I was driving home recently and listening to a talk show about the social unrest in my country, the United States. The host was white and the guest was Black. After a couple minutes of discussion, the guest asked the host a powerful question.
“Have you ever woken in the morning and started to worry that the colour of your skin might negatively impact your life – or the life of the people you love – on that particular day?”
Wow. I’d never thought about that and I got the feeling the host hadn’t either. After a few moments the host said, no, it had never happened to him.
The guest proceeded to give a few examples of the times he’s wondered if the black colour of his skin might hurt him or his loved ones.
“Will I get verbally abused or rejected in some way for dating a white woman? Will I be denied an apartment lease due to the colour of my skin? Will being Black hurt my chances of getting a job? Or getting a raise? Or a promotion? Will my kids be taunted at their predominantly white school for being Black? Will I, or my family members, be in physical danger if pulled over by a white police officer?”
He said that was but a partial list.
I thought about that conversation the rest of my drive home. I realized I’d never thought about whether the colour of my skin might negatively impact my life in a certain situation.
That, my friends, is white privilege.
That Blacks in the United States still have these kinds of worries 157 years after the Emancipation Proclamation; 73 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act; and 53 years after the last state (Virginia) took laws off the books that outlawed marriage between Blacks and Whites, is unfathomable and very, very sad.
Certainly, the United States has made significant strides when it comes to equal treatment and equal justice for Blacks. But the point is we’re still not there.
Of all countries, the United States – the country that gave us standards like “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and “Liberty and justice for all” – should have evolved as a society by this point so people with black skin could be on equal footing with those with white skin. We all know, deep in our hearts and souls, that isn’t the case.
So how do we get to equality, fairness and justice for all in the United States?
I think athletes and other sports figures have the potential to lead the way.
Sport is a powerful cultural institution. Athletes have social influence well beyond that of people from other walks of life.
America’s athletes come from all races, genders, religions and countries. They provide a great example of working together for a common goal.
Athletes have fought to level the playing fields in their sports for decades. On many occasions, the gains they made in their sport filtered outside the sports realm and positively impacted the society as a whole. Think Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Curt Flood, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Muhammad Ali for starters.
These courageous athletes/activists changed not only sports for the better but also society as a whole. They pursued justice with passion – and often with great personal sacrifice.
Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the role an athlete played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s when he said, “Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
Athletes are clearly ready to help the cause and, perhaps, even lead it, as the recent boycotts across the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, Women’s National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Football League have shown.
This athlete-led movement needs a face – or two. Ideally, we have one Black sports figure and one white sports figure taking the lead.
I believe lasting change is going to require two things:
- a significant majority of white Americans being completely on board with this social justice effort;
- the movement being driven by love and peaceful actions.
Anger and violence don’t touch the hearts of others. Open and transparent hearts – even hearts in pain – do.
This is where King re-enters the picture.
“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love,” said King. “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence.”
The violence in American streets today – even if by a relatively small minority – is drowning out the powerful message of the majority.
The violence must end.
Our athlete-led movement must be a peaceful one. Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier and helped spur the American civil rights movement by refusing to react violently to the violent words and actions against him. That must be the path forward today as well.
“The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide,” said King. “The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.
“We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.”
In this year of the deadly COVID-19 virus, here’s hoping that in the months ahead we all catch a benign virus, one that makes us all spiritually healthier and results in equality, fairness and justice for all.
That benign virus is King’s teachings.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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