Working for my town’s Water & Sewer Department may have taught me more than any internship I’ve had. This is not one of those “hard work teaches you how to appreciate your privileged education” think pieces by someone like Mike Rowe, as much as I respect him. What I learned about water and sewer systems, how to paint fire hydrants, how to drive any and every kind of truck, and how to replace man holes definitely has utility, but I learned far more about myself and the human condition during my time at the sewer department than I did about the work itself.

My summer at the Sewer Department started shortly after I graduated from one of the most prestigious and conservative college preparatory schools in Upstate New York. The first thing I learned on the job was that I was not a real sewer worker; I was “summer help.” “Summer help” is simply a nice way of saying cheap labor provided by relatively privileged locals. One of the more unsettling realizations I came away with was the fact that I was only making a little less per hour than most of the veterans of the department, whose salaries weren’t high enough for them to even afford the property taxes in the town that they were serving. This was one of the factors that led to my alienation from my coworkers.

For the first few weeks, hardly anyone would talk to me other than to assign me work. In fact, the only person who would talk to me happened to be someone who I had gone to middle school with who now worked at the Water & Sewer Department full-time. This person also happened to have a swastika tattoo on his forearm.

In a classroom setting, it would be easy to criticize and dissect the notion of suburban neo-Nazis in Upstate New York and make a blanket moral judgment on how reprehensible this tattoo was, and by extension, the person who chose to have it inked into his forearm. Yet in real life, I found it profoundly difficult to confront the hatred and atrocities this tattoo symbolized when I was flagging worksites or replacing manholes with him. In my moments of personal reflection, which occurred often when I was painting fire hydrants and fences, I would rage internally at the swastika and the man bearing it. But there was a job to do.

There was also rampant racism at the Water & Sewer Department. Confederate flags adorned the lockers and trucks of many of the workers even though these proud confederates had a black coworker. On my first day, after I was asked about my thoughts on President Obama, the driver of the truck I was in exclaimed, “He should’ve been shot a long time ago.”

I had never heard the n-word so many times than over my summer at the Water & Sewer Department. I happened to be working there as the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin was playing out on the break room television every morning, on Fox News, no less. Much of the racism I encountered was when I was present and when my black coworker was not, yet he still saw the Confederate flags, still heard the groans when Trayvon Martin sympathizers came on the television—but he never quit his job.

Before working at the Water & Sewer Department, I was convinced that racism existed, but not in towns like mine in the Northeast. Then my summer job rocked my world, and I realized that racism could exist in some of its worst forms right in my backyard. And then I came to Wesleyan, where, like many, I thought that I was coming to a progressive utopia where we fight racism and oppression in the outside world, but no such thing could possibly exist within the confines of our New England campus.

As I learned through the lived experiences of my peers and my own sobering observations, racism exists at Wesleyan from the level of microaggressions to institutionalized racism. Yet for many white students at Wesleyan, even if we consider ourselves allies, we fail to see the degree of racism between microaggressions and mass incarceration or police brutality. More often than not, it is in jobs that aren’t unpaid internships, where white people often find a false sense of security about racism in the workplace, that many of us will finally realize how bad racism can really get in predominantly white spaces, even in the northeast, even in the 21st century.

It is incumbent upon white students at Wesleyan to continuously inform ourselves on race, racism, and their ramifications and implications in our society. If we think that we are in a bubble where racism doesn’t occur, we are fooling ourselves.

This job did not teach me why people perpetuate racism, but it did teach me what it’s like to ignore it and continue doing a job. The task at hand was an excuse for my inaction in my mind until I came across Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” (where following orders in an evil organization is just as bad, if not worse, than giving the orders themselves) when I began attending the Center For Humanities’ Monday Night Lecture Series on campus. It was at that point that I realized that being a cog in a machine that perpetuates racism is nothing to take conciliation in. Through this lens, I was in fact no more morally superior than my racist coworkers because I did nothing to stop their racism. No internship could have ever taught me that.

Lahut is a member of the Class of 2017.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, what a load of pure lies. Nothing in that story could have ever happened at the Water and Sewer Department in Niskayuna, New York. I’ve taken the liberty of forwarding a copy of this article to the Richard Pollack, the head of the department, as well as some of the other town officials, including the Chief of Police.

    What you have done is called ‘libel’ and it most likely will cost you your degree. Good luck with that. I’m sure you’ll be hearing from them soon.

    • Stormrdr

      Actually, Jamal, what you are accusing the author of is called “slander” and/or “defamation”.
      To rise to the level of “liable” requires a lot more than what you’ve responded with.

      Not to be overly blunt, but who are you to be speaking for either the utility or town of Niskayuna, NY, the New York State Assembly, or “Let’s Get Ready”? What authority do you have to demand and state terms on behalf of these government bodies and/or private organization to dictate terms for if and how an apology should be issued? I ask because you have failed to identify yourself as officially speaking for them in any manner, and yet are doing so.

      I believe there are also laws for misrepresenting yourself as a government official, if I’m not mistaken…

      Just thought I’d point that out.

