intellectually and emotionally flawed approach to the complex social construct of race and the resulting racism.[i] Many of these troopers did not see themselves as being affected by prejudice even though they were.
I joined the state police in 1981, not knowing its history of discrimination toward men and women of color and women in general. I was unaware of its history of ugly and unprofessional enforcement efforts, like its recapture of Attica, New York State’s maximum-security prison, after the inmate uprising in 1971. The uprising ended four days later in a barrage of gunfire. Twenty-nine incarcerated men and ten hostages died, and a further 89 people were wounded.[ii]
Figure 1 NYS Troopers respond Attica Prison riot.
Photographs of the aftermath show state troopers in gas masks overlooking a prison yard littered with the dead and dying, shotguns at the ready.[iii]
I was also unaware that a United States Department of Justice investigation had begun in 1977 and led to a lawsuit that forced the New York State Police to hire men of color and women in general. All I knew was that I needed a job with good healthcare, a pension plan, and opportunities for career advancement; the state police offered these benefits, and that’s what mattered to me.
Even though I didn’t know about the affirmative action case, once I joined the state troopers, many in the organization never let me forget their true feelings: They said I was only there because of the lawsuit. This is one way that affirmative action policies can have both positive and negative effects. The positive impact is the partial mitigation of the centuries of discrimination and inequities that African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, and other marginalized groups have suffered and continue to suffer. While immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe suffered discrimination initially, many of these new citizens avoided further bias by Anglicizing their names and conforming to the ever-expanding definition of “Whiteness.” Moreover, they were helped by their skin color and facial features, which were able to be included in the “White race.”[iv]
Right after World War II, returning military veterans and their families advanced economically because of the GI Bill. This affirmative action plan for soldiers was rightfully earned through their service. However, veterans of color and their families, who also rightfully earned and deserved to benefit from the GI Bill, were systematically prevented from fully participating. The program allowed low-income and undereducated European Americans to enter the middle class by subsidizing their college educations and mortgage loans, but very few African Americans or other people of color received these benefits. Together, these programs enabled White veterans to buy the American Dream: owning one’s own home.[v] The affirmative action programs of the 1960s and beyond began to offer some redress of the gaps in education, employment, and wealth in America. It moved beyond the notion of equality toward equity.
The following pictorial metaphor helped me understand the difference between equality, equity, and liberation.
Merely giving a box to each boy does treats the kids equally, but more is needed to solve the smallest boy’s problem, and the tallest boy did not need the box in the first place. However, while giving the shortest boy the tallest boy’s crate allows everyone to see the game, the boxes do not eliminate the barrier. When we remove the fence, there is no need for the boxes at all.
I wanted this for my family: removing obstacles that would prevent us from escaping poverty and all its accompanying trauma. The state police job gave me a bridge out of poverty, and as high as I climbed in the ranks, I never forgot rummaging through garbage cans for empty bottles to cash in. I knew being a trooper would mean my children would not have to experience the trauma my mother, brother, and I did. For that, I am deeply grateful.
[i] M. T. Williams, “Colorblind Ideology Is a Form of Racism” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201112/colorblind-ideology-is-form-racism – Retrieved 2020.07.05.
[iv] David R. Roediger (2005) Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White.
About the Author
Author Name: Pedro Perez
Is committed to social justice and equity, focusing on mitigating poverty and homelessness.
- Certified Interim Executive – Armstrong McGuire 2023 – present – I provide consultant leadership and executive director services to nonprofits as they seek to replace their previous executive director. 2023 – present
- Executive Director-Charlotte Family Housing 2018 to 2022
- I focused on three crucial areas: Maintaining and expanding the ground-breaking and productive model, providing an adaptive path leading each working homeless family to lifelong self-sufficiency, and focusing on empowerment and accountability.
- Project Director of Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) 2016 – 2017:
- Developed and implemented innovative plans to reduce poverty in Albany, NY. Acted as grantor for local grantee nonprofits submitting poverty reduction and workforce development program proposals that met the ESPRI established criteria.
- Executive Director – My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper (MBASK), City of Albany, NY 2012 – 2016:
- President Obama’s initiative provides self-actualization opportunities for young men and women of Color. Partnered with C/Albany’s Department of Youth & Workforce Services Summer Youth Employment – providing jobs for over 1000 Albany teenagers 14 – 19 years of age. MBASK created a training academy to prepare youth for careers in the hospitality industry.
- Executive Director – Capital District YMCA, Albany, NY 2012 – 2015
- Oversaw child development program serving approximately 900 children. Worked with Albany Promise – a cradle-to-career initiative ensuring children are ready to succeed in college and career. I also worked for equity and parity for YMCA employees and its constituents.
- New York State Police, NY 1981 – 2010
- First Afro-Caribbean Taino Indian to achieve each Commissioned Officers’ Rank with the NYSP. As First Deputy Superintendent and Interim Superintendent, I led a statewide agency with a half Billion Dollar budget and more than 5,000 sworn and unsworn personnel. I retired as First Deputy Superintendent NYSP/ Interim Superintendent with the rank of Brigadier General.
- Master’s degree – Public Administration – 2002 -Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
- Bachelor’s degree – Public Administration/Criminal Justice – 1997 – Empire State College, One Union Ave., Saratoga, NY 12866
- Associate degree – Human Services/Child Development 1980 – Fiorello H. LaGuardia Community College, Long Island City NYE 11101
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