Given that Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s been a strange week in race relations.
On Sunday, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman became the focus of criticism as cameras televised him taunting and badmouthing an opposing wide receiver moments after Sherman made an incredible, perhaps game-saving play in the end zone to secure the NFC Championship for his team.
Minutes later, the NFL All-Pro cornerback launched into a petty tirade about being disrespected during a postgame interview with a rather stunned Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews.
Yes, Sherman was caught up in the moment, but there was nothing gracious or sportsmanlike in his victory rant. It was all about him.
At least one online column suggested that the ensuing public outcry was less about Sherman’s on-the-field actions and interview demeanor and more to do with the fact that he’s black. I initially scoffed at the notion. It wasn’t about race; his idiocy and the color of his skin are unrelated. But Sherman, in later apologizing for his actions, noted that he received racist tweets, including death threats.
Then on Tuesday I read about an Arizona State University fraternity hosting a MLK party in which white college students dressed as black youth, a rather narrow and stereotypical view that included NBA jerseys, bandannas, and watermelon drinking mugs. I suppose dressing up as the President of the United States was too obvious.
Judging by the Instagram photos posted by some of the ASU students attending the party, all smiles and attempted gang signs and cartoonish rap video poses, they didn’t consider their crass behavior as mean spirited or racist. Or, they simply didn’t care.
These separate but related incidents left me wondering how far we’ve come in overcoming racism? Will it ever really go away? Or, will it simply disappear into the shadows until provoked?
Our election of a black president was a remarkable and celebrated milestone in civil rights. Skim through message board posts attached to an online story about President Obama, however, and you’ll cringe as angry dissent over his politics and style of governance rapidly devolves into easy and nasty insults about his race.
More subtle but no less racially charged was Fox News pundits’ declarative proclamations of Santa Claus and Jesus as white during the holidays. This nonstarter was pushed on viewers as part of the network’s annual “War on Christmas” tirade and as a poke at the PC police.
After setting aside the factual inaccuracies of Santa and Jesus as white dudes, I’m left to wonder, Does it even matter? If Santa is black is he somehow less magical to white children? And if Jesus isn’t the hunky blue-eyed, fair-skinned model as portrayed in movies and in modern paintings, does that devalue his meaning to millions of white believers?
Such race-baiting only crystallizes the cold truth that racial equality remains a work in progress, a start-stop marathon of civil rights advances best measured through historical reflection and those occasional moments — good and bad — that capture our national attention.
Shortly after I began my freshman year at Texas Tech University, a Tech fraternity hosted a “Ghetto Party,” in which young white men wore blackface and ate watermelon. The university and community were indignant to the overtly racist event and the fraternity was punished.
That was nearly 25 years ago.
Meanwhile, Monday was a celebration and remembrance of the man who gave his life in the struggle for racial equality.
And as many of us chose to reflect on King’s sacrifice and hopeful message of tolerance, it was a small group of college students who reminded us — again — of the long journey still ahead to join him on that mountaintop.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.