      Despite your activism, I doubt that this utility, or the city government, will be all that interested in pursuing a defamation case against this author–even if his claims were proven categorically false.

      First, they would have to prove some type of financial or reputation harm that amounts to ‘injury’ (which, being a utility, is no easy task).

      Second, to file and pursue such a claim is rather expensive, and will result in practically no payoff–even if they were to win the case. All they would be doing is paying a bunch of lawyers to attack something written in a college newspaper that, to date, 6 people have bothered to take enough interest in to comment–most of which were to you, and not the OP. This, again, limits the effectiveness of bothering to sue a student reporter. The utility would actually bring more publicity to the claims by going to the trouble to refute them. It’s not like the OP got this posted on CNN.

      Third, by the time a lawsuit filtered its way through the court system, the OP will have done graduated and moved on to other pursuits. So, your claim that this article is going to ‘cost him his degree’ shows a high level of ignorance for the judicial process.

      Fourth, what would be the point? This is a college student, effectively a nobody. It’s not like anyone in the city is suddenly demanding their water and sewer service being cut off because of this article. I sincerely doubt that anyone’s going to be able to prove that people are not moving to the city because of this article. The folks AT the utility likely didn’t even know about this article (until you sent it to them).
      Methinks you should learn from this and pick better battles.

      • Anonymous

        You shouldn’t really talk about what you don’t know. The definition libel is defaming someone in writing, slander is defaming someone by speaking.

        To win this case would be simple, all any of the workers in the department would have to say is that they were denied a promotion or new job because they were branded a racist. They would barely need to prove that in court.

        No where did I represent myself as a government official. I simply forwarded the links to a number of people Water and Sewer Department in Niskayuna, New York.

        Thanks to you, the New York State Assembly has just received copies. I forwarded the links to this article to everyone i could find in the communications department. Jake can thank you for that.

        The only defense to libel is the truth. The article has been published both in print and online and cannot be ‘unpublished’. Unless Jake can produce the co-worker with a swastika tattoo and a bunch of lockers with confederate flags on them, he’s in a world of legal hurt now.

        Which reminds me – why would someone in New York have a confederate flag? Why would someone who doesn’t like black people have a swastika?

        Methink you better stfu till you know what you’re talking about. This will be a very simple case to win, and would never be dischargeable by bankruptcy.

      • Stormrdr

        I double-checked myself, and you are right that I got slander and libel a bit mixed up.

        However, to some of your other points:
        The case would not be as simple and straightforward as you make it out to be.
        First, the author never named the city he was referring to. You have identified it as Niskayuna, NY. I would assume you are certain of this, and have some documentation yourself to prove this claim–otherwise, you could be held “libel” for falsely accusing the author of demeaning the wrong department.

        Second, any worker who was denied promotion would have to individually file suit. The department as a whole would have to first argue standing, otherwise. Regardless of who ultimately had standing, however, any worker denied promotion would have to prove that this article, either in whole or in part, was factored in to the decision to not promote.
        Considering that this is a single unspecific, unsourced, and unverified account of a single individual’s experience with unidentified members in an unidentified city’s sewage department, whatever promotion board used this as justification would be in greater legal jeopardy by the department and/or members than the author.

        In fact, the only person who could claim to be identified in the article is the Swastika-wearer that you are convinced is fictional. If he came forth to claim damages, then there might be a case–provided he could prove that the swastika is not in any way a racist symbol, or being work for racially motivated reasons–while at the same time disproving your assertion he’s not an employee (indeed, proving his existence would pretty much destroy your entire concern for how ‘libel’ the author is).

        As to why I accused you of pretending to be a government official–it’s because you were pretending to be a government official. You’ve encouraged the author to contact you to be advised on the steps and process by which he can properly submit an apology that would release him from action by these government agencies. That’s a claim of both knowledge and authority in this matter. Ergo, you are claiming agency for the government–also known as a government official.

        As to your speculation on why someone in New York would own a confederate flag symbol? Confederate flags are popular down South. Not everyone who lives in New York was born and raised in New York. As for the Swastika, while it is true that the origin of the racist connotation is in Nazi Germany, there are multiple white supremacists who have coopted that symbol for their own purposes. Charles Manson, in particular, is a murder who was trying to instigate a race-war. During his trial, he carved a swastika into his forehead to show his defiance to his captors.

        Oh, and good luck with that NYT headline. As I’ll point out again, you’re raging in response to information that you, personally, possess that was not stated in the article. The burden of proof is now on you to both prove that this author intended to make these claims about this specific city’s department, and that there are not any members of this department who have such views as the author overheard.
        Considering the blue-collar nature of such work, I wish you luck in such an endeavor.

      • Anonymous

        Wrong again. Anyone can sue anyone for any reason at any time.

        They don’t need to ‘prove standing’. Anyone in the department can now use the article as the basis for libel. The damages they choose is up to them. In fact, any employee or taxpayer to the town has standing in this case. His libel has sullied the reputation and good will of the town. He called them neo-nazis.

