On Black History Month

Below the jump is a post I wanted to write about the recent incidents surrounding racism and Black History Month.  It's after the jump because it is not really directly tied to Mizzou Athletics in any way, and I didn't want to feel my opinions about this were taking up huge space on the Rock M main page.  Obviously my opinions are my own and are not intended to reflect those of Ross and other authors associated with the site.  If you're interested in the discussion, by all means click on this.  If not, I won't be offended if you ignore it entirely.

For two straight years now, the University of Missouri has been embarrassed during Black History Month.  Last year, cotton balls were scattered in front of the Black Culture Center.  And this past weekend, a young man in dread locks (the definition of irony) tagged racist graffiti on a piece of art outside of Hatch Hall.  I'm not going to pretend that Mizzou is alone in experiencing these incidents -- far from it, I'm sure -- but they have been made public here, and I wanted to say a few words about it.  Never mind if it happens elsewhere ... why is it happening here?

If you're going to read two articles/posts about the incident, I would recommend Kim English's response to the incident in The Missourian, and our countrycal's comment about it from Saturday night.

First, Kimmie.  You can say he's just a basketball player, but the fact is, he is one of the current faces of the student body, and being that he comes from a completely different part of the country, his opinion on the matter is both noteworthy and interesting.

"Things like that don’t upset me because I know that people like that exist," English said. "Hopefully they won’t, but they probably always will."

An MU student was arrested Saturday in connection with racist graffiti painted outside Hatch Residence Hall. The incident took place late Friday or early Saturday morning, almost a year after two MU students scattered cotton balls in front of MU's Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.

"We’ve came such a long way and still have such a long way to go," said English, who is black. "It’s a conservative state, close to the South. I wasn’t blinded to the fact coming out here. I mean, it’s happened two years in a row. I hope they catch the guys and kick them out of school, because what that guy does doesn’t represent what most people at the University of Missouri, or the state of Missouri, feel."

Following Missouri’s win 84-61 win over Oklahoma on Saturday, English posted a message to his Twitter account. The message was simple. Those responsible for the spray painting were cowards. It wasn’t long before responses from some of his 4,926 followers started showing up.

"When I tweeted that I got probably a couple hundred responses from my followers saying that 'That's not Mizzou,'" English said. "I respect that, and I understand that. We have a black head coach, a predominantly black team, a black president. Most of the nation doesn’t feel that way, but one idiot did."

(Now, I know enough good, conservative people -- I did grow up in Oklahoma, after all -- to want to stick up for them and point out that "conservative" and "racist" is, to say the least, not the ideal correlation to make, even if unintentional; but that's an entirely different post.  And he obviously didn't mean "conservatives = racist" -- he just needs to be a little more careful in the way he uses those two terms.  He's also, what, 20 years old?  He's probably more eloquent than I was at that age, so I'll give him a pass on this one.)

Kimmie is somewhat correct -- this is indeed a bit of a Southern state.  It's also a bit of a Northern state.  It's a rich state and a poor state, a rural state and an urban state, a diverse state and a somewhat segregated one, a liberal one and a conservative one.  In 2000, this state voted for George W. Bush for president ... and chose a dead Democrat over well-established, living Republican for Senate.  This odd diversity has resulted in all of the state's great qualities ... and all of its terrible ones.

From Columbia, I am not far from amazing barbecue (both of the Kansas City and southern varieties), biscuits and gravy, and Chicago-style pizza, some of the best of northern and southern cuisine.  I'm surrounded by both modern society and Civil War relics.  I'm not far from the Negro League Hall of Fame ... and I'm not far from Dixie flags and some extreme backwoods racism.  It's all here, within some oddly-shaped borders.  I worked for the State for a few years, and I visited some small Missouri towns a few times.  There were times when I felt right at home (I grew up in a town of 10K), and there were times when I felt a little anxious and uncomfortable ... and I'm white.

This really is an interesting place to live, and I will endlessly defend it to outsiders (of which I was once one) ... but at the same time, after spending most of my first 18 years in another state, I can say that there is a lot of underlying tension in this state.  In Oklahoma, OU and OSU fans are rivals ... and in many ways, it doesn't compare to the rivalry between Missouri fans ... and other Missouri fans.  There is an insecurity here that often leads to some impressive negativity.  Like feeling angry enough that another race got a "month" that you feel the need to taunt them with cotton balls or the N-word.  I can't say I remember anything like this happening when I was in school a decade-plus ago, but given that we (Americans, not Missourians) have become nothing if not angrier and more polarized in the last decade, I can't say it surprises me too much.

On to countrycal's enlightening comment that I am grateful he posted:

In the late 60s and early 70s I never ran across a single incident of overt racism on campus, even though there was a major problem reported nationwide with the Black Panthers, Black Underground, etc. rioting in major cities and universities.

Granted, I am white, but I had several close friends of other race during my years at MU, and never heard from them about any problems whatsoever. There was some political unrest on campus, but it was not racial.  However, in the early 80s I was a reporter in a college town in the south and witnessed many racial issues surface on the nearby campus – some of which became quite serious. In investigating the matter for our paper, I came across something which always intrigued me: the more diversity programs on campus, the more racial issues on campus. When summer came and diversity emphasis ebbed away, the student body had less racial tensions. There became strong opposition, however, when diversity awareness classes were required of all students – including acts similar to those reported in Columbia this week.

