Indiana State University Newsroom

Alumnus urges Indiana State students to stand up against racism

November 18, 2014

For the next generation to make a difference in race relations, Millennials must know their history -- and vote. That was the message from Indiana State University alumnus John Leeke, '61, who spoke to students in the Foundations of African and African American Studies classes on Nov. 7.

Leeke, an entrepreneur who spent much of his career helping corporate America -- including companies such as American Express, Kodak and Exxon -- become more diverse and fight bigotry, was in town for the biennial reunion of The Incorporated Gathering, an alumni group of African-Americans who graduated in 1975 and earlier.

He started his talk by asking how many students voted in the mid-term election earlier that week; a few raised their hands.

"You not voting may have ended up (electing) some people who really should not be in office, and they have the potential to do some things that may not be in your self-interest," he said. "Just take that and let that resonate in you."

Leeke's tone was at times intentionally harsh; he said he was trying to convey the opportunity students have to make a positive change in the world.

"When you don't know the history -- your history or the true history of the United States, let alone the rest of the world ... you are susceptible to all the lies, half-truths, et cetera, et cetera," Leeke said.

Some of our country's ignorance is the result of textbooks that sugarcoat history, avoiding or glossing over some of the worst time periods and events.

"We just don't know. It's not necessarily our fault for not knowing a whole segment of our history," he said. Leeke suggested several titles for the students to pursue - "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James Loewen, "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed" by Bill Cosby and "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander.

Throughout history, Leeke said, there are patterns of the country taking two proverbial steps forward and one backwards. The abolishment of slavery was a definite improvement, he said, as was some of the progress made by Reconstruction. The Jim Crow era that followed, however, was a major setback, he said.

The Civil Rights acts opened the door to equal employment practices and desegregation, and affirmative action helped deserving minorities have an equal chance with their white peers.

"(Affirmative action) opened the door. I think I was a recipient of some of that kind of action, because I was able prepared and ready to go -- to get into spots I wouldn't have been able to prior," Leeke said.

In the modern era, however, we've taken a step back with the "War on Drugs," an initiative started by Pres. Ronald Reagan.

"The prison industry is one of the fastest growing industries over the past 30 years," Leeke said. "They are warehousing people ... based on race. That doesn't mean there aren't white people who get put in prison, but the number of black and Hispanic people who get put in prison generally runs five or eight or nine to one."

Once convicted of a felony, these non-violent offenders face similar challenges as during the time of slavery, he said.

"Yeah, you go do your time, but when you get out and go to get a job, the first thing they ask you on the job application is ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' If you tell the truth, you get told, ‘Bye.' If you lie, eventually they're going to find out," Leeke said. "You cannot avail yourself of that. So, I ask you, is that any different than the days of slavery? The pattern continues to repeat itself, even though we appear to be making progress."

To make significant progress, Americans must have real conversations with each other about race, according to Leeke.

"Black people need to talk about race with black people. White people need to talk about race with white people. Hispanics need to talk about race with Hispanics," he said. "And when we have opportunities, we need to have conversations across racial lines."

This generation of young people is the one to make the difference, he said several times.

"You have the opportunity -- because I don't think you carry anywhere near the depths of the baggage and attitude as the older generations -- to set a different course, if you're willing to do that," Leeke said.

"Prejudice is taught. When we come into this world ... we don't know anything about race bias, sexism, racism stuff. But they say by the time we are four or five years old, those ideals have been ingrained in us."

Two white students -- in a class that appeared to be a 50-50 split, racially -- said they were offended to be classified based on their race alone, that they weren't prejudiced against minorities.

Leeke reminded the group that we're both individuals and part of a group. While "white privilege" exists -- institutionally, whites, especially males, have an advantage, whether they ask for it or not -- individuals within that majority group do face hardships, similar to how individuals within a minority group can be very different from the whole.

"There are more poor white folks in this country than there are poor black people. Hear that folks. You don't hear about the conditions of white folks in Appalachia. You don't hear about poor white folks in parts of Chicago. You don't hear about poor white folks in rural America, but they're there," he said. "There are more white folks getting public assistance than black folks, but who gets public assistance in terms of what our media says? It's black folks and Hispanic folks."

The class was asked how many of the minority students had been told they were "articulate" or teased by a peer for "talking white." Many raised their hands.

"We have all been socialized to believe white is superior and black is inferior. "That is a fundamental, basic concept," Leeke said. "Our belief is that white people are smart. If a black person begins to speak like they are smart, then it's ‘Oh, you act like .... You trying to be ....' Some of you black folks are guilty of laying that on your fellow black colleagues. It ain't a joke. You are helping to reinforce that negative concept."

Learn more about John Leeke by following any of his social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.


Photos: -- John Leeke, a '61 graduate of Indiana State University, talks with students about race on Nov. 7. -- John Leeke, a '61 graduate of Indiana State University, talks with students about race on Nov. 7. -- Indiana State students listen as John Leeke, a '61 graduate, talks about race on Nov. 7. -- Indiana State students listen as John Leeke, a '61 graduate, talks about race on Nov. 7.

Contact: Christopher Olsen, professor and chair, department of history, Indiana State University, 812-237-2710 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or