I've had a couple of things happen this weekend which have caused me to ponder race relations in America.
On Saturday, I took my kids to the movies, and we saw Glory Road, the movie out from Disney starring Josh Lucas as Don Haskins, who in 1966 was hired as the men's basketball coach at Texas Western University (now UTEP) and recruited several very talented African American basketball players, who won the national championship that year by beating the all white University of Kentucky team coached by the legendary Adolf Rupp. Incidentally, if you see the movie, Haskins has a cameo. At one point Lucas is playing Haskins talking on a telephone at an Esso gas station; there is an old guy washing the windows on a vehicle behind him-- that's the real Don Haskins.
On Sunday, I was in a Sunday school class in which we were discussing Cain and Abel. Someone said that the 'mark of Cain' was a darker skin color. I didn't let that slide by unchallenged, which led to an interesting discussion. In fact, nowhere is 'skin' mentioned in discussing the mark of Cain, and I've heard it described as a spiritual darkness rather than a physical manifestation. However, this isn't a religious blog and I've had enough of discussions that raise Cain for awhile, thank you.
After these events, I think it may be appropriate to blog on the present state of race relations in America.
Now, it is true that a great deal of progress has been made, compared to the way things used to be. Although the film sugar coats things in a way and makes Haskins out to be larger than life (he was a great basketball coach, to be sure, and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, as he is-- and I remember booing Haskins lustily as a high school student in Albuquerque when I attended University of New Mexico games-- Haskins was about the only coach who could bring his teams into the Pit and consistenly leave town with a win). And he was color-blind (which is admirable, considering the era when he began coaching). But Disney crosses the line when they have Lucas as Haskins giving a speech in which he decides to start five black players because 'I want to end this (racism in basketball) tonight, forever.' In fact, Haskins' quote on why he started five black players was, 'I started my five best players.' The accurate quote would have worked just as well as the 'superhuman' version, and it would have been what he actually said. As I said, the man was colorblind, but he's still just a man. Don't treat him as more than that. Moreover the article I linked to points to problems that remain in College Sports. They focus on UTEP as an example, but the problem extends beyond that. And as far as sports is a microcosm of society, after we read this, we should consider society as a whole.
Haskins could never have dreamed of starting five blacks at any other school in Texas in the mid-1960s. Credit for that would have to go to El Paso, whose history of race relations is complicated; the city in many ways is more Western than Southern.
Still, Glory Road is a finely constructed film that does an excellent job of depicting the mid-'60s era. The banter and camaraderie between the players is perfect. As the films credits rolled, I saw movie-goers trading high-fives and chest bumps, no doubt leaving the theater certain that this road to glory for Texas Western and the world of college basketball was now on the superhighway to equality.
But that's not true, either.
UTEP, now a school with a Hispanic majority, has had countless black athletes who have, like the 1966 Miners, brought attention to the school — athletes like Bob Beamon, Seth Joyner, Tim Hardaway and Antonio Davis.
But consider this: Since that glorious 1966 game, UTEP has had seven athletics directors, 11 football coaches, four men's track coaches and three other basketball coaches. (Don Haskins finally retired in 1999.) That's 25 positions of leadership for some deserving coach.
Yet, every one of those 25 has been filled by a white male. Not a single black man. Or a Hispanic man. Or a woman of any race. Too bad that Don Haskins hasn't been doing the hiring.
Sadly, it's not just UTEP that has this problem. NCAA Division I-A football counts over a hundred teams as members. More than 50 percent of the players are black. Yet less than 3 percent of the head coaches are black.
In fact, the exact number in Division I-A football is 5 coaches out of 119 teams. That is less than the NFL (6 black head coaches) and the NFL only has thirty-two teams. One reason for this is that the NFL has implemented an aggressive affirmative action program, requiring that each team interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching vacancy. And the turnarounds created by coaches such as Tony Dungy at Indianapolis and Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati make it clear that blacks have what it takes to coach in the NFL, and blow out of the water the idea that there are a shortage of blacks who can do the job. Colleges, which are still tied financially to boosters, which may include 'good old boys' networks, have no such plan. The SEC, the conference most associated with racial decisions (and the last one to integrate) has yet, to this day, to hire a black head football coach at any of its twelve schools.
Well, we know that college sports has a way to go, what about the rest of society? There are those who suggest that the laws that have been passed making discrimination illegal obviate the need for affirmative action and more regulation.
Unfortunately they are wrong. It is true that if you can prove discrimination in matters like housing, employment or job promotion, you now have the right to go to court. Unfortunately, this process is time consuming and expensive, and as we saw after Katrina, racial discrimination in housing (in that case, housing evacuees) does still happen.