I am in no way suggesting that diversity training produces racial hatred. Instead, I am noting that persons who are inherently racist, tend to become more and more belligerent as they see the source of their discontent getting what they believe to be "special treatment." More than once I had young people lacking certain social graces make statements to me to the tune of, "They are no more special than we are; why are they being treated as better than us?"

While some would identify this attitude as "redneck ignorance," I believe it is something different. I believe it is basic envy; not necessarily wanting special attention themselves, just not wanting it for others solely because they have a different skin color.

In a lot of ways, this reminds me of when I was five and talking to my mom about Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day.  "Why isn't there a Kids' Day?"  "Because every day is Kids' Day."

Black History Month has never, in any way, shape or form, been about telling white people that blacks are "more special" than them.  To me, it's always just been about exposure.  Each February, I hear a story I haven't heard before or learn about an author/artist/whatever to which I had never been exposed.  And that's awesome.

Aside: over the last few months, I've become borderline obsessed with soccer and its history.  A friend of mine and I have been addicted to the Football Manager game (for more on it, go here), and a few weeks ago, I realized why I've become so hooked.  First, I've watched enough soccer by now that I've come to enjoy it a good amount; plus, its added HD presence (thanks to ESPN) has helped.  Like hockey, it is a beautiful game to watch in HD.  When added to the fact that I get the Fox Soccer Channel now, I've probably watched more soccer games since the World Cup than I did in the rest of my life to date (and I always watch the hell out of the World Cup).  So there's that.

But here's the other reason I've become so hooked on soccer: it's got a history to which I've barely been exposed.  I've been obsessed with sports all my life, and I could list all or most NFL, MLB and NBA champions dating back to the 1940s.  I could tell you just about every meaningful thing that has happened in college football in the last 30 years (though I'm still learning about its history as well, which has been incredibly rewarding).  But even though I always get hooked on the World Cup, my knowledge of club soccer history before the past six months has been, basically, "Manchester United is really good.  So are Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, and A.C. Milan.  And maybe Ajax and Juventus too, but I'm not sure."  I also knew that Nottingham Forest, the team I adopted on a trip to England in the mid-1990s, basically pulled a Pittsburgh Pirates the moment I started rooting for them.  That's about it.  Learning about teams' history -- the Everton-Liverpool rivalry in the 1980s, Leeds United's amazing money-related collapse, just how good Forest was back in the day, etc. -- has been so much fun.

The reason I'm sharing this story should be obvious, I hope: in more important ways, I view Black History Month in the same way -- it's an opportunity to learn.  In the past few years, I've discovered James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Cornel West, etc., and whether I agree with everything they write or not (and where's the fun if you do agree with everything?), their books have been some of the most interesting and enjoyable things I've read since I left school.  I know how easy it is to boil this month down to "diversity seminars," "sensitivity training," and other semi-worthless activities.  And I agree that only those who are self-directed are going to take anything away from such a thing.  But it's not that hard to do, it's potentially very rewarding, and it's worth the annoying stuff you have to sit through as, basically, a formality.

Nothing chafes independent-thinking people more than being told how they should think about others, or with whom they should associate. The freedom of association is especially important to the Scots-Irish who populated the Appalachian and Ozark Moutain belt across the mid-south from the Carolinas to Oklahoma. The unbelievabe influence of these Scots-Irish across the nation is wonderfully documented in Senator James Webb’s book, "Born Fighting: How the Scots Irish Shaped America."

I wonder if societal dictates on how we should assimilate do not in themselves become the greatest impediment to true assimilation; especially among young people experiencing a much greater level of independence than ever before as they begin their educational journey.

As has been noticed on RMN many times: haters are going to hate. Most of the young people I interviewed in rural Georgia in the 80s were not true haters- of others, or of themselves. But they were determined to find balance in their campus society; unfortunately, some used cruder and less acceptable methods of doing so than others.

Just thinkin’ outloud . . . take it for what it’s worth.

I don't think "societal dictates" become any more of an impediment than what previously existed -- I just think mass efforts to educate or change minds is almost always doomed to fail.  People who don't want to learn about other cultures, won't.  People who do, will.  So I guess it comes down to this: should we stop trying?  Because "societal dictates" are simply extensions of the attitude that we should always be trying to become more accepting and learn about people with different backgrounds than our own.  Haters are indeed going to hate.  And sometimes they are going to write nasty words in public settings.  Maybe Black History Month gives them impetus to do such a thing, but it was in them to begin with. A sensitivity seminar probably isn't going to do anything to stop anything (other than making it, increment by increment, less acceptable to do such a thing).  Nor will diversity training teach you anything that you couldn't learn better in The Souls of Black Folk or The Fire Next Time.  But in my mind, trying is still better than giving up on the whole thing.  Pressing when you're down by 25 can be annoying, especially if you're committing fouls and extending the game in the process, but it's better than just accepting a loss, right?

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