Saturday, November 12, 2005

Is It Really About Race?

It's Saturday, which means college football. I'm becoming a fan of football as a relative of mine is an NFL star (don't ask, I'm not telling), but also because my partner is a football fan. I really like college football because it's a 4-year audition for the NFL. It's exciting to watch. Rushers rush for a kabillion yards, defensive players hit like tanks, and you never hear about fickle fans. College fans, specifically tailgaters, are fans through and through.

Recently, Fisher DeBerry, head coach of the Air Force Academy's football team made a statement about Black athletes being better. He's not the first to say it, nor will he be the last. CBS's sports commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder got fired in the 80's for elaborating on this theme, even going so far as referring to how slave owners would breed "big (Black) women" to make big kids with strong backs and legs, perfect for totin' barges and liftin' bales. ABC's in-studio co-host of Saturday football, John Saunders, who, is Black, spoke with Penn State football's head coach Joe Paterno about Deberry's comments. Paterno's response was interesting. Specifically, Saunders' question was what was different about sports now versus twenty or thirty years ago, and Paterno said that Black athletes have brought an excitement to the game. Saunders, wisely, probed a bit further, citing Deberry's comments, to which Paterno said that Black athletes weren't necessarily better because they were Black, but because they were hungrier and worked harder to make the most of an opportunity.

That doesn't sound racial, does it? It sound like a matter of class. We wouldn't think twice about using terms like hungry and opportunity if we were talking about what made one entrepreneur better than another. Look at Martha Stewart. She saw an opportunity and capitalized on it. Women had chipped away at the glass ceiling, and became part of the work force past being coffee-making, letter-taking secretaries, and were looking for ways to make home management, well, manageable. Personally, I didn't learn how to operate a washing machine until I was 22. Martha Stewart made a mint on tidbits like folding a t-shirt. Paterno's point was that young Black men worked hard to become better athletes, and benefitted from becoming better, and enhanced the game as a result.

The same could be said about the situation in France. Young people who don't have the same opportunities to work on becoming really good at something, don't have the same chance as someone with opportunity. I'm not naive, I'm not suggesting that race isn't at all involved. Certainly, as a Black woman visiting Paris, I noticed that the only people who looked like me in a restaurant were working in the kitchen, and not in a leadership position like cooking. The maid in my hotel was Black. I'm suggesting that if schools, vocational training, and recreational facilities were equal for everyone, regardless of income, there would be greater opportunities for success. It's the same wherever you go.

One of John Saunders' co-hosts, Aaron Taylor, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, said as a young person, he was out playing ball, not sitting around playing video games. Again, this sounds like class, not race. If safe parks, properly-funded afterschool programs, decent schools and training programs existed in poor neighborhoods, no matter what their ethnic makeup, there would be fewer chances for young people to get in trouble, and more chances for them to excel. The so-called rioters in France have said the same thing.

The movie "8 Mile" tells the story of White rapper and opportunity seeker Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith. He works in a sheet metal factory, shares a one-bedroom trailer with his unemployed mother, who looks to be only 15 years older than her 20-something son, and a young girl named Lily, who isn't, to me, identified as either Rabbit's daughter or sister. Rabbit sings to her and tucks her into bed at night as a parent would, but given his mother's inability to take care of herself except to catch a man, Rabbit probably had to become parental, irrespective of Lily's parentage. Black characters in the movie, specifically friends "Future," host of the weekly MC battle that Rabbit aspires to win, and "Sol George," who, unlike Rabbit, has access to a car, necessary in this part of town without much public transportation, obviously have more opportunity than Rabbit (and, incidentally, Rabbit's White friend, Cheddar Bob). Why, the supposed star of rival crew, and reigning champ of the MC battle, Papa Doc, who is exposed as a prep school graduate whose real name is Clarence, and whose parents have a "real nice marriage" is Black.

America is unwilling to look at class and poverty, and how they really affect advancement, irrespective of race. Yes, racism is very real, but so is classism. Perhaps we need to look further at class, and not be so quick to assume that a situation involving people of color is only about race.

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