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In a Facebook post last Saturday, after reading an online CNN article “What protesters say is fueling their anger," I wondered what I could do to help eliminate racism, which is causing so much harm to our collective humanity. I wasn’t sure what to do first.causing so much harm to our collective humanity
As a law professor and member of the Sports Lawyers Association (including 2 years as its president and 18 years on its board of directors) for 30+ years, I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know and work with many persons of color as students and professional colleagues. I’ve become friends with many of them. During the past couple days, I learned that I didn’t know some of them very well.
On Sunday, I read a Facebook post by a former student stating: “Black people need your empathy. Put yourself in my shoes. I jog nearly everyday in the suburbs of North Dallas, but I run with my dog because I know that I somehow appear ‘less intimidating’ to the general public as a black man running with our family pet. . . . I have three kids - two of which are boys. I fear the day that I am forced to have the conversation with them that many Americans see them as a threat simply because of the melanin in their skin. . . . Over the summer before I went to college, I had a police officer pull a gun on me in the 90s when he pulled me over simply because he said I didn’t ‘belong in this neighborhood’ where I actually grew up. He said ‘give me a reason’ to pull the trigger. I was merely a teenager with a gun pointed at the left side of my head during a traffic stop. I recall that day like it was yesterday.”
I responded: “Very sorry you personally experienced such horrifying racism (like so many others). It’s appalling, and NO human being should be subjected to and have to live in fear of it happening again! I hear you and strongly agree that racism must be publicly condemned, most especially by whites.”
He replied: “Thank you. I appreciate your awareness of the situation. . . . Have an intentional conversation with your own friends and family, on my behalf.”
On Monday, I reached out to two fellow sports law professors and said “I'm so sorry each of you probably have been subjected to prejudice, discrimination, and injustice that I haven't faced simply because I was born as a white male.”
On Tuesday, one of them responded: “Thank you for your note. I really appreciate your sentiments. It has been a horrific past several weeks, making worse the already horrid 4 last years we've lived through, which made worse for me the already challenging decades I've spent coming of age as a black man in America. I thank God that I've never been beaten by a police officer, but I have been ordered out of the car and searched while the canine unit was called - then told to not look at the police while they were searching the car and to instead look at the canines who were barking and trying to lunge out of the police car windows at me and my friend. Impossible for my heart not to race now when I hear a police siren behind me. And I consider myself very lucky. I was neither physically harmed nor killed. Countless have suffered much worse. But it is still hard. I apologize if I have shared too much, but I appreciate your sincerity of your note and wanted to be fully open in my response.”
I replied: “I appreciate very much your trust and willingness to share your sentiments. It helps me have a better understanding of what it often feels like to be in the shoes of black persons, particularly boys and men. Having adopted African American and Hispanic male cousins and living across the street from Cabrini Green in Chicago, I'm well aware that life is usually more difficult for persons of color--quite unfairly! I simply can't even begin to understand why some people are so racist, but admittedly I'm very naïve when it comes to things I don't understand. My rather simple philosophy is that none of us has a choice whether we're born or the circumstances into which we enter the world as well as little (if any) choice regarding how long we'll be around. Life is short, fragile, and unpredictable, so all we can do is make the most of it and enjoy the ride! The least we can all do is treat everyone with dignity, kindness, and respect while striving to provide everyone with a fair opportunity to maximize his or her God-given potential. The world needs diverse cultures, experiences, talents, and viewpoints now more than ever. A homogenous world wouldn't be worth living in and probably couldn't last very long. We can't erase the past or the deep pain caused to so many persons of color, but we damn sure can learn from the past and work together to get to know each other better (a former Northwestern football suggested taking an African American history course--a good idea), so that everyone has a better present and future!”
Now I know that getting to know the experience-based perspectives of persons of color—and sharing it with white family members, friends, and professional colleagues as well as publicly—is a very good starting point. In addition, it’s very important to recognize and acknowledge the literally millions of individual contributions that persons of color have made to American society that have enriched the lives of white people, despite a history of bondage and systematic discrimination against them.
There’s an important lesson to be learned from one of my favorite sports movies, Rocky III, in which Rocky Balboa avenges the death of his friend and former opponent Apollo Creed by defeating Ivan Drago in a boxing match in Moscow on Christmas Day. After initially being loudly booed and disparaged by the Russian crowd, as the fight goes on, it recognizes Rocky’s underdog status and tenacity, encouraging him in its final rounds by shouting “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky.” After winning the bout, Rocky tells the crowd: “At first you didn’t like me. I didn’t like yous much either. Then I sensed a change. If you can change, and I can change—then we can all change.”
Matthew J. Mitten, Professor of Law and Executive Director, National Sports Law Institute, Marquette University Law School
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