Monday, January 30, 2006

Race relations in sports, and in society.

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.


Clockworkchris said...

There are plenty of excuses-because excuses are scape goats. There are no valid reasons. Glad you reviwed that movie for me cause I wanted to see it but I'll wait for the DVD now. Racisim is always going to be a part of American culture. It's how America was founded-stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving African people. Even if it was made totally illegal to mention a racist term or be racist in any way, another predjudice would just come and take it's place, not to mention the millions who would think it. As far as the biblical story goes-I agree with you completely-it had no mention of a physical darkness-and I as you will stop there, because this is no religious blog. Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

I don't think we will always have racism. My Grandparents have some racist tendencies but I have none. I figure by the time my children are of a voting age, racism will be no more common than other stupid things like illiterate people. In fact, probably the only racists left will be the illiterate.

Lily said...

But you underscore the point that we have to look at what indicators show 'racism' has been eradicated... To me, LEADERSHIP positions are more indicative of progress than strategies to win games. Sure, people are color blind when it involves an obvious gain, performance that is observable. We can pat such coaches on the back and say 'how wonderful'. Wonderful?
It is not so easy to prove oneself when one can't get a foot in the door of management, whether in business, sports, whatever. We will know that we have equity when we don't have to look at representation issues and ask why for example there are few African American teachers and principals in schools with 70% African American student populations, when we don't have to ask why more women have advanced degrees but their leadership numbers remain proportionately small..or why male dominated jobs pay more than 'pink collar'...etc. etc.

Eli Blake said...


On the whole, it was worth the price of admission-- but then I had two nine year olds with me who I feel it is important to help them develop a sense of history and social consciousness. But although they were realistic about the challenges that the black players faced (including a scene where they return to their hotel room and have slurs and obscenties written all over their walls in blood), the speech that they had Haskins give before the game really didn't sit right with me. Especially since quoting what he actually said about it would have done justice to the man (who deserves to be respected) anyway.

Eli Blake said...


We have a chance to live in a society without racism, but to do that we have to move concretely to address the glaring inequities that we see (which race plays into since minorities are disproportionately poor.) As far as these inequities are the result of past racism, we need to do enough to truly guarantee equality. Without it, people will continue to categorize each other, together with the attendant emotional baggage.

Keep in mind that racism doesn't always have to be a Klansman with a rope, either. It can be much more subtle, such as an interviewer giving a job with someone who makes them feel 'more comfortable,' because they come from a similar cultural background.

Anonymous said...

Racism is in all of us... even if we do not want to think so. Have you seen the movie Crash? “I will understand you.

"I will judge you. I will berate you. I will help you. I will need you. I will comfort you. I will abandon you. I will love you. I will kill you.” - Crash

…we are all victims… and we are all guilty of it…

dorsano said...

Racism is in all of us

I agree with Eddie on this one - racist tendencies have moderated and I see no reason to yield to them a premanent place in our culture.

Anonymous said...

I have a first cousin that is full blooded Navajo American, her kids are half-Navajo Americans and are incredibly beatiful. My brother Married a Hispanic American. So that makes his kids my Half-Hispanic American nephews. My Older Sisters are from my mom's first marriage to a German American (who fought with the US special forces Airborne units against Germany), so they are half German Americans. My Niece from my oldest sister married an African American and so their kids are half African Americans and one quarter-half German Americans. My Wifes brother and his wife adopted 2 African Americans and 2 ??Americans so they are my nieces and nephews that are half African Americans and some are ???Americans. My wife and I adopted one half-italian American, and 2 half-hispanic Americans. Our kids who are half-hispanic have whiter skin than I do. My Great grandmother on my Dad's side was Charlotte Townsend and she was full blooded Cherokee. My Dad was raised in Nogales AZ on the Mexican Border and was fluently bilingual. I spent two years im Asia living with and loving those good people. I worked for 6 years on a factory in inner-city Jacksonville where 95 percent of my co-workers were African Americans and I learned to appreciate their hard work and good qualities. My wife is half Austrian and half German. My last name is from France. My French ancestors were French refugees who came to North America seeking freedom in the 1700's. One of my direct ancestors was John Hancock who signed the Declaration of Independence.

My hair is blond. I am a man. I vote largely republican. Am I a racist? I am so sick of hearing from the left in this country that because I am not visibly a minority male that I should feel guilty. That somehow the racist label applies to everybody except people with obviously minority colored skin.

I can't wait for the day when African Americans, Chinese Americans, Regular Americans, and ???? Americans can just be Americans.

As far as I am concerned the reason we still have such divisions is because certain leaders in Various Minority Communities won't let the past go. Some groups and political parties benefit by keeping the lines separating us nice and wide drawn nice and wide.

Why on earth do we still have to call an American any kind of an American other than just American???????????????????

Good Grief, If I work with a person can't I just say's his name? Do I really have to say that he is black, white, purple or red. Do I really have to know whether he is Hispanic/African/French. Heck no!!! I don't give a *****.

When I am filling out a survey that asks my race I leave it blank because frankly I am just a plain old ???? American. I'm sure not a white man. What in the heck is a white man anyway????

Anonymous said...

You can feel guilty for me. Get real. Just because you live in America it doesn't make you racist.