Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Color-Blind Mirage

Now that the Donald Serling story has been hashtagged and re-hashtagged, we can, if we so choose, open up other dialogues. It has been noted prior that racism spread by words and deeds is what we are more easily willing to confront. We can and should contemplate other aspects of racism, using this shocking incident as a launching pad. Bigotry and prejudicial speech is a dime a dozen, but discriminatory attitudes do not stop there.

When I was a young boy, I was taken regularly to college football games at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Once home to working class white steel mill workers, the area of town surrounding the stadium had grown rough and run down over time. Only those who paid a large sum of money were allowed to park directly next to the stadium. Most of the time, the fortunate few of us with tickets had to park in the front and back yards of nearby residents. They were glad to have us, as I’m sure most of them made a few hundred dollars on parking fees each game, and each contest was held four or five times a year.

I was a skittish, fearful child and had grown up in the predominately white suburbs, miles away. To be surrounded by black faces scared me. I remember my father making a point to kneel down, lowering himself down to my level. Just remember that they’re as scared as you as you are of them. In time, my phobia lessened, but I concede that I had already internalized a lot of stereotypical attitudes picked up from other kids in less tolerant families.

The football roster at the University of Alabama, in addition to many other elite schools in the country, is peopled by an overwhelming majority of African-Americans. Many of these players come from tiny towns in the South. Several have known dire poverty and with it a lack of much in the way of opportunity. These young men have recognized that their way out of one-horse towns and frustrating existences is to excel at athletics. As gladiators, they entertain whites who live for the games, but I am convinced that some white fans value them only when they step out onto the field.

We live in a time where overt racism is much less commonplace, but we remain willfully ignorant of the lives of those whose skin color is different than our own. I can’t honestly say I understand what it’s like to grow up in a rural setting and to be poor. When no solid information is put forward, misinformation steps into the breach. This is why it’s easy to believe that black people are intrinsically violent or statistically likely to commit crimes. Those attitudes are what lead to racial profiling and other over-reaching tactics predicated in ignorance.

Meanwhile, black people continue to struggle with the obstacles facing them, and many continue to dream of striking it rich. In the 20th Century, blacks were able to pull themselves up the social ladder in two primary ways: sports and the entertainment industry. At first, blacks became boxers, a brutal sport that promised instant wealth and fast fame to the champion. Around the same time, black musicians provided entertainment for everyone, white and black alike.

I’d like to survey African-American athletes in a variety of sports, off the record, to ask them whether race matters in their own playing career. From appearances and attitudes alone, the Alabama football players who suit up on Saturdays in the fall are a color-blind unit. As long as they keep scoring points and making tackles, it’s easier for that illusion to take place.

But our engagement with them as people like ourselves is sometimes conspicuously absent. When their playing time is over, assuming they don’t have a college degree to fall back on, they are no longer protected. No one steers them clear of trouble and no one gives them the benefit of the doubt. Fifty year old men cease to care about their sprained ankles or history of DUIs.

Former athletes have crash-landed and languished in dead-end jobs. Before, they could do no wrong. Now, they can do no right. Some succeed in spite of the odds. Ex-football players have, for example, used the high profile of their names to start successful businesses. But one thing is clear. They will never be held in the same high regard now that their eligibility has expired and their playing days are over. They may be thought of fondly for a generation or two, but popular opinion won’t put food on the table. Nostalgia pays no one's bills.

Ex-Basketball Player
By John Updike
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
Culturally, whites and blacks come from two very different universes. Lost in our desire to delight in the success of the Civil Rights Movement is the vast difference between us that remains. One doesn’t have to look very far. Language alone is an example of a barrier that separates us. Slang locks out those who are not in the know while providing an insular sense of comradeship for those who are. There’s nothing wrong with cultural markers like these, per se, but they demonstrate how separate the races continue to be.

Donald Serling shows us how the owner of a team almost exclusively African-American can somehow be a major racist. This would seem to be counter-intuitive, and as Spike Lee has put it, the conduct reminds one of a slave master on the plantation. Unless whites can honestly say they have fully integrated in their own lives, we have not made the progress we should have

I don’t mean that we still hold deplorably racist views like Serling, but rather that we should accept black people as they really are, on their own terms. Provided they keep to the roles cut out for them, no one acts threatened and people like Serling go unpunished for years. These attitudes are very unfortunate, because they deprive us of an opportunity for a real lesson in acceptance and diversity.

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