When Laura Murphy walked into a Middle Tennessee bridal shop one warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, she expected to experience one of the happiest days of her life.
“When a woman goes and picks out The Dress, that’s one of the most joyful times you’ll ever experience because it represents so many hopes and dreams becoming a reality,” she remembered.
If you’d been sitting at Laura’s kitchen table, as I was, listening to her recall that day five years ago, you would quickly assume that her subsequent wedding day was the capstone in a perfect storybook life; she’s an addiction counselor for a local court-sponsored rehab program, a Sunday school teacher, and mother of two children both on the honor roll. For Laura, however, the day she picked out her wedding dress was one of the most difficult days of her life. It was the day she was jolted into confronting a past life she no longer recognized and related it to one of the greater controversies of our time.
“I was in the bridal shop with my mom and my future mother-in-law,” she explained. “They kept bringing back all these gowns for me to try on, and it just so happened that the store attendant helping me was an African-American lady who was also named Laura. We hit it off so great. But when she said it was her job to go back with me in the fitting room and zip me up as I was trying on all these dresses, I realized I was going to have to show her the last thing in the world I ever wanted her or any other stranger to see: I would have to let her see the swastika that I’d gotten tattooed on my back, from years ago before I gave my life to the Lord.”
In Laura’s previous life, she was a convicted street drugs dealer and affiliated with white nationalist gangs. Her experiences and their context within our current national situation of heightened racial tensions gave her much to say. While our home state of Tennessee has in the past year seen a white supremacist rally of hundreds draw national headlines, Murphy was quick to point out that organized racism ‘on the outside’ of America’s jail system, such as the Ku Klux Klan and League of the South, is not the primary perpetrators of active racism in the white community. The prison-to-white-nationalism pipeline is. Nobody with their freedom has any significant reason to endorse such racism but, in fact, could stand to lose a great deal. Thus, White Lives Matter protestors and similar groups are typically ‘white trash’ at the bottom of society with little or nothing to lose for their actions. For those sent to prison, however, the situation is reversed. Rather than racism being a stigma carrying hindrances to social belonging or advancement, it’s a necessity for daily survival.
“Everybody,” Laura said with a wide sweep of her hand, “who’s sent to prison, especially for drug charges, has to associate with a whites-only gang as a matter of survival, or black or Latino gang depending on what their background is.”
While she stopped short of saying that automatic prison sentences for lesser offenses such as marijuana possession, and the increasingly higher number of individuals within white southern society who have served time for such crimes, is largely to blame for intensified racial animosity, Murphy pointed out that the perceived rise of prejudice and the perceived rise in imprisonment for drug crimes have happened in tandem, and she is convinced that’s no coincidence. Those who have served time will inevitably take the habits they learned with them into the wider world when they are released.
In her case, Laura recalled how the inherent low-trust society of prison culture and human fear of the unknown breeds segregation by skin color, on the assumption that the more outwardly similar to you another person is, the less likely they are to stab you in the back. Literally. Fitting in with every one of your racial group is a must for survival.
“All ex-prisoners come out with that permanent whites-with-whites, ‘stick with your own kind’ mentality. I called myself ‘a proud white man’s woman,’ because the mindset was that if your own race can’t trust you on the streets, nobody can,” she said.
Racial grouping offers the immediate benefit to its individuals of strength by numbers. Once outside of prison, the continuing race-based referral system continues to sustain itself in an environment where avoiding snitches and law enforcement are critical to sustaining the network. When you’re dealing drugs, you have to stick with what’s known and trusted: those of other races represent too big of an unknown.
As someone with an ear much better tuned to racial tensions from personal experience, she stressed the presidential elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump have not themselves contributed to greater prejudice: they may be incidentally causal, but not directly.
“Any person with prejudiced attitudes will have a sense of empowerment and be emboldened when someone of their own ethnic group gets in office because they feel like now suddenly they have a greater ability to achieve their agenda,” Murphy pointed out. “The black community was energized when Obama was elected, and now with Trump, it’s possible that white groups feel empowered by default,” projecting sinister aims onto the nation’s leader.
Thus, she mentioned, the particularly noticeable rise of white high school-age youths identifying with groups like White Lives Matter might have been expected since some of that generation don’t remember what it is like to have a white president in office, making white young adults, already seeking for identity, to overreact. In such a hyper-polarized era, there can be no neutral ground. A younger generation is susceptible to the deception that the only alternative to being anti-white is explicit pro-whiteness, particularly in the rural South where lack of educational resources and opportunities for socioeconomic advancement set the stage all too well for agitation against feelings of disenfranchisement.
If Laura Murphy could talk to those with similar hatred in their hearts as she had during her lawless days, she would say:
“The highest form of power is not white power, but in knowing God. It’s not in a color or race, but the amount of love you have in your heart. Wanting to feel superior over others is empty because there will always be somebody else higher up than you. Hate’s not powerful, but the ability to humble yourself and get along with others despite your differences…that takes more strength than hating somebody for unjust reasons. Look, we all go to the same place, we all die, and God is our final judge.”
For this noted former felony drug dealer, the references to God were intentional and not just figures of speech. Murphy views the 21st century’s decline of religion and resurgence of organized private racism as being linked. There is an urgent human need to belong, she said, and while Christians ideally belong to a church family, unbelievers might group up by race instead.
“I came to the place where skin color didn’t matter to me anymore,” Laura remembered. “And when the Lord changed my mind, I changed all the way. After I met Jesus, I realized that mindset could be pointed in the right direction. When I was in drugs and Aryan gangs, I was all the way in to defend and work with my group. If you want to be a good criminal, you’re either all the way in or you’re not in at all, and now I want my new life to be the same.”
“I just want to go and love and help people with the same complete love and grace that God has shown to me.”