“I Know What You Said…And, I Know What You Meant”

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“We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” ~ Bob McNair, Owner Houston Texans

Well, it’s happened again. A powerful White man whose business is almost solely supported by Black labor has said aloud what has been ruminating in his head. In 2014 then Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, was banned from the NBA because his racist conversations were recorded and released to the public. As shocked as everyone seemed to be, it is clear to most Black people statements like those of Sterling are common place among Whites—both those in power and those in lowly positions. We know that many Whites harbor incredibly racist thoughts about Blacks and other people of color. And, in a free society they are allowed to have those thoughts. But, for the last few decades, in this post-Civil Rights Era, we have come to expect people to at least monitor their behavior in a society that is rapidly changing along racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexuality, and ability lines.

When Paula Dean, the Food Network star, was castigated for having used the N-word, most Black people I knew who were at least 50 years old shrugged their shoulders and said, “Of course a 60 year old woman from the South has used the N-word. We’d be shocked if she hadn’t.” We recognize that as long as we live and operate in ethnic enclaves unsavory racial and racist comments will be spoken.

We are in an especially difficult time in our country. Racism has reared its ugly head in all kinds of places. We see it on our college campuses. We see it in corporate boardrooms. We even see it in the highest office of the land when the President declares that “there were bad people on ‘both sides’,” when referring to Nazi, Klan, and White supremacists protestors and their counter protestors.

Houston Texan football team owner Bob McNair revealed something that has bothered me about American football and basketball for a long time. African American athletes dominate both sports. And although they are well compensated, they play sports that have no guarantee of career security or longevity. At each contest players are one play away from some career-ending injury. And, they make the owners an astronomical amount of money. The NFL owners are worth between 2 and 6 plus billion dollars! Bob McNair is worth 3.8 billion. But he believes that the simple act of taking a knee in protest of continued police brutality against African Americans represents “the inmates running the prison.” Actually, I think he really means, “the slaves are running the plantation.” In his mind he “bought” these players and they are to do what he wants them to do.

The relationship between an employer and employee is often fraught with tension. They are not in an equal status relationship. But, they are supposed to be in a respectful relationship. Their contracts determine the parameters of that relationship. But working for someone does not mean they own you. The 13th amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude but far too many powerful White people act as if the amendment is just a formality or a suggestion.

Bob McNair is not alone in his low opinion of Black athletes. Their bodies are mere interchangeable parts on the fields, stadiums, and courts they own. They are their “boys” and for the most part all they want from them is to be “good boys” who win games and earn the owners more money. When they struggle with substance addictions or devolve into situations involving domestic violence the only thing the owners seem to want to know is how soon they can get back on the field or court. But when they express a political opinion they are seen as stepping out of line. They are being “uppity” and no one likes an “uppity” Negro!

Bob McNair has since apologized and claims his remark was not aimed at the players but at the league office. But that makes no sense. The league office is not subservient to the teams. The league office administers the game. It dispatches the officials. It is the place where the rules get made. They are SUPPOSED to run the league, so saying they are the “inmates “is nonsense. Mr. McNair, we know what you said…and more important, we know what you meant!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“Where Black Excellence Abounds”

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I had one of my all time great weekends this past Friday and Saturday. I went to my undergraduate college homecoming weekend. I graduated from Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD) and I was celebrating the reunion of the class of ’68 (we kick off our 50th celebration at Homecoming and culminate at Commencement in May 1968). On many of my Facebook posts I posted photos and comments from the university’s Gala, the football game, a class of ’69 reception (that I crashed…because I was supposed to be in that class but did enough summer school credits to graduate with the class of ’68) and my own class party. What struck me throughout the weekend was how many outstanding African Americans have passed through my life at that little college (now about 7,500 students, about 4,000 when I attended).

Morgan State University is celebrating its sesquicentennial and it has been an amazing 150 years. In May the National Preservation Trust designated the campus a National Treasure. As I sat at the Homecoming Gala of close to 1,000 attendees I could not help but notice the outstanding accomplishments of fellow Morganites. I sat at a table with a classmate who is the Senate President Pro-Tem of the Maryland State Legislature. Across from me sat a woman who (along with her late husband) has donated $1million to our Alma Mater. I sat next to a woman who was a partner in a major Wall Street brokerage house. At the table next to me sat White House correspondent April Ryan (of Sean Spicer, “stop shaking your head” fame) and the Mayor of Baltimore, both Morgan alums. The man who was once mayor of my hometown of Philadelphia is a Morgan State alum. Another man in the class ahead of me became the Chief Justice of the Maryland Court of Appeals. There were several four star generals at the table. Another of my classmates is a judge in Pennsylvania. One of my roommates became the first woman to pastor a historic 160-year-old church. Another roommate was a fitness expert who had a recurring role on the PBS classic, “Mr. Rogers.”

At the Gala there were a number of undergraduates. Two spoke to the gathering. One was a physics major who entered the university at age 16 and was carrying a 4.0 into his senior year. The other was a sophomore woman studying computer sciences who spent last summer as an intern at Facebook. In fact, Morgan sent more interns to Silicon Valley last year than any other college/university in the nation. When I graduated my class was awarded more Fulbright Scholarships than any other school. Over time, 115 Morganites have won Fulbright Scholarships because we had a professor who had won several and he offered a “class” for students who were interested in applying for a Fulbright.

In addition to the University’s academic excellence, we have also had athletic excellence. When I attended the football team NEVER lost a game. Our Coach Earl Banks was a legend (a kind of Vince Lombardi or George Halas). Our tiny school produced 4 NFL Hall of Famers (Roosevelt Brown, Willie Lanier, Leroy Kelly, and Len Ford), while the University of Wisconsin has produced 3.

I share this information because Morgan State is but one of 120 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across this nation (mostly in the South) and each of them has its list of luminaries and outstanding alumni. So many Black people of note got their grounding in an HBCU—Martin Luther King, Jr., Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Toni Morrison, Taraji P. Henson, Marian Wright Edelman, Thurgood Marshall, David Satcher, Barbara Jordan, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Spike Lee, and Alice Walker are but a small sample of African Americans who matriculated at HBCUs.

The larger point of this post is that I am sick of hearing what African American children cannot do. I am weary of all of the failure rhetoric. I am done with all the discourses that insist that Black children need grit and resilience to succeed. What they need to succeed is to be surrounded by adults who care deeply about them. They need adults who do not assume they cannot do things. They need adults who will persist even when it takes them longer to grasp a concept or develop a skill. They need adults who remain in their corner no matter what.

It strikes me as ironic when people tell me how “smart” I am. Yes, I’ve had a great career. I’ve garnered many accolades. But, the truth of the matter is I was just an “ordinary” Black girl growing up in a community who kept encouraging me. My teachers in my segregated elementary school encouraged me. My neighbors encouraged me. My church members encouraged me. My African American physician and dentist both encouraged me. And, when I was admitted into an Ivy League School I declined in favor of an HBCU because I knew I wanted to be surrounded by caring adults. I was right and I went to a place where Black excellence abounds.

Stay Black and Smart!