Further, those who oppose continuing Federal regulation to protect against discrimination are generally those who wonder why African-Americans continue to vote in the 90% range for Democrats. The answer is quite simple, in fact. After 100 years of segregation, it required the Federal Government, whether under Eisenhower, Kennedy or Johnson, to force open a segregated society after Brown vs. Board of Education. So while those who believed in equality fought and united and won on their own, it is certainly true that some bastions of segregation, such as Central High in Little Rock or the University of Alabama, could not be desegregated without the use or threatened use of Federal force. The Federal government then continued to monitor the situation to make sure things were going forward. Now, we know that Republicans have preached for years, 'state's rights' and about smaller, more limited Federal government. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if a state changed something a few years ago only because of the Federal Government, that if the Feds take the pressure off, there will be a movement in that state (which may or may not eventually be successful) to return back to the 'old way of doing things'. And we know the old way of doing things was not healthy, in a lot of ways, if you are African-American. So, most African-Americans vote Democratic because they would rather see the Federal government remain involved with these kinds of things and not just trust states to do the right thing. History suggests that this is prudent.
As to those who argue that because everyone has an equal opportunity now, according to the law, affirmative action is no longer necessary, they are also wrong. To see why, consider a sports analogy:
Suppose that you are playing on the road in a football game. In the first half, the referees are not around. So they pull a few fans out of the front row (by coincidence the front row is where the other's teams biggest boosters sit), hand them whistles and flags and start the game. During the first half, no penalties are called on their team (despite cheap shots on almost every play), they get generous spots, even to the point of having the referee nudge the ball a little if you think you stopped them short, and your team is called tight, for even the smallest penalty, and if a player on your team makes a good run anyway, it is called back because of a 'ghost' penalty. Because of this one sided refereeing, your team is down 40-0 at halftime. At halftime, the real referees show up and agree to start calling the game fairly, but in a concession to the other team, they agree to keep the score from the first half as it is when starting the second half. Now, you could work your tail off in the second half, but 40-0 is a huge deficit, and while a few teams might manage to climb out of that hole (and be held up as examples that 'anyone could do it') most won't manage to overcome such a huge deficit. And so it is with minorities (not just African-Americans) in America today. The law may say everyone has the same opportunities now, but they are still largely behind the eight-ball because of blighted neighborhoods, lousy schools, high unemployement and other problems that may well have their roots during segregation (as well as a few, i.e. drugs, that have nothing to do with segregation and everything to do with scoping out a population vulnerable to your sales pitch.) And holding up the occasional kid who grows up in a ghetto or a barrio and becomes highly successful as an adult as proof that people can succeed from anywhere in life, is like holding up the powerball lottery winner as proof that we don't need social welfare, and poor people should buy lotto tickets instead. Sure, anyone can succeed (theoretically) but most don't succeed when the deck is stacked against them.
One does not have to agree with the solution to this problem (I myself believe that we still need some level of affirmative action, and I would propose an ongoing program, rather than direct cash compensation for the government refusing to honor '40 acres and a mule,' that instead focused on education and scholarships, money for small business startups and homebuyer assistance.)
In fact, black people are still facing the adverse effects of slavery as well, but segregation is much more recent and its effects are quantifiable (and to be honest, society did as a whole pay dearly for the costs of failing to stomp out slavery earlier-- probably close to a million lives, nearly all white, lost in the Civil War, which determined (among other things) that there would be no more slavery in America.)
Other minorities, such as Hispanics and Native Americans generally did not suffer from slavery (there was an attempt made by the Spanish in Mexico to enslave the local population, but the effects were disastrous, in that many of them died and in close quarters spread pandemics among themselves and their masters), but have suffered from segregation and discrimination.
What about reverse discrimination? Well, it exists. To deny that is as foolish as denying that there is still traditional discrimination. Mayor Nagin's recent 'chocolate city' remark notwithstanding, there is no doubt that racial tension and discrimination can cut both ways. Until we can all (no matter who we are) accept Neapolitan ice cream in our town, we will continue to have problems with race.
And attitudes like those I discussed earlier? Yes, they exist as well. And there will always be some people who insist on it. However, the best way to fight these sorts of attitudes is to stand up and speak out when we hear someone say it, no matter where we are. However, I am also optimistic that as society grows towards diversity, it will be harder and harder to maintain these kinds of attitudes.
Is America's race problem better? Yes. Is it good enough to declare that it is over? Absolutely not. And there is no excuse why it is not.