        It took less than 3 minutes to verify that it was Jake Leyhut working at The Niskayuna, NY Sewer Department from June 2013 to August 2013. It is a public record, along with his exact dates of employment and even his salary. 100% verified and irrefutable.

        If anyone wants to make a case of it, they have a very solid foundation for libel. All that needs to be done is to file. Jake’s ONLY defense is to prove that a co-worker had a swastika tattoo, confederate flags on their locker and used the n-work repeatedly.

        The rest of your argument is moot. Remember who is on the hook here – it’s both Jake and Wesleyan, who has deep pockets.

      • Stormrdr

        Sorry, thought I was actually discussing this with someone who actually knew the law for a moment. I apologize.

        For the record, even ‘frivolous’ lawsuits have to be able to actually prove their case–and the direct cause of their ‘injury’ being what they’re claiming. I’m sure Wesleyan is flattered with how much impact you think their articles have on the general population.

        Also to clarify, this is an OPINION piece. That means the paper is not responsible for the content, like they would be for a journalistic article. So, again, even if there was a case, it’s academic.
        Yes, you may succeed in ruining the future of one individual student, but will have wasted more time, effort, and expense in that pursuit than it merits.

      • Anonymous

        Doesn’t matter if it’s an opinion piece, it’s libel, plain and simple. You don’t have to prove your case to file it.

        The reason these lies need to be dealt with was demonstrated in Ferguson, Missouri this year. Lies about racism cause riots. Lies about racism cost money. Lies about racism ruin reputations. Lies about racism kill people. Lies about racism cause genocides.

  • interested reader

    Thank you for sharing your experience. As you can see from the comments you’ve received, the truth of your statement about the existence of racism both in and outside of the Wesleyan community is abundantly clear. One can only hope that with more voices like yours, we can come to a better understanding of the prevalence of racism all around us.

    • Anonymous

      Like most claims of racism, this is a lie from start to finish. There is no swastika tattoo, and there are no confederate flags. The ‘n-word’ is never used by the employees.

      • interested reader

        JamalJenkum, while I appreciate Jake Lahut’s essay, I didn’t need to read it to know racism is all too evident all around us. I, and most people, witness it on a regular basis. If you are going to refute the essay’s claims, however, there need to be some facts to support your statements. Otherwise, it just sounds like unfounded denial.

      • Anonymous

        Jake needs to produce the actual person with the swastika tattoos as well as the confederate flags on the locker. If he can’t he may find himself in real trouble. I’m just stoking the fire – the trouble won’t come from me.

        It will come from the NY State Assembly, the town and his other employers.

        PS – show me an ACTUAL case of racism in the last month. Not an anecdote, or your perception of racism, where someone has been directly denied a job or housing or a government benefit because of the color of their skin. Not, someone used the ‘n-word’ or some such nonsense like that. That is a personal opinion and can’t be controlled by laws. Everyone is entitled to that.

      • Jones Nimby

        I’m afraid we’ve been taken for a ride. The latest thing among KKK members is to take on black avatars and then to make actions that are intended to inflame racial issues, and by hiding behind a black avatar make it difficult to call out the racist behind the attack. Take a careful look at the avatar picture, which was swiped from a crime report photo site.

  • …..

    Nobody outside of liberal arts colleges believes in microagressions….

    • DavidL

      Married people get it. Some of them at least.

      • ……

        Those marriages usually don’t last long.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t it so darn fun to hurl the term “racist” at everyone and everything? It shows the world how morally superior you are to everbody else, doesn’t it?

    On the other hand, you may wish to consider the old saying “There are none that proclaim their innocence so loud as the guilty”.

    Come back in about 15 years when you’re old enough to have an opinion, and not just repeat platitudes.

    • What?

      You just used a platitude in your own comment…
      Also your comment makes no sense.

      • Anonymous

        Hi!

        Thanks for responding!

        Judging by your reading comprehension, I assume you’re some combination of college student/liberal/moron, though I acknowledge the overlapping redundancy of that description.

        The editorialist, much like a minah bird that has no idea what it’s saying, has no idea, being only a child, that he is only regurgitating thoughtless platitudes that he has mindlessly absorbed. The hope is that, with maturation and experience, he will learn how to think.

        As for your inability to comprehend ny previous post, the only suggestion I have for you is an IQ transplant; perhaps you know an older person who has a pet rock (look it up) willing to make an organ donation.

      • What?

        Hi, thank you for being a piece of shit who needs to get a life.

        Don’t use your age to leverage your shitty opinions. Age does not determine intelligence.

        You used “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful” in your comment. That’s the definition of a platitude. You’re welcome.

        Finally, the true mark of a child is to compensate for your insecurities by lashing out at others. All Wesleyan students, including myself, are fairly intelligent people. Have a good middle-aged day, ma’am.

    • Anonymous

      Racism = an excuse for your own shortcomings for those who are too lazy to improve themselves.

      • interested reader

        I assume you similarly deny the existence of all the other “isms”: sexism, ageism, etc. AND all the reverse “isms” too.

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